Senior scientist Niti Kumar, 38, says receiving the prestigious SERB Women Excellence Award for 2020 came as a “total surprise". Kumar, who works as an independent group leader at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI) in Lucknow, was one of the three recipients of the prestigious award at this year’s National Science Day celebrations in the Capital.

The award is presented to women scientists below the age of 40 who have been recognized by other national science academies. Recipients of the award are also given a grant of 5 lakh per annum for three years by the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), which falls under the government’s department of science and technology. Kumar, in this instance, was eligible for the SERB award since she had been recognized as an Indian National Science Academy (Insa) “Young Scientist" in 2010.

Kumar’s research group at CDRI is trying to understand the protein quality control machinery in the human malaria parasite to explore alternative drug targets for malaria intervention. She is also involved in anti-malarial screening for the identification of scaffolds (implants or injects used to deliver drugs into the body) effective against drug-resistant malaria.

“We still don’t know how the parasite is able to fool the immune system and how it is able to live in different organs in the body," says Kumar, who received her PhD from CSIR’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Munich, Germany, from 2009-13. “The idea is to understand parasite biology so that we can look for alternative drug targets or explore alternative targets for drug intervention. We are doing this because we would like to tackle the resistant malaria cases which are emerging in our population, apart from the infection cases," she says on the phone.

According to the World Health Organization’s World Malaria Report 2019, 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and India carried almost 85% of the global malaria burden in 2018. “We have co-infection (cases) with dengue sometimes, and the Japanese encephalitis virus.... So, the idea is to deal with drug resistance in co-infection cases as well," she adds.

A Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS) factsheet in 2019, with a special focus on women in science, revealed that women account for a minority of the world’s researchers overall. According to data from the UIS, the UN’s depository for global statistics in the fields of education, science and technology, culture and communication, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.

When it comes to the gender gap in science and lack of diversity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce, Kumar says the representation of women in STEM in India may be little, but their participation in mathematics and engineering is even more limited. “We find more females in (the field of) biology, in comparison to men," she adds. The problem, she believes, starts in school, when children start developing an interest for a specific field of study. “We have to start working at the school and home levels," says Kumar. “A lot of overhauling is required for the schools and for the parents so that they allow their girl children, or any children, to pursue careers in science."

Kumar believes India could take a leaf out of the global playbook. For instance, project managers with a science background or grant writers can be helpful for principal investigators and institutes. She believes people with a science background are needed everywhere, including business development units. “We need more lucrative career options and other alternatives, which may not be a full-time research job, but something that is related to science; it could be science journalism or science and theatre, science communication, science educator.... If we have options in these areas, then people will continue their education in science," she adds.

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