Biologist Gagandeep Kang earlier this week made history by becoming the first Indian woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s main and prestigious scientific academy.

Kang, a professor at the Vellore Christian Medical College, is currently on a sabbatical, and is working as the executive director of Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad. The 57-year-old is known for her inter-disciplinary research “studying the transmission, development and prevention of enteric infections [related to the intestines]” in children in India, according to The Royal Society.

“To develop practical approaches to support public health, she has also built national rotavirus and typhoid surveillance networks, established laboratories to support vaccine trials and conducted phase 1-3 clinical trials of vaccines, a comprehensive approach that has supported two WHO pre-qualified vaccines, made by two Indian companies,” the academy added. “She is investigating the complex relationships between infection, gut function and physical and cognitive development, and seeking to build a stronger human immunology research in India.”

She has established strong training programmes for students “in clinical translational medicine aiming to build a cadre of clinical researchers studying relevant problems in India”, it added.

Besides Kang, 50 other people were elected Fellows of The Royal Society, ten people as Foreign Members and one Honorary Fellow for their exceptional contributions to science, the academy announced on April 16.

“Over the course of the Royal Society’s vast history, it is our Fellowship that has remained a constant thread and the substance from which our purpose has been realised: to use science for the benefit of humanity,” Nobel laureate and President of The Royal Society Venki Ramakrishnan said.

“This year’s newly elected Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society embody this, being drawn from diverse fields of enquiry – epidemiology, geometry, climatology – at once disparate, but also aligned in their pursuit and contributions of knowledge about the world in which we live, and it is with great honour that I welcome them as Fellows of the Royal Society,” he added.

Kang said the scale of government schemes for researchers must be expanded. “We don’t see many women scientists around and very few in the leadership role,” she told the Deccan Herald. “Its not because women are less capable but because the system [science establishment] doesn’t provide the necessary support in terms of flexible working hours or shifting of jobs.”

The Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology had launched programmes in the past to support researchers but the scale of such schemes “need to be expanded if 50% of the positions are to be filled up by women researchers”, she said. “We can’t wait for black swans to become the norm.”

A former Fellow of the society and the former Director General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research RA Mashelkar told the daily that out of 1,600-odd living Fellows of the Royal Societies, only 133 have been women. “Although founded in 1660, no woman became FRS till 1945. Such are the odds for a woman to become FRS. So we feel particularly proud that Kang became an FRS this year,” he added.

Other Indian scientists elected Fellows of the Royal Society in 2019 include professors Gurdyal Besra from the University of Birmingham, Manjul Bhargava from Princeton University, Anant Parekh from the University of Oxford and Akshay Venkatesh from the Institute for Advanced Study.