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Table of Contents    
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 67  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 6-16

Women in the neurosciences

Department of Neurosurgery, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, Dr. G.V. Deshmukh Marg, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Date of Web Publication7-Mar-2019

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Sunil K Pandya
Department of Neurosurgery, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, Dr. G.V. Deshmukh Marg, Mumbai, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0028-3886.253584

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 » Abstract 

The term 'scientist' was coined to describe Mary Somerville (1780-1872) as her contributions to astronomy commanded recognition of her excellence in science. Up to then, the term 'man of science' had been in use. In fields traditionally considered the province of males, the entry of women was viewed with consternation, apprehension and alarm. Resistance was instinctive in most leading scientists. This attitude was strengthened by illogical and pseudoscientific statements on the frailty of women. The pioneers blazing trails in medicine for their sisters to follow braved ridicule, hostility, and discrimination. At times they used subterfuge. The example of Dr. James Barry (Margaret Ann Bulkley) is well-known. Thanks to them, we now have nationally and internationally eminent scientists from the gentler sex, and some of them in commanding positions. The neurosciences developed in India as a result of the efforts made by pioneer neurosurgeons such as Drs. Jacob Chandy (Vellore), B. Ramamurthi (Madras), R.G. Ginde (Bombay), Dr. Prakash N. Tandon (New Delhi) and neurophysicians such as Drs. Baldev Singh (New Delhi), T.K. Ghosh (Calcutta) and Noshir H. Wadia (Mumbai). They and others such as Drs. V.R. Khanolkar, Darab K. Dastur, B.K. Bachhawat and Obaid Siddiqui encouraged individuals like Dr. Vimla Virmani, Dr. Devika Nag, Dr. T.S. Kanaka and Dr. Gourie Devi in the clinical neurosciences and Drs. Kamal Ranadive, V.S. Lalitha, Veronica Rodrigues and Gomathy Gopinath in the basic neurosciences. Two eminent neuroscientists from abroad (Drs. Nancy Kopell and Indira Raman), and three from India (Drs. Vijaylakshmi Ravindranath, Chitra Sarkar and Vidita Vaidya) have been chosen by me as representatives and their careers, contributions and views on discrimination against women in science discussed in brief. (This is not to deny outstanding work by others but limitations of space have made this choice necessary.) The factors favouring the blossoming of women in science include encouraging and stimulating parents, a conducive environment at home and mentors. A compelling drive to excel, hard work and sincerity are crucial to success. Nasty forms of experiences demoralise women. Sexual harassment by seniors and colleagues in the laboratory and elsewhere can lead to the victim leaving the field altogether. Discrimination in selection, promotion and publication lower morale and impact output in terms of research and contributions to journals and books. Suggestions made by the five eminent neuroscientists named above to liberate women from such negative behaviour by males are presented. The Indian Women Scientists' Association is playing an important role in helping their members, making their work known to society and generally empowering them. Since unity strengthens, collaborative activities with other similar organisations will augment efficacy. One such organisation is the much older Association of Medical Women of India.

Keywords: India, neurosciences, women
Key Message: Despite several obstacles, women have succeeded in the neurosciences in India and the world.

How to cite this article:
Pandya SK. Women in the neurosciences. Neurol India 2019;67:6-16

How to cite this URL:
Pandya SK. Women in the neurosciences. Neurol India [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 May 18];67:6-16. Available from: https://www.neurologyindia.com/text.asp?2019/67/1/6/253584

Some readers may be surprised by the fact that the word 'scientist' was coined to describe Mary Somerville (1780-1872). It became necessary to depart from the term 'man of science' used hitherto as her extraordinary contributions to astronomy commanded acknowledgement. (http://allthatsinteresting.com/mary-somerville) The famed college in Oxford is named after her.

The term 'woman scientist' is thus an example of tautology.

In fields traditionally considered the province of males, the entry of women was viewed with consternation, apprehension and alarm. Resistance was instinctive in most leading scientists. Exceptional individuals hesitantly welcomed ladies aspiring to careers away from traditional pursuits such as house-keeping, art and literature.[1],[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7]

The pioneers blazing trails in medicine for their sisters to follow braved ridicule, hostility and discrimination. At times, they used subterfuge. The example of Dr. James Barry (Margaret Ann Bulkley) is well known (duPreez 2012) [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Miniature portrait of James Barry, painted between 1813 and 1816, before the first posting abroad. (http://www.samj.org.za/index.php/samj/article/viewFile/130/425) Reprinted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barry_(surgeon)#/media/File:James_Barry_(surgeon)05.jpg. Public Domain)

Click here to view

Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847-1930) [Figure 2] applied successfully for admission to the University Fellowship at Johns Hopkins as 'C. Ladd'. When the administrators realized that she was a woman, an attempt was made to retract their offer. Her name was never printed alongside those of other fellows (all male) 'for fear of setting a precedent'. She went on to make major contributions to the theory of colour vision and the evolution of the human eye.
Figure 2: Christine Ladd-Franklin. (Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries https:// www.flickr.com/photos/maaorg/5507619222/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Ladd-Franklin#/media/File:Christine_Ladd-Franklin.gif. Public Domain)

Click here to view

It is to the credit of these forerunners that they succeeded brilliantly against all odds.

Today, in the broad field of science, names such as Marie and Eve Curie, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Elizabeth Blackwell, Florence Sabin, Maria Mitchell, Augusta Dejerine-Klumpke, Cecile Vogt, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Dorothy Russell in the West; and, Janaki Ammal, Anandibai Joshi, Sivaramakrishna Iyer Padmavati, Kamala Sohonie, Satyavati Sirsat, Anna Mani, Asima Chatterjee, Jerusha Jhirad, Indira Hinduja and Firuza Parikh in India, evoke universal admiration.

 » An Indian 'First' Top

In her Presidential address to the Neurological Society of India in 1978, Dr. Vimla Virmani (1919-1999), Professor of Neurology and Head of the Department of Neurology at the All India Institute of Medical Science, New Delhi, reminded her audience that the Association of Medical Women in India, formed in 1907 predated the Indian Medical Association (formed in 1916). She emphasized that it was the first medical association of women in the world! She gave credit to the British medical women such as Dr. Annette Benson, Superintendent of Cama Hospital, Bombay for taking the first steps (Virmani 1979).[10]

This essay attempts to highlight the achievements – often against odds – of women in the neurosciences. Of necessity, we can only consider representative personalities but hope these will suffice to inspire young scientists.

I have attempted to emphasize their experiences as women and their reactions to insensitive and even abrasive experiences.

A historical flashback

A biographical essay on her in Nature has this opening paragraph: 'She was the first woman in the United States to become a professional astronomer, and a dauntless champion of science education for women. Maria Mitchell, whose bicentenary is celebrated this August, was a scientific revolutionary. That is encapsulated in her prophetic speech, The Need for Women in Science, delivered in 1876 to the Fourth Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It posed a historic challenge. Mitchell declared that the laws of nature are discovered not through 'the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought.... and until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work.' Or, as she put it in her journals: 'better to be peering in the spectrograph than on the pattern of a dress'.

It is of interest that Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), the famed astronomer, had made statements that are in synchrony with those reproduced below but were ignored. She made some pithy and witty observations that are not out of place here.[7]

'Study as if you are going to live forever, live as if you were going to die tomorrow.'

On the genius of Isaac Newton: 'Newton rolled up the cover of a book; he put a small glass at one end and a large brain at the other – it was enough.'

Countering the common view that women had no place in astronomy, she said, 'The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer.'

'Until women throw off this reverence for [male] authority they will not develop. When they do this, and when they come to truth through their investigations. their minds will work on and on, unfettered.'

I have drawn upon Dr. Richard Holmes' essay (2018) for the statements in this section.

Some general observations

Dr. Shantoo Gurnani from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Bombay, wrote an essay in collaboration with Dr. Madhuri Sheth of the National Institute for Training in Industrial Engineering, Bombay (1984) that can be read with profit even today. They pointed out that in 1978, of the total of 19.35 million science and technology personnel, women constituted about 4%.

[Table 1] and [Table 2] from their paper speak volumes.[7],[8]
Table 1: Women in different science faculties (Percentage of the total)[7]

Click here to view
Table 2: Women among postgraduate scientists (1971-1972)[8]

Click here to view

Whilst the numbers of women obtaining research fellowships was reasonable, those obtaining research associateships were woefully few and the comparison with males was remarkably striking.[9],[10],[11],[12],[13],[14],[15]

[Table 3] highlights the discrimination against women well.[15] They did point to some encouraging signs. Dr. Kamal Ranadive, cell biologist at the Indian Cancer Research Centre was eventually appointed as Director of her Centre. Dr. Kamala Sohonie retired as Director of the Institute of Science in Bombay.
Table 3: Number of women holding research fellowships and research associateships in Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as of 1 February 1981[15]

Click here to view

They used the very interesting concept of Ardhanarisvara to advocate the ideal—a dynamic balance between man and woman in the field of science.

Sexual discrimination

Vilanilam and colleagues (2016) turned to history to find an explanation for this phenomenon. 'Edward H. Clarke, a Harvard gynecologist in 1873, wrote that women who went to college risked neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, infertility and other derangements of the nervous system. In a classic case of mansplaining, Clarke reasoned that a woman's system never does two things well at the same time. These and several such male chauvinistic beliefs have set gender and cultural stereotypes that bias our thinking consciously or subconsciously to consider academic medicine and surgical specialties in particular as male bastions.'[9]

Such discrimination can take many forms. I shall discuss just three variants.

'Women… face persistent and endemic obstacles to success in securing tenure-track faculty positions and advancing through the professioriate…Of special concern for the biomedical research enterprise are the enduring barriers to independent faculty research careers faced by women…' This confession in a consensus report that has been published recently in America is a sad reminder of the glass ceiling that continues to thwart scientists (Daniels, Beninson 2018).

Up to a few years ago, publications with women as first authors were often downgraded and even discarded by editors of reputed journals. Vilanilam et al., (2016) showed an improving trend over the past decade but 'there are still large disparities in authorship by women especially from developing countries in high impact factor neuroscience journals. Similar gender disparities seem to exist in neurology journals from a developing country.'

In a praise-worthy, fact-finding editorial, Nature Neuroscience (Anonymous 2006) found that in its own journal, only one in five papers had a female corresponding author. One of its conclusions: 'Female scientists still face barriers to career success that cannot be explained by their individual talents and preferences.' The editorial made this concluding suggestion: 'Removing structural barriers to women's success in the laboratory should be the minimal prerequisite to determining appropriate goals for female representation in science.'

The situation is not much better in Europe. 'At the current pace, European women are not expected to reach parity with men in academic science positions until 2050.' —Gerlind Wallon. This quotation is placed at the top of an essay entitled 'Men, women and ghosts in science' (Anonymous 2006). The author of this essay reiterates that 'science would be better served if we gave more opportunity and power to the gentle, the reflective, and the creative individuals of both sexes.' The reasoning that follows is full of sense and deserves attention. The point is well made that 'there is good psychological evidence that aggression and lack of empathy are, on an average, male characteristics, and we may agree with Baron-Cohen that for both sexes, nastiness…. gets you higher socially, and gets you more control or power.'

Particularly sad is the experience of some physicians (who happen to be women) during emergencies in aircraft at 30,000 feet. When they volunteered help, they were either ignored or subjected to indignities like being asked to show their credentials. Even when there were no male physicians on board, the cabin crew­surprisingly women - acknowledged their presence, but with reluctance and suspicion. (https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2016/10/female-physicians-told-get -way-emergencies-patients-nearly-die.html).

Sexual harassment

Dr. Vidita Vaidya (2017) refers briefly to this obnoxious and demoralizing practice that stems from bloated masculine egos and mentions the Vishaka guidelines. These were promulgated by our Supreme Court in 1997 and have been superseded by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013. Among other provisions, the Act casts certain obligations upon the employer to

  • provide a safe working environment
  • display conspicuously at the workplace, the penal consequences of indulging in acts that may constitute sexual harassment and the composition of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)
  • organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals for sensitizing employees on the issues and implications of workplace sexual harassment and organizing orientation programmes for members of the Internal Complaints Committee
  • treat sexual harassment as a misconduct under the service rules and initiate action for misconduct, and
  • The employer is also required to monitor the timely submission of reports by the ICC.

Unfortunately, in the absence of strict enforcement of this Act, ground realities remain dismal. The politics of inattention and silence on the part of those who should monitor events and enforce discipline continue to play havoc in many institutions.

A recent headline in Nature shows how pervasive sexual harassment is in the United States and how this 'drives talented researchers out of the field and is harming others' careers'. (Witze 2018) Worse, it points out that existing policies are intended to protect institutions, not victims. This is despite a federal law outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender in 1972. '20% of female science students at the University of Texas's campuses reported being sexually harassed by faculty members or staff there. A similar survey of the Pennsylvania State University system concluded that 43% of graduate students experienced harassment.' As can be expected, most victims were in vulnerable positions.

Alexandra Witze, the author of the paper providing these details, also lists causes and measures to reduce, if not eliminate, these obnoxious practices.

 » Indian Women Scientists' Association Top

This association was founded in 1973 by twelve committed scientists. The Association now has 2500 members on its rolls. The cumulative voices of these members will count as will their efforts to meet their goals:

  • to take science to the masses.
  • to develop a scientific temper in society by disseminating scientific knowledge through lectures, seminars, exhibitions, workshops, etc.
  • to promote accomplishments in science and technology among women, and
  • to understand socio-economic issues of working women, and empower them by providing knowledge and experience.

In all humility, I plead for collaborative activities between all organisations with similar goals. One such is the much older Association of Medical Women in India.

Neurosciences – abroad – two contemporary scientists

Nancy Kopell (born 1942)

She is a professor of mathematics and an eminent neuro-scientist (nk@bu.edu)

Dr. Kopell (B.A., Cornell University 1963; Ph.D. Berkeley 1967) is William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor at Boston University, and co-director of the Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology (CompNet).

In her autobiographical note (2016), she is frank about her childhood. 'I spent much of my first years drooling and my parents were convinced that I was developmentally delayed (then known as retarded).' She blossomed after her visual refraction error was corrected.

During her days in high school, she specially recalls the class in population genetics conducted by Theodosius Dobzhansky and the associated laboratory content involving breeding fruit flies with more or less bristles on their backs. She recalled, what so many girls encounter in Indian families even today: 'Like many in my generation, my parents felt that it was a waste to spend money on the college education of a girl…' Even at Cornell, when she responded to a letter from the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) inviting all undergraduate mathematics majors to appear for an interview for a summer job, 'My interviewer displayed great embarrassment when he saw me;… the job in question was only for men… The kind of sexism I experienced (in the sciences in Cornell)… was the unspoken but very widespread assumption that women in math were like dancing bears – perhaps they could do it, but not very well and the attempt was an amusing spectacle…'

In the 1970s, whilst working on pattern formation in chemical systems, oscillating systems and the geometry of systems with multiple time scales, she developed an interest in mathematical problems in the neurosciences. Her earliest work was on intestinal paralysis that broke peristalsis up into decoupled waves. She then worked on 'fictive locomotion' in the spinal cords of lampreys and on neural networks in lobsters and crabs. Computer simulation became available in the 1990s. Her expertise in mathematics and statistics helped her study the physiologic mechanisms of the brain and how brain rhythms take part in cognition (sensory processing, attention, memory, motor control). These, in turn, helped in the understanding of how disease processes such as Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, and epilepsy produce specific symptoms. Her studies involve experimentalists and clinicians with mutual benefit.

In applying mathematics to neurobiology, she is following in the footsteps of Fritz Muller (1821-1897) and Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948). Muller had worked on biomimicry by which a vulnerable species protected itself from predators by mimicking unpalatable species using colours, form and patterns. Thompson worked on morphogenesis – clarifying the processes by which patterns and body structures formed in plants and animals. He tried to correct the emphasis on evolution by demonstrating physical laws and mechanics that also enabled these changes.

Kopell has used mathematical analysis and modelling on the basis of theories to improve our understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying perception, memory, attention and behavior. Her work involves measurements of the electrical activity of nerve cells and studying brain rhythms.

In an interview (Kopell 2013), she described her career as a 'biased random walk'. She highlighted an important criterion vital to good science: 'I'm usually in a state of valuing most of whatever I'm doing at the moment. Perhaps that is because I'm aware of how much I keep learning.' She has created a community of scientists called Cognitive Rhythms Collaborative (CRC) – a group of over two dozen laboratories, predominantly in and around Boston – working on brain dynamics and their cognitive implications. This has enabled a number of gifted scientists and their institutions to identify and work on cutting-edge problems. Junior members of their teams benefit by gaining access to a wide network of mentors and collaborators.

When she was asked about marrying mathematics to neurobiology, she spoke of the need to integrate the precision that is the hallmark of mathematicians to minimize the messiness and lack of clear boundaries in biology. A specific example provided by her is the work on the connection between the various neural networks, and dovetailing into these studies, findings of work on the behavior of individual neurons.

She developed an interest in the manner in which small changes in some functions made big differences in the network. The study of neural activity of a very large number of nerve cells at once necessitated analysis of enormous quantities of data and modelling interactions.

The generation of information on how the same slice of neural tissue can produce multiple rhythms in different layers especially under different conditions produces detail that enhances learning. Work on epilepsy, sleep, anaesthesia, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia and the control of behaviour followed. For a succinct summary of her work in neurobiology see her 'Scientific Autobiography' (2016).

Towards the end of this essay, she describes her illnesses and the fortitude with which she continued work despite them. Yoga, meditation, Zen and qi gong have helped her.

Her advice to young researchers will benefit many. Start early to think about intellectually motivating questions. Read and read and read and talk with knowledgeable and stimulating experts. Boil the questions down to practical projects and find mentors who can help you complete them. 'Do not be afraid to be ignorant; expect that as you move into new areas, there will always be a huge amount to learn and that will last throughout your entire career.'[12],[13]

Indira M. Raman (born 1967)

Dr. Raman, half Indian and half Caribbean, wished to study either mathematics or the languages as a student. Her father recommended a field in science. Reflecting on this, she wondered which of the sciences would involve codes and language. She concluded that the ultimate codes that continue to puzzle everyone are those in the brain. She decided to study the language of the brain!

Currently, she is Bill and Gayle Cook Professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

Her work focuses on the biophysical properties of ion channels intrinsic to neurons, especially in the cerebellum. How does the diversity of ion channel families, revealed by molecular biological studies, contribute to neuronal specialization? It is hoped that experimental measurements of currents in specific neuronal classes will aid in the development of accurate computer models of neuronal activity, and interpretations of systems-level studies of cerebellar function at the level of cells (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term = Raman%20Indira%20M).

NEUROTREE (https://neurotree.org/beta/tree.php?pid=2858) tracks the academic genealogy of individual scientists. Dr. Raman's tree links her to such scientists as Sir Charles Sherrington, Sir John Carew Eccles, Julius Axelrod, Werner Heisenberg and Ernest Rutherford.

She is often asked a question that must disconcert most workers in the basic biological sciences. 'What disease are you trying to cure?' The premise is that a scientist is to be valued on the basis of the direct benefit to mankind from her work. Her response and the reaction it elicits are worth pondering. 'I usually launch into an explanation of how basic science provides the foundation for applied science, which in turn has the conscious goal of treating disease to prolong healthy lives. My discourse culminates with the grandiose revelation that my work has been used, mostly by other people, to gain insights into pain syndromes, movement disorders and epilepsy. This assertion generally earns me an approving nod.' Had she left it at that, all would have been well but honesty '… makes me confess that my own research is not actively directed toward alleviating a particular illness. My interlocutor's eyes narrow at what sounds like an admission that my contribution to the world is purely incidental. In that moment, I am … dismissed… Even where science has not yet cured, it has still helped us understand…. although some purists may still interpret genetic anomalies as expressions of divine retribution or diabolical fury, for many others, scientific exploration has provided relief from the fear and cruelty that so often spring from unsubstantiated explanations of cause and effect. And with that accomplishment in mind, there is really only one disease that I see myself as actively trying to cure, and that is ignorance. It is the ailment, I think, that has caused more human suffering than all the neurological disorders put together, and it is the disease that all scientists – indeed, all educators – can help to cure.' The questioner lacked the perception that science has as its goal the advancement of knowledge that may result in benefit to humanity.

In an interview, she was asked why so many women in science do not stay long enough to excel and reach the top (https://www.thenakedscientists.com/articles/interviews/woman-science-indira-raman).

'There are many reasons why people may leave it… There's a tremendous element of uncertainty and a lack of security through ones 20s and often ones 30s. Some people respond to what they see as a social dynamic within science. It can be very competitive. There is the intensity of the work where one really almost never goes home and leaves it completely behind them. As it turns out, there are proportionately more women who decide that this career is not for me.' She acknowledges the responsibility that lies on the shoulder of successful women. 'Many ongoing efforts to address these issues (that vex women in science) are centered upon modifying the structures that form the institution of science and frame its practice, with the idea that these changes will confer power, in its most positive sense, upon women. Such work is indispensable. Yet maximizing the good effects of such endeavors depends on parallel efforts by those of us who inhabit these structures: We have to assume the power – and the associated responsibility – that already lies within our grasp.'

Drawing upon her own field – neurobiology – she creates an analogy: 'In several branches of biology, and certainly in my own field of cellular neurophysiology, many experimentalists are reaching the conclusion that the key to biological principles lies not simply in the mean value of any parameter, but in the variance. The variance turns out to be more than just noise; often, it is the essence of the code. For example, groups of neurons that were long seen as homogeneous emerge as heterogeneous: although they share common properties, each has its own character. From interactions among these related yet distinguishable entities, the elegant and intricate abilities of the system emerge. Likewise, with people – men, women, brown, light, native, and immigrant – a stereotype may offer a description of a mean or even a mode, but no generalization captures the core features, or predicts the path, of any individual. Instead, the truth is dispersed throughout the distribution.[14],[15],[16],[17],[18],[19]

'My highly personal perspective on this point emerged in the early phases of my career, when I could go through whole swaths of the working day without actively thinking about being female. In fact, what I still enjoy most about doing science is that it can lift me, temporarily, out of the strictures of social norms into the beautiful world of physical reality that isn't about the self. Nature's laws – her symmetry and her chaos, her principles and her evolution – belong to everyone. They reveal themselves to anyone who searches honestly. At social gatherings with non-scientists, I invariably realize anew how much freedom science affords us women to become the best of ourselves. And that, I think, is largely what each of us is striving for – the excitement of being permitted to venture unhindered into unexplored intellectual territory, which necessarily confers a uniqueness of endeavor onto each of us, and the pleasure of being recognized for our discoveries. Doing science allows us the luxury of finding our own private places in the distribution.'

Echoing Kipling's counsel in 'If' on dealing with triumph and disaster (Kipling 1941), Dr. Raman advises the neophyte in science: 'When conducting experiments, you must subordinate yourself to physical reality; you must temper your expectations to conform to the sensitivities and proclivities of the subject under investigation – in biology, usually the cells or tissues or animals. You must acknowledge your errors, which are called out in no uncertain terms when experiments do not yield the anticipated outcomes. Even as you strive for dominion over a phenomenon, you are not always in command, as previously unknown variables sneak up and exert unpredicted effects. In other words, you don't always get what you want. Instead, you must master and continually practice a form of self-control that, channeled properly, can subjugate any natural tendencies toward self-centeredness. True, those supreme moments of understanding, when a mystery seems solved or an answer attained, can bring out arrogance and egotism in some practitioners of science. Yet many other scientists – often less visible – incorporate the lessons of adversity more deeply, and they respond even to occasions of triumph with humility and awe at the workings of nature' (Raman 2014).[20]

Neurosciences in India – three scientists

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath (born 1953)

When elders in the family suggested that she get married immediately after graduation, her father encouraged her to study science as he believed that education was essential for women. He instilled into her the value of hard work, the urge to strive for excellence and the importance of honesty and integrity. With his help, she obtained her M. Sc. in chemistry and continued her research at the Indian Institute of Science, where she met her husband as a fellow-scientist.

After obtaining her Ph.D. in 1981 she did her post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, under the guidance of Dr. Michael Boyd. (Dr. Boyd served as the senior investigator and program director of the Molecular Targets Drug Discovery Program at the Center for Cancer Research at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health. He moved later to the University of South Alabama in 2002, where he served as the Abraham Mitchell Chair and Director of the University of South Alabama Mitchell Cancer Institute.)

On her return to India, she joined the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore in 1986. She worked on brain metabolism, psychoactive drugs and the effect of environmental toxins on the nervous system but found the going tough. In her autobiographical note (2008) whilst at National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), Manesar, she wrote of her stint in NIMHANS: 'It was very hard to get funding for research and I also felt very isolated. It was at this time that Dr. Boyd helped me tremendously. We collaborated and wrote grant proposals and he provided support both intellectually and in terms of resource that not only ensured that research went well but also critically provided me the platform for interaction with my peers internationally.

'The journey has never been easy, nor is it easier now. I had to be separated from my family during the post-doctoral years. Now again, when I took up the task to establish NBRC, I have been away from my family and have been commuting between Delhi and Bangalore for nearly a decade. It is only the support system and the network of friends, family and mentors who have provided me the strength to overcome and march on.

'As I often tell my students, one has to become like a rubber ball; the harder you hit it – the higher it bounces' (Ravindranath 2008).

In 1999, she was hand-picked by Dr. Prakash N. Tandon and the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India to head the NBRC in Manesar, Gurgaon, Haryana. In three years, she established a state-of-art institute in this remote location. She initiated a unified approach to integrate mathematical and computational science for the understanding of the functions of the human brain. She established collaborations with 45 institutions around the country to share resources and promote neuroscience research.

In 2009, principally because of the need to be near her ageing parents, she moved to Bangalore. A newly created Centre for Neuroscience at her old alma mater – the Indian Institute of Science – appointed her Chairperson and Professor.

Enunciating the objectives of this centre, she noted: 'The unifying goal of the laboratory is to understand pathogenic mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders that would potentially lead to identification of drug targets that can be used to develop rational disease modifying therapies.

'To this effect, we adopt a combinatorial approach involving biochemical and histochemical techniques to elucidate pathogenically important cellular pathways in animal models of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

'From the therapeutic angle, we are also defining the mode of action of traditional medicinal preparations used in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders, particularly senile dementia, which help us to screen natural products that can be developed as potential drugs. Drug targets alone do not ensure successful therapeutic strategies, as in situ drug metabolism in the brain is critical for drug action… we are identifying and characterizing brain CYP450 enzymes with particular emphasis on brain-specific biotransformation pathways of both drugs and endogenous compounds that play a role in pathogenic phenomena, such as inflammation in the brain.'

Like most scientists, she had her share of disappointments. 'At a time when the enrollment in science is low and there is a dire need for teachers and researchers in academia, it is to our benefit to make the workplace gender friendly by including more women in decision-making processes. Although, there may be an equal number of men and women enrolled in science, the number of women who make it to higher position dramatically falls.

'Even if we take into account the drop-out rate of women from the work force due to personal reasons, the glass ceiling makes it very difficult for women to move into higher positions.

'I look forward to helping create a new generation of empowered scientists, who will be known as scientists who happen to be women, but not women scientists' (http://www.cns.iisc.ac.in/viji/viji_research.html).[21],[22],[23],[24]

When interviewed by a reporter from The Times of India, she discussed efforts that must be made by women: 'I strongly urge women to realize that the very fact of being a woman is unique since men and women have complementary skill sets and respond differently to situations. There are many aspects and one is the ability to balance life/family and profession. All young women should ensure they get this balance right because they shouldn't be losing out on what the world has to offer. It's time to act and bring about effective change. Young women should work towards transforming their lives and lives of other women' (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Use-empathy-to-become-empowered-Vijayalakshmi­Ravindranath/articleshow/7651708.cms).

Chitra Sarkar (born 1955)

She was born into a middle class family in Bangalore. In an autobiographical essay (2008), she described how her father, who had studied chemistry in Dacca and later served as chief chemist in a pharmaceutical firm in Bangalore, treated her like a son and encouraged her education. Her mother, mindful of her domestic future, schooled her in the skills she would need as a wife and mother. The title of her essay is derived from her satisfaction at having happily fulfilled her roles of daughter, wife, mother, teacher, doctor and researcher.

She learnt early in life that in order to achieve worthwhile goals, struggle was inevitable but the joy on achieving what she had set her heart on and what she learnt during the effort were rewarding. In high school, she realized that she was not intended to be a mathematician and, to our good fortune, switched to the biology stream, obtaining her M.B. and B.S. from the Bangalore Medical College in 1978. She fulfilled her father's dream by moving to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. She describes how she chose pathology as 'it was the best blend of clinical and basic sciences'. This choice also pleased the elders in the family who were keen that she had time for her family (Sarkar 2008).

She trained in neuropathology with Dr. Subimal Roy at AIIMS, and along with her senior fellow-neuropathologist, Dr. S.K. Shankar, has written a moving tribute to him. (Sarkar, Shankar 2015).[25]

Currently, she is Professor and Head of the Department of Neuropathology, and Dean (Research) at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. After completing her M.D. (Pathology) from AIIMS, New Delhi, she pursued Fellowship in Neuropathology in UK. Subsequently, she joined AIIMS as Assistant Professor in 1986 and rose to the position of Professor in 1998 and Dean in 2018.

She has made outstanding contributions in neuro-oncology, focusing on understanding the biology of adult and pediatric brain tumours as well as the genetic and epigenetic alterations driving their initiation and progression. She has set a trend for translational research in this area by developing various molecular diagnostic tumour markers and prognostic signatures. Several of these are accepted as model procedures in clinical algorithms to supplement histopathological classification for better patient management.

Dr. Sarkar is a clinician scientist who has made significant research contributions in both pediatric and adult neuro-oncology. She has combined her knowledge of medical science with that of molecular biology and genetics to obtain novel insights into the biology of various brain tumours. Dr. Sarkar's work on light microscopic and ultrastructural morphological diversity, differentiation characteristics, immunohistochemical markers, cell proliferation kinetics, apoptosis and angiogenesis have contributed significantly to the understanding of the histogenesis, biological aggressiveness and behaviour of different types of brain tumours. Her studies in molecular neuro-oncology have provided novel insights into the genetic and epigenetic events fundamental to glioma initiation and progression. Her demonstration of genetic heterogeneity within tumours of the same histological type and grade have helped to explain the clinical heterogeneity of outcome. Her work in paediatric neuro-oncology is indeed novel as she has established that pediatric brain tumours, though histomorphologically indistinguishable from their adult counterparts, are distinct molecular entities, needing separate biomarkers and therapy tailored for age. She has also developed economical and reliable molecular prognostic signatures and risk stratification systems, which can separate histologically similar tumours of the same grade into prognostically relevant subgroups.

She has published over 350 papers in peer reviewed high impact national and international journals, contributed 38 chapters in various textbooks, and edited the Textbook of Neuropathology. She has also contributed chapters to the 2007 and 2016 editions of the World Health Organisation Classification of Tumours of the Central Nervous System, which sets international guidelines in this area. She has received numerous awards and has been invited to deliver prestigious orations. She is the first Indian Vice-President of International Society of Neuropathology. She is the founder member and President of the Neuropathology Society of India and Indian Society of Neuro­-Oncology.

Her bibliography testifies to the range and depth of her studies (https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39107774_Chitra_Sarkar).[25],[26]

Asked in an interview on television about what she has learnt from her career that she would like to pass on to the next generation, she said, 'One should be focused. Work sincerely and with a passion. These take you to the top.'

Vidita Vaidya (Born 1970)

Dr. Vaidya has an enviable heritage. 'My grandparents, parents and extended family provided me with plenty of early role models…. I grew up on a diet of literature and science…' (Vaidya 2008). Born to Drs. Ashok and Rama Vaidya, she has grown up in a home that is redolent with history, culture and science. Both parents, who are among my own mentors, studied at the Seth G.S. Medical College in Mumbai and have achieved renown in their fields, Ashokbhai in clinical pharmacology and Ramaben in her researches on endocrinology relevant to reproduction.

After her studies at St. Xavier's College in life sciences, Vidita travelled to the place where her parents had worked decades earlier – Yale University – and obtained her Ph.D. there. She was the first Indian woman to be accepted into the neuroscience graduate program at Yale.

Professor Ronald Stanton Duman, her guru in Yale, had focused his studies on identifying the molecular and cellular adaptations that underlie the actions of antidepressant drugs and stress. This included adaptations of receptors, signal transduction proteins, gene transcription factors, neurotrophic factors, and regulation of synaptic processes and neurogenesis in the adult brain. He and his colleagues worked on the hypothesis that neuronal atrophy and cell loss in response to stress contribute to mood disorders. Conversely, the therapeutic action of antidepressants may occur in part via blocking or reversing these damaging effects of stress. A variety of molecular approaches combined with cellular and behavioral studies were conducted to elucidate the basis of complex behavioral abnormalities (This paragraph is based on a note on Professor Duman on the Yale University web-site. https://medicine.yale.edu/psychiatry/people/ronald_duman-2.profile).

Her subsequent work at Karolinska Institute in Sweden in 1998 and later at the University of Oxford rounded off her studies and early researches.

She has since worked at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai with the focus on the neural mechanisms of emotion, behaviour and stress. In part, this specialization may have been sparked off by the fact that her father had worked with Hans Selye. You will recall that János Hugo Bruno 'Hans' Selye, was a pioneering endocrinologist of Hungarian origin who worked in Montreal, Canada. His work on the general adaptation syndrome led to his theory of stress.

Vidita's own work can be studied in her papers. A bibliography is available on the website of her institute (http://www.tifr.res.in/~dbs/faculty/vvlab/Publications.html).[27],[28],[29],[30],[31],[32]

In 2017, Vidita published her views on the paucity of women in Indian science and concluded that biological sciences have done lesser injustice towards women than have the physical sciences. She lists patriarchy and inability on the part of male scientists to assess the competence and potential of colleagues and juniors of the opposite sex as the principal causes for this sorry state. Most male scientists are unable to apply the principles that govern science when assessing feminine scientists – the urge to discover the truth, lack of bias, rationality, being open to self-correction, and insight.

The corrections can be made on several fronts. First, we must acknowledge the truth and show the disparities against women at all levels of the scientific hierarchy, starting with the top. The most difficult will be changing the attitudes of males in society as a whole towards women. Such change must start at home. It would help if the achievements of women against formidable odds were publicized at all levels starting with schools, colleges and the media. Wide publicity to injustices done to women will spark off discussions that will help progress. As the number of eminent women in senior positions increases, this will become progressively easier.

An improvement of the culture in research laboratories enabling appreciation of the achievements of female colleagues and juniors and valuing them as collaborators will go a long way in reassuring and encouraging them.

Policies and facilities enabling women to overcome their inherent handicaps as mothers and home-makers will help to reduce the 'leakages' that result in a diminution of the number of women in colleges and research laboratories. As noted by her and many other eminent women, parents and family play a great role in building and sustaining morale, especially when the individual is faced with adverse circumstances.

Finally, those women who have broken through the glass ceiling and gained power and fame must help their juniors to follow in their footsteps. Recalling her senior woman mentor at Yale, Vidita was reminded of 'an email with photographs of irises in her garden, titling it 'blue flower mentoring', which now is a metaphor I often use for the critical importance of warmth and support as one navigates the vagaries of professional science.'

These steps are needed not only in the interests of justice but also in order to facilitate the full flowering of our research institutes, augmenting their achievements and the advancement of science.

I appreciate her emphasis on the lack of humanities in schools and colleges as one of the contributory factors for the inability to view women as true intellectual equals.

Similar thoughts have been voiced by other Indian scientists as well. Vineeta Bal at the National Institute of Immunology is one example (See http://www.natureasia.com/en/nindia/article/10.1038/nindia. 2008.322).

Vidita was asked in an interview, 'What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

The answer was crisp: 'I would say that there is a great sense of satisfaction in being able to contribute to the scientific growth of Asia. This [growth] will help to buffer some of the challenges of doing science in environments where the critical mass is still lacking.'

'My only advice would be to retain a sense of humor in the face of challenges, and to look for solutions in unexpected places. Running a lab in many parts of Asia requires you to be an inveterate juggler, a multi-tasker and open to looking for creative resolutions to your problems.'

When asked about how she relaxed, her answer was succinct: 'I like to dance and that is my form of relaxation combined with exercise. I am also a voracious reader, so a hammock, a good book and the seaside is close to my idea of bliss' (https://www.asianscientist.com/2016/08/features/asias-rising-scientists-vidita-vaidya-tifr-india/).

 » Conclusion Top

Common themes run through the accounts of each of the individuals we have studied above. Enlightened parents, mentors from an early age, a supportive family, a cherished personal goal and striving with all of one's might to achieve it with, perhaps, a little bit of luck, can work wonders.

Though there have been some improvements in enabling women to take their rightful places in science, much more remains undone.

We cannot raise our heads high until every girl child can aspire to a career in science and be able to pursue her vocation freely and to the best of her abilities.

Fortunately, we have several examples of individuals who have gained national and international reputations and risen to the top of their fields in science in general and the neurosciences in particular. Their examples show us that success can be achieved by women having the sincerity, ability to carry out hard work, perseverance and the temerity to overcome obstacles.

It is the task of society at large, administrators, seniors and colleagues to reduce the obstacles to a minimum and facilitate the flowering of talent and, in the fortunate few, genius.


I am obliged to Dr. Surekha Zingde of the Indian Women Scientists Association for inviting me to present the inaugural keynote talk at the workshop on Neurosciences: Biology to Disease Management.

Ms. Sandhya Srinivasan (Mumbai) and Dr. Reeta Mani (Bangalore) kindly provided me papers that have helped in preparing this paper.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]

  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3]


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