The name is Blodgett, Katherine Blodgett

I have had a poster on Katherine Blodgett for the longest time in my drafts folder now. This A-Z blog challenge spurred me to finally bring it to some sort of a finish, which I hope does some justice to the person Blodgett was. Having done only two posters now in this Women in Science series, and having written about Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett in the past, I realise with a scare how very difficult it is to attempt and encapsulate a person’s life either in an essay or some other form. Yes, we admire those people and want to share this special thing we feel for them with others, but I am left wondering if we are being reductionists here. I am tempted to think this is an occupational hazard with biographers.

Despite that feeling of inadequacy in my mind, I present to you Katherine Blodgett of the LB film fame.

katherine blodgett.jpg


Vera Rubin: 1928 – 2016

Vera Rubin, pioneering dark matter theory researcher and staunch supporter of women in science, died on Christmas Day at the age of 88.

A trailblazing and inspiring woman, she let her light shine through and guide others. Here’s something she posted on her Twitter account early this year:

Look at her, indeed!

Trust yourself, that’s her admonition.

Here’s something I made to honour Rubin.


Rubin delivered the commencement address at UC Berkeley in 1996. Here’s an excerpt from the address.

Science is hard and demanding, but each of you must believe that you can succeed. It may seem unlikely tonight, but there is not one among you who cannot make important, major contributions to the world of science.

She also cautions:

We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology.

Two decades on, that word of caution resounds all the more true not just for the US. India too could definitely do better with leaders who understand science.

Hop on over here and be inspired by the poetics in her speech.

I’ll close with the following note from her, urging graduates science-ward.

Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting. You can do it, too.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You can do it, too.

On women in science

Sometime last year I asked my students to name some female scientists they knew of. Immediately cries of Marie Curie filled the air. Irene Curie’s name followed suit. Soon enough an uneasy silence followed, which was broken by a question.

“Are astronauts allowed?”

“Go right ahead!”

Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams immediately filled my classroom with their spirits.

And then, silence again.

I tried to prod them, gave them clues. “Think surface chemistry. Think structure of DNA,” I cajoled.

Whispering and murmuring and generally well-meaning commotion ensued. And then all of a sudden, a voice emphatically piped up.

Mrs. Einstein.”

I grinned. The class guffawed.

But we did include Mrs. Einstein in our little pantheon of women scientists we could discuss. Mrs. Einstein, historians of Physics contend, had a great influence on Einstein’s research, and was a physicist in her own right.

The student apparently didn’t know that Mrs. Einstein was born Mileva Maric. But I loved that this little thing didn’t stop her from giving an answer.

Sometime around that time an idea took root in my head. I wanted to introduce other women scientists to my students. On and off we did discuss some in the class. We did pay particular attention to Katherine Blodgett since I teach Nanoscience. While my students are aware of Irving Langmuir, it comes as a surprise to them that ‘Blodgett’ in the Langmuir Blodgett Films would connote a woman.

And likewise, Rosalind Franklin. While everyone knows the answer to the question: who discovered the structure of DNA?, only a few know of Franklin’s role in the discovery.

So yes, I started writing a blog post on Katherine Blodgett some time back, with all the good intentions of posting it here. Gradually the post turned into a poster (for lack of a better word), but that too lay in the drafts folder to be completed.

And then today I saw Twitter explode with obituaries to Vera Rubin. Seeing her distinguished career and her support for women in science, I decided I had to jump in and begin this series on Women in Science. Again, primarily for my students, but if you aren’t my student [like I say: lucky you! :)] and find it interesting, I’d be doubly pleased.

Coming up: a little something I made on Vera Rubin.

When scientists turn guinea pigs.

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been announced. One half of the Prize is jointly awarded to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites” and the other half goes to Youyou Tu “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria”.

Youyou Tu, a Chinese medical scientist, is just the 12th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Tu carried out her research work in 1960s and 70s which was a period of great upheaval in China. Malaria was a major cause of death in China in those days, and chloroquine, the antimalarial drug, was fast proving ineffective. Tu started screening traditional Chinese herbs in a bid to isolate a new anti-malarial drug. After pouring over extensive Chinese literature, and more than 350 herbal extracts later, Tu and her team finally zeroed in on a component from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). This component was later called Artemisinin, and Tu and her team demonstrated that it was highly effective against the malarial parasite in mice and monkeys.

When it came time for human testing, Tu became the first ever human subject. The test turned out to be successful, and clinical trials were thereafter carried out.

It is for the discovery of Artemisinin that Tu has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Exactly ten years back, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two Australian physicians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall for their discovery that stomach ulcers are caused by bacterial infection. These two scientists discovered in 1982 that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori colonised the lower part of the stomach in about 50% of the patients suffering from ulcer. Based on this observation, and inflammation in the stomach close to where the bacteria were seen, they radically suggested that ulcers of the stomach and intestines were caused by this bacterium H. pylori, and not by stress and lifestyle choices as was espoused by gastroenterologists of that time. Their ideas were met with resistance. Warren and Marshall continued working and biopsied about 100 patients with ulcer. After several attempts the scientists successfully cultivated this hitherto unknown bacterium, and found that it was invariably present in patients with gastric inflammation, duodenal ulcer or gastric ulcer. They further showed that the ulcer could completely be cured only when H. pylori was completely eliminated from the human body.

In order to prove this, Barry Marshall turned his own guinea pig. He infected himself with H. pylori. He isolated the bacterium from the gut of an infected patient, stirred it into a broth, and drank it. Soon enough, he developed gastritis, began vomiting and became sick. A biopsy of his gut followed, H. pylori was cultured and an anti-bacterial treatment regime gradually put him back in shape. The medical and scientific community finally took note, and it is now unequivocally established that stress does not lead to ulcer, but the culprit is H. pylori. The Nobel Assembly, in felicitating the two physicians praised them for working against prevailing dogmas.

Youyou Tu, Robin Warren and Barry Marshall. Such conviction and such dedication to research. If this isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what else is!

Of a picture that spoke a million words. And, a book reco.

The Mars Orbiter Mission aka the Mangalyan was launched about an year back. It was a proud and happy moment for all of India. Soon after the space probe’s launch, the internet became abuzz with the picture of ISRO women scientists congratulating themselves on the launch. That picture made me jump for joy. And I diligently spread the joy around by sharing the picture with anyone who’d care to lend an eye and an ear.. And because joyous things need to be shared again and again, here’s the picture for your viewing pleasure.

This is rocket science!

Yes, this is rocket science!

I remember sharing this picture with my class, and my students were all taken by the magnitude of achievement these pixels contained.

Truly Lilavati’s daughters, these women.

Which brings me to the second part of this post. This is actually a book recommendation, and the name of the book is Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India. The latter part of the title is self-explanatory; the book is an anthology of biographical essays by leading women scientists in India. As for the first part of the title, my understanding is that Lilavati was the Indian mathematician, Bhaskara’s daughter. Legend has it that Lilavati was a very intelligent woman and that she did not have any children of her own. The lore further has it that Bhaskara, like all fathers wanted to get his daughter married, but couldn’t. And so, to assuage the pain caused by his inability to do so, he promised his daughter to write a book in her name. This Wikipedia page carries the historical background on Lilavati, the treatise written by Bhaskara for his daughter. An English translation of the book is available here. Wikipedia’s outgoing link to Google Books also delivers.

Right. So, back to why I began this post: the anthology of essays by women scientists. It is available in its entirety here as downloadable pdf chapters. Go on, read it. Just don’t complain if your mind begins to expand as you come to know of the vast pantheon of courageous and intelligent women you have as your forbears.