Initiate the young into scientific inquiry, says next INSA chief

Vanita Srivastava

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.159 Published online 4 December 2019

Biologist Chandrima Shaha is set to become the first woman president of the 84-year-old Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in January 2020. A Professor of Eminence at the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi she dons some more hats — that of a cricketer and a photographer.

In an interview to Vanita Srivastava, she talks about the challenges for women in science, her research on Kala-azar and her plans for INSA.

Chandrima Shaha

© Vanita Srivastava

Q. What do you plan to do as the INSA chief?

A. My first goal will be to add to the ongoing efforts of taking science to the people in various ways – through art, popular lectures, exhibitions and by building archives. Science should be aggressively inculcated at the school level. We need to initiate young people into the process of scientific inquiry. I would like to have a targeted approach to popularize science through books, videos in regional languages and by taking science media to remote places. We aim to have good science workshops, some exclusively for women.

Q. Why do so few women take up careers in science in India?

A. First of all let me say that I am very happy to see so many women scientists doing really good research. The problems come from the societal setup. To address some of the concerns, we should have transferable postdoctoral fellowships for women and equal opportunity for them. Women should realise their creativity, talents and ability to multi task.

Q. What could attract more women to science?

A. The problem lies in the early career phase. An interest in science should ideally be sparked in childhood at home and in school. Social networking sites have significant influence on young minds, and this should be used to create an inspiring ecosystem that exposes students to careers in science. It is also important to foster a general atmosphere of respect for scientists of both gender.

Q. What was your own inspiration behind a career in research?

A. Both my parents were artists – my mother a painter, and father a photographer. My early interest in science further blossomed when I was 10 and my father bought an amateur telescope and a microscope for me. I would spend evenings watching stars. I was unhappy when I could not see any movement on the canvas through the scopes. The active movements in a drop of pond water under the microscope excited me. It was at this time that I decided to become a biologist.

I would go into jungles, pick up caterpillars and insects and watch them grow. Thanks to my father’s genes, I picked up photography. Beyond the realms of science, I developed interest in cricket and went on to serve both as the captain and vice-captain of the West Bengal women’s cricket team. I also aired several cricket commentaries on All India Radio.

Q. What prompted you to come back to India after a stint in the US?

A. After postdoctoral studies in reproductive biology from the Kansas University Medical Center, I joined the Population Council in New York. In 1984, I came back to join the National Institute of Immunology (NII) in Delhi. As a scientist, I wanted to have my own laboratory and build a group. At NII, I was given that freedom to set up my own independent group. This motivated me to come back to India. I eventually became the institute’s Director.

Q. Your research is focused on Kala-azar. How far are we from complete eradiation of the disease?

A. Kala-azar, caused by a protozoal parasite transmitted by the sandfly, remains a problem in the Indian subcontinent, African countries and in South America. Parasites causing kala-azar were first detected in the gut of 100 million-year-old sandfly fossils and later in Nubian mummies around 3500 BC. These parasites were one of the first mitochondrial eukaryotes. These interesting organisms are valuable tools that help understand how complex eukaryotic systems evolved. Our studies unravel the mysteries of the unique defense and propagation mechanisms used by these parasites and the intricacies of the host-parasite dialogue for survival.

Kala-azar has been checked in the endemic parts of India but it can show re-emergence. The cutaneous form of the disease is still prevalent. Kala-azar can be controlled with excellent vector control, rapid diagnosis, effective treatment and education about the disease in endemic areas. Since this involves mostly poor people, eradication efforts should provide financial support.