Wow! The Woman's a Winner all the Way!

Indira Nath, a professor in All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, and an authority in the field of leprosy, is the force behind a major advance in developing medication and vaccine for treating the disease that affects 1.5 million people in India. Winner of the L'OREAL UNESCO for Women in Science Award 2002, Dr. Nath is an internationally renowned authority on leprosy. Recipient of the Padmashri Award, she is the Founder-head of the Department of Biotechnology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. She is actively involved in several national and international science academies.


Science was one area where conventionally it was believed that it was the man who was the sole contributor. Dr Indira Nath has not only ventured there but has successfully destroyed the conventional notion that women don't have what it takes to withstand the rigors of research. She has published papers in prestigious science journals like ‘The Lancet' and ‘Nature', and is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Union Cabinet. Based on that initial kick start by Dr Nath, it is happy to note that unlike a decade ago, 70 to 80 per cent of researchers in biology today are women. Dr. Nath is at present S N Bose Research Professor, one of the five named national professorships endowed by the Indian National Science Academy in recognition of outstanding achievements in research.


An international and renowned authority on leprosy, Dr. Nath identified a mechanism associated with the triggering of the pathology – a deficiency in the immune response system. This discovery constituted a significant advance toward the development of treatments and vaccines for leprosy. Leprosy affects nearly 1.5 million people worldwide, many of them in India. She was chosen from among 100 candidates, and was recommended by more than 800 internationally renowned scientists for her work in the field of immunology, particularly her path-breaking work in the field of leprosy, and was awarded the L'OREAL UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2001. 
At the award-presentation ceremony at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Lindsay Owen-Jones, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of L'Oreal, had said: “We aspire to encourage women to assume the role in science that is rightfully theirs.”


The role may be rightfully theirs, but it is still difficult for women to get their male colleagues and superiors to see it that way. Dr. Nath was lucky. Though she had her fair share of trials and tribulations as a young woman doctor in the early 1970s, she also had a very supportive family who helped smooth the path for her. Her husband, a pediatrician, encouraged his wife's work and helped look after their daughter when she had to travel. But in the 1970s, the study of immunology was still in a nascent stage in India and there were many obstacles in her way. 
“There were not many people with whom I could discuss my work. There was extensive red tape in getting government permission for the import of chemicals needed for research, and bureaucratic delays were common... But once you've survived the problems,” she says, “you forget the difficulties.” But in the early days, the difficulties were many and varied. “When I declared my desire to study immunology, my teachers looked at me blankly.”


In medical school she met a young student who did social work in leprosy colonies and who persuaded her to come and help with bandaging. “For the first time, I saw the human face of leprosy,” Dr. Nath recalled. “In school we saw little of the stigma.” And so she decided to make the care and treatment of the quarter of the world's leprosy patients who lived in India, her life's work. The doctor studied leprosy and immunology at the Medical Research Council, Britain, and became actively involved in developing immunology workshops.

Dr. Nath has carved her name in the pages of scientific history is a fact that goes without saying, kudos to her!