Essential that if women choose to, they should be able to work: First Indian woman to be elected fellow of The Royal Society

Dr Gagandeep Kang

On April 16, Dr Gagandeep Kang became the first Indian woman to be elected Fellow of The Royal Society. According to her, the problem related to lack of women in science, and opportunities and recognition for them in the field, will be fixed if the society recognises their need to work as and when they choose to.

According to her biography on The Royal Society's website, Dr Kang is "known for her inter-disciplinary research studying the transmission, development and prevention of enteric infections and their sequelae in children in India. She is investigating the complex relationships between infection, gut function and physical and cognitive development, and seeking to build a stronger human immunology research in India."

In simpler terms, Dr Kang does research on gut infections, their effects on nourishment and growth of children, the pathogens causing them, and prevention through vaccination.

She is currently the executive director at Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Science and Technology. She was previously a professor at Christ Medical College, Chennai.

"I began my research with causes of diarrhoea in Indian children, studying if it causes malnourishment, and if yes, how that works. We were led to a specific pathogen - rotovirus - and found that it affects the absorption, barrier and permeability functions of the gut, and lowers its ability to absorb nutrients. We also found these infections result in loss of immune function in the gut," said Dr Kang.

This was followed by vaccine trials for rotovirus, which led to the creation of two vaccines, and this was eventually taken forward by Indian companies. "An important intervention had to be at a policy level to convince the government that there was a need for this vaccine to fight rotovirus, particularly because by the mid-2000s, the last time a vaccine had been introduced in a national immunisation programme was in 1986. We set up a surveillance programme across the country which led to data showing the scale of diarrhoea and damage it causes to children, following which it was made a national immunisation programme," she said.

According to her, 50 per cent children in India have already received the vaccine; the remaining will be vaccinated by next year. On the status of women in science, Dr Kang said she believes that women are as capable as men, but systemic changes are required to gear society towards women working in different stages of their lives.

"In India, some effort is being made by science agencies to give grants to women… What is essential is that if women choose to, they should be able to work. We don't need to fix the 'science problem', we need to fix the 'women working problem'," she said.