Biologist Chandrima Shaha to head National Science Academy, will be first woman president in INSA's 85-year history

Dr Chandrima Shaha, a biologist and professor at the National Institute of Immunology, is all set to become the first woman to head the prestigious Indian National Science Academy (INSA). As president-elect of the INSA, she intends for science communication to be tackled "aggressively" and pseudoscience to be combatted when she takes charge as President in January 2020.

Dr Shaha has previously served the INSA as vice-president and director of the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi. Shaha often felt "invisible" as a young scientist sitting among her male colleagues.

"Initially, when we started our careers, nobody would shake hands with women scientists," Shaha recalls to The Print, adding they would be completely "ignored" by her male colleagues. Even male scientists that were married to "career women" greeted everyone else but their female colleagues, she added.

 Biologist Chandrima Shaha to head National Science Academy, will be first woman president in INSAs 85-year history

Chandrima Shaha. Image: Twitter/@PrinSciAdvGoI

But Shaha didn't think twice about a career in the sciences.

"I was internally driven. I knew this (gender bias) wouldn’t stop anywhere. I always thought that I have to keep going forward. I am doing that even now," she told the PrintBut the "attitudes" of society are now changing in "self-correcting mode", in her view.

"I think diversity in science is very important — both men and women need to participate in research. Women, by nature, are more sincere and particular about things. They must participate in a larger way towards the country’s scientific endeavour," she said.

Before setting her eyes on research and biology, in particular, Shaha was also a cricketer and a commentator for All India Radio, she told The Hindu. Playing cricket taught her the value of teamwork, she added.

Graduating with a Masters of Science from the University of Calcutta, she went on to complete her doctoral research in 1980 from the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology. At the University of Kansas Medical Centre, she carried out two years of post-doctoral research and remained at the Population Council of New York City for two more years. In 1984, Shaha joined the National Institute of Immunology as a researcher.

Today, the focus of Shaha's research is communication pathways for cell death. Her laboratory has studied the precise mechanisms of cell death and the role that signalling pathways play in regulating cell death. A parasite known as Leishmania, and cancer cells, are model organisms that Shaha uses in her research. Leishmania causes kala-azar (a.k.a black fever or leishmaniasis) is a vectorborne disease that affects the abdomen — understanding how these cells die can help kill/treat the disease.

"Cell death is something very fundamental to our bodies. If you can identify the mechanism behind cell death you can also develop drugs to counter various diseases. Cell death pathways have been used very successfully to make cancer drugs," she told Hindu.

"The excitement of looking at the core of your life — a cell — was clearly something that inspired me. I used to sit with the microscope for hours, staring at cells. It was that sheer excitement of looking at life that inspired me," she told The Print.

From being vice-captain of the first women's cricket team from West Bengal to bring the first female cricket commentator for All India Radio, Shaha is soon to add another first to her cap.

Updated Date: Aug 13, 2019 14:49:49 IST