STEM women in a lab

View from India: Women’s representation in research needs to be scaled up

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Young women innovators and researchers are working on solutions that the general population can relate to. We got a sneak peep into their journey at the inauguration of the new office of Infosys Science Foundation.

Improve gender quotient for better outcomes

As a researcher, Aarathi Parameswaran is of the view that research should not be limited in nature. Budget should also not be deterrent. This conviction stems from her exposure to research at the Azim Premji University, where she pursued an honour’s thesis on investigating Taylor-Couette flow experimentally with a Taylor-Couette reactor and analytically using computational fluid dynamics. “I was given the freedom to do what I wanted to do and that’s important for a better understanding of research. India is a great place to pursue science and research, but there could be challenges,” said Aarathi, who is an incoming Physics Master's student at University of Bonn, Germany. Keen to explore beyond the frontiers of science, Aarathi plans to explore new opportunities through interdisciplinary research. “Challenges in research point to a skewed demographic ratio in India. About 43 per cent of the STEM graduates are women, and just 14 per cent make it to the workforce. Equity of representation with better funding can improve the research scenario,” she said. Public engagement with science is also important: “Science is esoteric. So it’s essential to convey what the research is to the layperson.” 

Research can be time sensitive, so its competitiveness and opportunities can sometimes be lost. That’s probably why people prefer to pursue research in a foreign university, which usually ensures proximity to research labs. They may not have to clear competitive exams and instead they earn a stipend. There’s scope for interdisciplinary studies, even outside science.  

Sustainable life

Sustainability is core to Girija R’s outlook. As a research scholar at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science, Girija developed an affinity towards agriculture. Regular networking with farmers set her thinking and she began to advocate sustainable food production. This belief has led her to focus on septic waste. Such things are ignored by most people but it caught Girija’s attention due to the fact that septic waste is released as waste water, which can harm the environment. Instead, it can be reused for agriculture, particularly as the government has cleanliness as one of the tenets of the Swachh Bharat vision.

Girija came up with the idea of a sustainable sanitation system, and it seems to be appropriately timed: “Around 54 per cent of the country is under water stress. Besides humans, other living beings, plants, also require nutrients. I felt this could be a means to address sanitation and agricultural issues by closing the nutrient loop,” said Girija, who wishes that the abysmally low representation of women in research increases. 

Women may not be able to give a long-term commitment to research as marriage-motherhood are top priority for many of them, while access to funds could be another concern. Generally, science research is confined to science journals; its dissemination is essential. “Research should be for public good, it should percolate to the masses. But then, research should also be more inclusive. It could bring more women into its fold and give them exposure through exchange programmes with international research institutes. Funding channels need to open up as well,” said Girija.

Deep tech dives        

As a researcher, Archini Paruthi has been fascinated by deep tech, described as the next wave of innovation. It’s a known fact that deep tech is built on the convergence of science and various technologies and could disrupt existing markets or create new ones. Whatever the case may be, its diverse applications could shape societies like never before.

Nanotechnology could be described as one of its fundamental technologies, so it’s no surprise that Archini’s abiding interest in deep tech led her to discover the various facets of nanotechnology, with its tiny nanoparticles. “When I was pursuing nano science in 2012, I was intrigued by its structures; I thought it could be used for orthopaedic integration by sandwiching it with hydrophobic drugs. But then biosafety issues cropped up,” said Archini, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Nano-Devices and Sensors Lab, part of the Centre for NanoScience and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science. Though she had a materials science and engineering background, she equipped herself with the know-how of nano safety and fabrication before looking at Electrochemical Biosensing for cardiac health monitoring. “About 44 per cent of non-communicable diseases are cardiovascular, the rest are renal in nature. I want nanotechnology to be applied in renal and cardiac diseases,” explained Archini, who was one of the 20 nanotechnologists from India at the IC-IMPACTS Programme in 2016.  

Like gluco meters, the scientist felt the need for cardio meters for self-monitoring. Incentivising cardio meter production could make it a reality. “Science should have positive social implications. From the commercial point of view, it would be nice if the supply of raw materials could give rise to new business models,” she said. So then could we order chemicals on the click of a button just as we order pizzas? That’s some loud thinking.

Ironing out challenges

Life is full of strange consequences, and it was a bulky nondescript iron box that shot Vinisha Umashankar to global fame. The school student at Tiruvannamalai, in Tamil Nadu, having created a non-toxic iron cart with a lifespan of around 25 to 30 years, received the Children’s Climate Prize in 2020 from the Children’s Climate Foundation in Sweden. 

The iron box is deep rooted in our tradition, but what comes to mind when thinking about this device is the toxicity of the thick smoke it emits – it pollutes the environment. These thoughts sunk in at age 12 for Vinisha. “The aftermath can be understood as respiratory diseases and, going further, deforestation. That’s how I arrived at a solar-powered iron cart. Though climate change is looming large, simple environmentally friendly products for daily use can help mitigate pollution,” she explained.

The mobile iron cart has solar panels fitted on the roof producing 250 watts of power per hour. The battery charges with five hours of bright sunshine and this powers the steaming iron box for about six hours. In the making of the iron cart, Vinisha morphed into a climate activist. “Going back in time (and not so long ago), people dreamt of flying cars. This is a vision. Fast forward to the future. The rapid development in technology has helped economies to prosper. But we seem to have ignored climate change and its impact on planet Earth,” she said.

India is home to around 800 million youth. This community can ideate and innovate solutions for societal issues. The fact that research-fresh ideas need to be encouraged is a concern for the Infosys Science Foundation (ISF). The ISF gives the Infosys Prize to Indian scientists and scholars working on path-breaking research. Many of the ISF laureates have gone on to do important work and win accolades and awards from around the world. Among them, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, early winners of the Infosys Prize, won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2019; mathematics laureates Manjul Bhargava and Akshay Venkatesh won the prestigious Fields Medal; Raghuram Rajan, an early Social Sciences laureate, became the governor of the Reserve Bank of India; Gagandeep Kang, a Life Sciences laureate, is the first woman scientist from India to be elected to the Royal Society. Other laureates have been recognised for the calibre of their work and have gone on to hold important posts in the Government of India.  

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