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Indian women break through glass ceiling

A number of Indian women are making their mark at the local level. Clockwise from top left: Usha Rao-Monari, UN Under Secretary General; Bhavya Lal, acting chief of staff NASA; Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist WHO and Dr Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology, Wellcome Trust Research Laboratory, CMC, Vellore

While US Vice President Kamala Harris hit the headlines as a Democrat candidate of Indian-African descent in the US elections, there are several other Indian women who have also achieved fame covers sectors ranging from administration to sciences and the defence forces.

We profile some of the numerous women high-achievers who stand out as an inspiration for others.

Dr Swati Mohan

After the successful touchdown of NASA's new rover on Mars, millions of eyes riveted from the red planet to Dr Swati Mohan – the Indian American engineer at NASA. She found herself thrust into global limelight the moment Perseverance landed on the faraway planet.

The bindi-wearing Mohan's photographs went viral as she cheered the team's successful effort after a heart-stopping seven minutes. "Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life," applauded Mohan.

Spurred on by Star Trek, she has been part of previous NASA missions like Cassini – the mission to Saturn and GRAIL – in which a pair of spacecrafts were flown in formation to the Moon. Mohan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Cornell University and completed her MS and PhD from MIT in Aeronautics/Astronautics.

Usha Rao-Monari

Just a couple of days back, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Usha Rao-Monari as the UN Under Secretary General and associate administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The UNDP spearheads issues of international development and works in eliminating poverty and reducing inequalities in nearly 170 countries.

An investment professional, she has held multiple positions at the international level. Earlier, Rao-Monari was the CEO of Global Water Development Partners; Director of the Sustainable Business Advisory Group at the International Finance Corporation and serves on the boards of numerous organisations in the field of sustainable development. She has also held advisory positions in the areas of water, natural capital, biodiversity and environment.

Bhavya Lal

Indian-American Bhavya Lal, was recently named as US space agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) acting chief of staff. In this position, she not only manages the daily operations of the organisation but also gives it strategic direction. As the senior White House appointee at NASA, she served as a member of the Biden Presidential Transition Agency Review Team for the agency.

She has contributed widely in the fields of science, technology and space in the US. She co-founded and is co-chair of the policy track of the American Nuclear Society's annual conference on Nuclear and Emerging Technologies in Space (NETS) and also co-organizes a seminar series on space history and policy with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

She has a wide experience in working for various US organisations related to engineering and space technology. Lal has also written widely on private companies in the space sector, where she has made predictions on the direction space technologies will take. She has been a research staff at the Institute for Defence Analyses (IDA) and the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI).

Dr Gagandeep Kang

For a large part of 2020, Dr Gagandeep Kang remained in news for her thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic. Considered to be one of the top vaccine scientists in India, Dr Kang is currently at the Wellcome Trust Research Laboratory, Christian Medical College, Vellore.

For scores of Indian and foreign journalists, she has been the go-to person for information on the debilitating coronavirus, the health budget and the efficacy of vaccines. Though she has been in news over the Covid-19 pandemic, a large part of her research has been on preventing diarrhoea in children. Her research on developing Rotavac for preventing diarrhoea fetched her the Infosys Prize.

She was the first Indian woman scientist to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), London, and has been a strong votary for boosting science and technology research in India. She has remained focussed in public health as that allows her to save lives and make health delivery systems efficient.

Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth

In January this year, Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth became the cynosure of all eyes at India's Republic Day parade as she became the first woman pilot to fly a fighter jet at the Republic Day fly-past. She had joined the Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter squadron in 2017 and is currently posted at a fighter base in the western sector.

Kanth became one of the first three women fighter pilots in the IAF after she was inducted along with Avani Chaturvedi and Mohana Singh in 2016. Currently ten women have been commissioned as fighter pilots in the IAF.

An engineer from Bengaluru, she had been awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar by President Ram Nath Kovind in March 2020.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently put the World Health Organization's (WHO) Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan among the foremost women in the world spearheading the battle against the coronavirus. The WEF article highlights how women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) are helping the society stand up to the virus.

As a leading public health expert, Swaminathan has been coordinating work globally on vaccine development and has been guiding countries on how to tackle the pandemic. She has also been removing doubts that shroud the efficacy of covid vaccines.

Swaminathan has underlined the need to step-up research on public health and improve access to digital technologies in health.