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Four Indian women scientists who are pushing the frontiers of research

Despite inherent biases in the academic system, some Indian women are thriving at the cutting edge of science.

Nobel laureate Tim Hunt stirred a hornet’s nest at the World Conference of Science Journalists at Seoul, South Korea, last week with a statement about why the presence of women scientists in the laboratory was distracting. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Hunt is reported to have said. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry!”  Though he soon claimed that he meant the remarks as a joke, the hornets stung hard. After immediate media outrage and humourous but powerful Twitter reactions from women scientists, the 72-year-old biochemist has had to resign from his position at the University College of London.

The reason very few in the research world found Hunt’s remarks funny is because women scientists have, for decades, been fighting bias and the suggestion that they are not cut out for the lab. Women are underrepresented, underpaid and often unrecognised for their scientific achievements.

In 2008, Indian women held only 37% of PhDs, less than 15% of faculty positions and less than 4% of awards and fellowships at various science academies, according to a report of the National Task Force for Women in Science. The government and scientific academies have instituted mechanisms to correct the gender asymmetry in the field. But that hasn't stopped some Indian women from pushing at the frontiers of science with remarkable results. Here are four such researchers who have achieved no small measure of success in recent years.

Yamuna Krishnan


Yamuna Krishnan makes experimental machines out of DNA. Working that the cutting edge of a field called bionanotechnology, Krishnan synthesizes nuclear bases into filaments of DNA that are no more than 2 nanometers thick. (A nanometer is one-thousandth of a micron.) These filamentous DNA sensors are sent into living cells to gather information on the conditions within. For instance, they can pick up the acidity within a cell, which – if it is not the value it is supposed to be – can lead to myriad disorders.

DNA architecture has the potential to be used to mimic viruses or to target delivery of drugs within cells to make them more efficient. Krishnan used to run her DNA laboratory out of the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore but has now moved it to Chicago where she is a professor. For her work, Krishnan was awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar prize in 2013.

Shubha Tole


To understand how genetic defects affect the brain one must first understand the genetic mechanisms that control the brain. In her work on neurocircuitry in mammals, Shubha Tole discovered a master regulator gene that controls how the brain’s cortex hippocampus and amygdala develop. Tole’s work throws light on the evolution of modern mammalian brain and also gives an indication as to why defects like autism and epilepsy develop.

Tole, who is a professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, was one of the recipients of the Infosys Prize in 2014. In its citation, the Infosys Prize jury praised Tole for being “a dedicated mentor of pre-and post-doctoral trainees, an excellent science communicator” and extending her service to science education. She also won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar prize in 2010.

Prerna Sharma


The 29-year-old assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science was featured in Forbes’ 30-under-30 India list this year – a compilation of individuals on the fast track to recognition in their respective professional fields. Sharma is a physicist who studies soft condensed matter like colloids, emulsions and surfactants, all of which have length scales of few microns, in between the two extremes of atomic and bulk matter.

While doing her post-doctoral work at Brandies University in the United States, Sharma was part of the team that that forged new ground in two-dimensional physics. The team unlocked how lipid rafts like liquid droplets arrange themselves on surfaces similar to cell membranes. In a paper published in the prestigious international journal Nature, Sharma and her colleagues detailed how the components of such a membrane arrange themselves into finite size droplets instead of just merging into continuous layers as they would have in a 3D system.

Neena Gupta


Last year, the Indian Statistical Institute’s Neena Gupta was awarded the Indian National Science Academy’s medal for young scientists for solving a mathematical problem that was open for almost seven decades known as the Zariski Cancellation Conjecture. The academy tipped its hat to Gupta’s work calling it "one of the best works in Algebraic Geometry in recent years done anywhere". Gupta was also awarded the inaugural Saraswathi Cowsik Medal by TIFR for the same work.

Gupta is also recipient of the Ramanujan Prize in 2014 for the advanced study of mathematics. In 2013 she became the youngest Associate of the Indian Academy of Science. At the Indian Statistical Institute, she continues to delve into research questions in commutative algebra and affine algebraic geometry - the study of rings in algebraic number theory.

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What hospitals can do to drive entrepreneurship and enhance patient experience

Hospitals can perform better by partnering with entrepreneurs and encouraging a culture of intrapreneurship focused on customer centricity.

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Most of these tech enabled solutions have emerged as hospitals look for better ways to enhance patient experience – one of the top criteria in evaluating hospital performance. Patient experience accounts for 25% of a hospital’s Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) score as per the US government’s Centres for Medicare and Mediaid Services (CMS) programme. As a Mckinsey report says, hospitals need to break down a patient’s journey into various aspects, clinical and non-clinical, and seek ways of improving every touch point in the journey. As hospitals also need to focus on delivering quality healthcare, they are increasingly collaborating with entrepreneurs who offer such patient centric solutions or encouraging innovative intrapreneurship within the organization.

At the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott, some of the speakers from diverse industry backgrounds brought up the role of entrepreneurship in order to deliver on patient experience.

Getting the best from collaborations

Speakers such as Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairman and Managing Director - Medanta Hospitals, and Meena Ganesh, CEO and MD - Portea Medical, who spoke at the panel discussion on “Are we fit for the world of new consumers?”, highlighted the importance of collaborating with entrepreneurs to fill the gaps in the patient experience eco system. As Dr Trehan says, “As healthcare service providers we are too steeped in our own work. So even though we may realize there are gaps in customer experience delivery, we don’t want to get distracted from our core job, which is healthcare delivery. We would rather leave the job of filling those gaps to an outsider who can do it well.”

Meena Ganesh shares a similar view when she says that entrepreneurs offer an outsider’s fresh perspective on the existing gaps in healthcare. They are therefore better equipped to offer disruptive technology solutions that put the customer right at the center. Her own venture, Portea Medical, was born out of a need in the hitherto unaddressed area of patient experience – quality home care.

There are enough examples of hospitals that have gained significantly by partnering with or investing in such ventures. For example, the Children’s Medical Centre in Dallas actively invests in tech startups to offer better care to its patients. One such startup produces sensors smaller than a grain of sand, that can be embedded in pills to alert caregivers if a medication has been taken or not. Another app delivers care givers at customers’ door step for check-ups. Providence St Joseph’s Health, that has medical centres across the U.S., has invested in a range of startups that address different patient needs – from patient feedback and wearable monitoring devices to remote video interpretation and surgical blood loss monitoring. UNC Hospital in North Carolina uses a change management platform developed by a startup in order to improve patient experience at its Emergency and Dermatology departments. The platform essentially comes with a friendly and non-intrusive way to gather patient feedback.

When intrapreneurship can lead to patient centric innovation

Hospitals can also encourage a culture of intrapreneurship within the organization. According to Meena Ganesh, this would mean building a ‘listening organization’ because as she says, listening and being open to new ideas leads to innovation. Santosh Desai, MD& CEO - Future Brands Ltd, who was also part of the panel discussion, feels that most innovations are a result of looking at “large cultural shifts, outside the frame of narrow business”. So hospitals will need to encourage enterprising professionals in the organization to observe behavior trends as part of the ideation process. Also, as Dr Ram Narain, Executive Director, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, points out, they will need to tell the employees who have the potential to drive innovative initiatives, “Do not fail, but if you fail, we still back you.” Innovative companies such as Google actively follow this practice, allowing employees to pick projects they are passionate about and work on them to deliver fresh solutions.

Realizing the need to encourage new ideas among employees to enhance patient experience, many healthcare enterprises are instituting innovative strategies. Henry Ford System, for example, began a system of rewarding great employee ideas. One internal contest was around clinical applications for wearable technology. The incentive was particularly attractive – a cash prize of $ 10,000 to the winners. Not surprisingly, the employees came up with some very innovative ideas that included: a system to record mobility of acute care patients through wearable trackers, health reminder system for elderly patients and mobile game interface with activity trackers to encourage children towards exercising. The employees admitted later that the exercise was so interesting that they would have participated in it even without a cash prize incentive.

Another example is Penn Medicine in Philadelphia which launched an ‘innovation tournament’ across the organization as part of its efforts to improve patient care. Participants worked with professors from Wharton Business School to prepare for the ideas challenge. More than 1,750 ideas were submitted by 1,400 participants, out of which 10 were selected. The focus was on getting ideas around the front end and some of the submitted ideas included:

  • Check-out management: Exclusive waiting rooms with TV, Internet and other facilities for patients waiting to be discharged so as to reduce space congestion and make their waiting time more comfortable.
  • Space for emotional privacy: An exclusive and friendly space for individuals and families to mourn the loss of dear ones in private.
  • Online patient organizer: A web based app that helps first time patients prepare better for their appointment by providing check lists for documents, medicines, etc to be carried and giving information regarding the hospital navigation, the consulting doctor etc.
  • Help for non-English speakers: Iconography cards to help non-English speaking patients express themselves and seek help in case of emergencies or other situations.

As Arlen Meyers, MD, President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, says in a report, although many good ideas come from the front line, physicians must also be encouraged to think innovatively about patient experience. An academic study also builds a strong case to encourage intrapreneurship among nurses. Given they comprise a large part of the front-line staff for healthcare delivery, nurses should also be given the freedom to create and design innovative systems for improving patient experience.

According to a Harvard Business Review article quoted in a university study, employees who have the potential to be intrapreneurs, show some marked characteristics. These include a sense of ownership, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to look at the big picture along with the desire, and ideas, to improve it. But trust and support of the management is essential to bringing out and taking the ideas forward.

Creating an environment conducive to innovation is the first step to bringing about innovation-driven outcomes. These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott, which is among the top 100 global innovator companies, is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.