For their exceptional contributions to science, six Indian scientists found a coveted spot as fellows among the 62 scientists chosen annually by the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, the independent scientific academy of the United Kingdom.
Among this year’s intakes is Gagandeep Kang, the first Indian woman scientist to be felicitated with the honour in 360 years of the fellowship’s history. She shares it with 61 other eminent scientists from across the globe.
The names, announced Tuesday, April 16, also features 10 new foreign members. This includes Colorado State University’s distinguished professor of chemistry and atmospheric science, A.R. Ravishankara, and Manjul Bhargava, professor of mathematics at the Princeton University.
Other elected fellows of Indian origin include Gurdyal Besra, Bardrick professor of microbial physiology and chemistry at the University of Birmingham; Anant Parekh, professor of physiology at the University of Oxford; and Akshay Venkatesh, professor of mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study, USA.
Padma Bhushan awardee and the founder of Indian pharmaceutical major, Cipla, Dr Yusuf Hamied, was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Society.
The Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, currently headed by professor K VijayRaghavan, congratulated all the newly-elected fellows.
Women in STEM aren’t historically recognised
Kang is the executive director of Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI), Faridabad, an autonomous institute of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. Her main area of focus is viral infections in children, and the testing of rotaviral vaccines.
With over 300 scientific research papers, she serves on the editorial boards for several journals, on review committees for national and international research funding agencies, and on advisory committees chiefly to do with vaccines. Since 2015, Kang also chairs the WHO SEAR’s Regional Immunisation Technical Advisory Group, and has developed national typhoid surveillance networks.
In 2016, she was awarded the prestigious Infosys Science Foundation’s prize in life sciences, for her pioneering contributions to understanding the natural history of rotavirus and other infectious diseases that are important both globally and in India.
Biologist Gagandeep Kang became the first Indian woman to be inducted as Fellow of the Royal Society in its 359 years of history. Kang has played a significant role in developing indigenous vaccines against rotavirus and typhoid #PositiveNews https://t.co/1RChlWKrPD pic.twitter.com/HbQCYKUlst— Monica Jasuja (@jasuja) April 19, 2019
With the conferment of the FRS, congratulations for Kang poured in from all quarters. Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, the former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and the president of the Indian National Science Academy tweeted, “Very proud of you!”
As a leading scientist in India, Kang knows how precariously low the participation of women in STEM is, at least in this part of the world. In an article she had penned for the Economic Times, Kang had noted that the problem could be solved with a two-pronged approach: first, by valuing science, and more importantly, by supporting women in all fields of work.
Feminists have written about the “triple burden” where, in addition to career and home, the long hours in the laboratory demanded by scientific study and research, is borne heavily by women in science. Kang seems to agree.
Know all your Indian Fellows
According to Colorado’s website, Ravishankara was formerly director of the Earth System Research Laboratory Chemical Sciences Division, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, chair of the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, a member of the UN’s Science Advisory Panel of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition – before he joined the University in 2014.
Ravishankara is a widely respected expert in the study of ozone, air quality and climate change with his most pertinent research and policy-related work on curbing atmospheric pollution in developing countries like India, which houses six of the earth’s most polluted cities.
Bhargava is Princeton’s Brandon Fradd Professor of Mathematics, recognised internationally as one of the foremost mathematicians of our times. “He is a leading expert in number theory, a branch of mathematics in which he has made several pioneering breakthroughs. His research includes foundational contributions to arithmetic statistics and to the theory of quadratic and higher degree forms, number fields, class groups, and ranks of elliptic curves,” reads Princeton’s website.
Besides, Bhargava is also reputed for his contributions in popularising math; he even held the first Distinguished Chair for the Public Dissemination of Mathematics at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York.
Awarded the sole honorary fellowship, Mumbai-born scientist Dr Hamied is best known for his efforts to produce and provide access to low-cost drugs for diseases like diabetes, cancer and even AIDS.
A 360-year legacy to remember
Founded on November 28, 1660, the Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence since the seventeenth century.
Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan, who is president of the Royal Society, wrote, “Over the course of the Royal Society’s vast history, it is our Fellowship that has remained a constant thread and the substance from which our purpose has been realised: to use science for the benefit of humanity.”
“This year’s newly elected Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society embody this, being drawn from diverse fields of enquiry – epidemiology, geometry, climatology – at once disparate, but also aligned in their pursuit and contributions of knowledge about the world in which we live, and it is with great honour that I welcome them as Fellows of the Royal Society,” he added.
Fellowship of the society is one of the most prestigious honours in the world of science and research. With this, our Indian Fellows have now joined the ranks of Isaac Newton (1672), Charles Darwin (1839), Michael Faraday (1824), Ernest Rutherford (1903), Albert Einstein (1921), Dorothy Hodgkin (1947), Alan Turing (1951) and Stephen Hawking (1974) — whose contributions to science through the ages are unparalleled.
Parsi-born Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia, an Indian shipbuilder and engineer belonging to the Wadia shipbuilding family, was the first Indian to be elected a Royal Society Fellow, way back in 1841. Since then, only a handful of Indian scientists have made it namely, Srinivasa Ramanujan (1918) and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1944).
Why it matters
No female scientist was ever elected despite India having a treasure trove of women in STEM since the industrial age—Bibha Chowdhuri, Rajeshwari Chatterjee, Anna Mani, Bimla Buti, to name a few from the erstwhile generations, who remain largely uncredited for their work. Among those doing incredible work right now are Rohini Godbole, Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, Yamuna Krishnan, Moumita Dutta and Soumya Swaminathan.
The first to discover the subatomic particle pi-meson, Chowdhuri in an interview in the 1950s said, “Women are terrified of Physics — that is the trouble. It is a tragedy that we have so few women physicists today.”
While that may not be true today, Godbole who co-authored a book on India’s women scientists, noted that (until 2008) only 5% of the fellows of the Indian National Science Academy were women.
This suggests that Indian society encourages men to take up science and discourages women even today. In the west too, solo achievements by women are met with disbelief and disdain, as in computer scientist Katie Bouman’s case, who was trolled for being hailed as “the women behind the first black hole image”.
While Kang’s fellowship serves as an example for female STEM aspirants, all six Indian fellows this year with their outstanding contributions stand to boost India’s faltering image in the international scientific community.
According to a damning report in January, the country lags far behind China in new contributions to science and innovation, with only 10 Indian scientists featuring in the list of 4,000 highly-cited researchers across the globe (as opposed to 482 from China) suggesting the need to improve the research ecosystem (not slash seats) and deal with problems like predatory journals.
That same month, the 106th edition of the Indian Science Congress brought infamy and derision to the country’s scientific community after panelists made pseudoscientific statements and passed them off as empirical facts at the event, besides conflating mythology and history were conflated to prove India’s ancient competence in science.
The annual conclave, organised and attended by students, government officials and even scientists from abroad, has received flak for advocating alternative science and scientific untruths in the past.
At the 102nd edition of the Congress, a speaker had claimed aeroplanes were invented 7,000 years ago in India. At the 103rd Science Congress in Mysore, a paper ascribed anti-aging qualities to tiger skin and Yoga. At the last one, science and technology minister, Harsh Vardhan, had claimed that the Vedas contained a better theory than Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
This year, the criticism grew louder after Andhra University’s vice-chancellor, G. Nageshwar Rao, said that Mahabharata’s Kauravas were test-tube babies. Rao also claimed that Krishna’s Sudarshana Chakra was a guided missile, a precursor, if you will, to modern weaponry. He also reportedly claimed that Ravana had 24 kinds of aircraft, as understood in the modern sense, including Pushpak Viman, and that Sri Lanka at the time had airports.
“It is unfortunate that sitting vice chancellor of a great State university—and a biologist to boot—says something that is scientifically completely untenable. His Chancellor should receive a formal complaint from those who were present in the audience, and he will also surely hear from individual scientists and our vocal science academies,” Principal Scientific Adviser K Vijay Raghavan had told the Hindu back then.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.