“When I began working with rotavirus, nobody was interested in it. Diarrhoea, especially the acute, watery diarrhoea, was not glamorous at all,” says Gagandeep Kang, 56, the first Indian woman to be elected to the fellowship of The Royal Society of London in 359 years of history of this prestigious scientific academy. She’s among the 51 eminent scientists elected to the Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).
“I did medicine. I did microbiology and then the idea of spending all my time in a lab was really, really boring. My father was an engineer, my mother is a teacher. We have doctors in the family. Maths, physics, chemistry and biology were my best subjects. It was a question of ‘Do I do physics, or medicine?’ and I chose medicine,” she recently told The Hindu in an interview.
According to a profile in ThePrint, Kang was born in Shimla in November 1962. Her mother was a teacher of English and history, and father a mechanical engineer in the Indian Railways. Kang has a younger sister, who is a journalist.
“After post-graduation, I had a choice between studying neurological infections or gut-intestinal infections. Neurological ones didn’t seem challenging enough. The gut is much more complicated,” she says to explain her interest in rotavirus, a virus that causes gut and intestinal disorders among children such as inflammation, diarrhoea, dehydration, gastroenteritis, among others.
Rotavirus is circular in shape when looked under a microscope, and thus the name ‘rota’ that means round in Latin. It is a highly contagious virus and spreads rapidly, especially in temperate climates. According to the World Health Organisation, rotavirus infections killed 215,000 children in 2013.
Known for her research on viral infections in children, and works on other enteric infections and their consequences when children are infected in early life, sanitation and water safety, Dr Kang has built national rotavirus and typhoid surveillance networks in India.
She was awarded the prestigious Infosys Prize in Life Sciences in 2016 for her contributions to understanding the natural history of rotavirus and other infectious diseases.
Dr Kang is an alumna of Christian Medical College, Vellore, where she completed MBBS in 1987 and MD in Microbiology in 1991. She is a clinician scientist and the executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, an autonomous institute of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. She is also a professor in the department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at her alma mater.
Dr Kang has played a role in the development of the indigenous oral rotavirus vaccine, which, according to a 2014 study, can prevent more than 26,000 deaths in India every year. Globally, the vaccine can now be used by middle and lower-income countries to save the lives of half a million children every year.
After her PhD in 1998, Dr Kang went to the UK to study the virus and understand how it affected Indian children and public health. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, rotavirus infections were leading to over 130,000 deaths annually in India.
The scientist laments lack of effective research in India. For one, reagents in India cost twice than their price in the US. The painful and expensive process is a barrier to research in India, she says. She talks about investment in research and says Indian funding agencies are, more often than not, reluctant to fund research. It’s everywhere – from basic science to applied science.
The salaries in academia and research are also low, compounding the problem, she adds.
Dr Kang’s work now involves educational outreach to quell distrust for vaccination. She says people have deep-seated beliefs about vaccines and they need to be told about how vaccination programmes can help communities, and not just individuals.
The woman, who works to deliver vaccines at multiple levels among communities, says that people need to understand that vaccination programmes will end some day. “When infrastructure improves, such as provision of clean water, which reduces the spread of typhoid, vaccines can be phased out,” Dr Kang says.
Talking about women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), she says the environment needs to be more conducive to develop a mentality where women are required in the system.
“My best collaborators are women. There are two in the US and one in the UK and we’ve been associated with one another for over two decades. We get along so well and support each other. I find them much more supportive than many of the men I have collaborated with. Of course, I do work with a lot of good men. The three strongest people I’m associated with are women and they are role models in their own right,” she said in The Hindu interview.
“Our society needs to enable women to fulfil their potential, not hold them back. Women in leadership need to support and enable women,” she added in another interview.