New Delhi, Sep 21, 2019-
It was her love for experiments and for finding different ways to answer questions that led Gagandeep Kang to the field of medical research. She is now the Director of Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad and her dedicated efforts to the development of Rotavac, India’s first indigenously developed vaccine for rotavirus infections, recently made her the first Indian woman to be elected as a fellow of The Royal Society of London.
Kang calls the achievement “a recognition of the work that my team and I have done in clinical and public health research”.
Asked what had changed since her election to the prestigious scientific academy, she said: “A lot of people want to know about my work and that is a good thing, because what we do is not glamorous. But we seek to serve those who are rarely heard, those who have damaged their guts by infections.”
Kang, also a recipient of the Infosys Prize for the development of Rotavac, said she came to rotavirus research because “I realised how important it was as a cause of diarrhoea”. “Prevention is always better than cure, and even though there is no specific treatment for rotavirus, we realised it can be prevented through vaccination,” she added.
According to Kang: “We now have two licensed rotavirus vaccines made by multinational companies and two vaccines made by Indian companies, and all four are WHO pre-qualified, which means they can be bought by the Unicef as well as countries. In addition, there are licensed vaccines in China and Vietnam, and a vaccine that is close to licensure being made in Indonesia.”
About the effectiveness and success of these vaccines, the medical scientist said: “Wherever these vaccines have been tested, they have shown to be effective… Now, more than half the countries in the world give rotavirus vaccines to their children and we hope that the number keeps increasing even as we try to improve the vaccines.”
Though the recognication that follows an innovation is encouraging, Kang finds the hiccups along the way also disheartening a little. “Leading a research group and leading a research institution are completely different things. The good thing is that we have bright, highly trained scientists and phenomenal resources at the institutional level… we are increasing our efforts to identify and tackle big and important problems in communicable and non-communicable diseases. The bad thing is the incredible amount of paperwork and the delays that the high levels of channelling create.”
“We try to address big problems in India and we have failed a lot and succeeded a little, but our work has been rigorous,” the 56-year-old scientist added.
Asked what kept her going, she said: “The big picture of the importance of the problems, and within that the idea that where I could frame my own questions and continue to find ways to answer them.”
Talking about the male dominance in the field of science and research, the biologist said: “In medicine, as opposed to STEM, things are changing. More girls are now coming to colleges and women are coming into what are traditionally more male-dominated fields, like surgery.”
She also believes that gender differences are more visible and rigid in India as compared to other countries. “In India, gender differences are determined by our society and are all pervasive. Women are not empowered, except in a very small section of our social fabric… We talk of ‘shakti’ and respect for mothers, but we don’t live that way.”
“The conditioning of not encouraging women in science starts early… We need to expand and encourage those right thinking communities and individuals so that women in STEM are no longer the exceptions,” she said.
Educated in India, Kang went abroad to do her research. Asked about the difference in pursuing research in India and abroad, she said: “In India, there is very little investment in medical research. We seem to wait for innovation, new drugs and vaccines to come from the West and adopt those a few years later, even if they are not tailored for our population.”
On barriers to research in India, she said having peers who are outstanding themselves and push the standards of research is something that we do not even have the luxury of thinking about. “India needs to recognise that no country progresses without investments in science and technology… We need to measure our problems and address them systematically. We need to understand that research is a necessity and not a luxury,” she concluded.