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7 Asian women in science who pushed gender boundaries

Free Malaysia Today logo Free Malaysia Today 7/3/2022 Noel Wong @ FMT Lifestyle
Dubbed the ‘Chinese Marie Curie’, Chien-Shiung Wu was a physicist whose research advanced the field of nuclear physics. (Pinterest pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today Dubbed the ‘Chinese Marie Curie’, Chien-Shiung Wu was a physicist whose research advanced the field of nuclear physics. (Pinterest pic)

The role of women in science and technology has been widely discussed in academic circles. Despite historically being denied access to a proper education, many women – including those in Asia – have made a name for themselves in the scientific world.

Today, on International Women’s Day, FMT takes a historical look at some of the region’s most significant female scientists and trailblazers.

1. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

Nicknamed the “Chinese Madam Curie”, Wu was a physicist who made important contributions to the young field of nuclear physics. Born and raised in China, she completed her education in the United States, where she eventually settled.

Her work included the process of separating uranium, and creating improved Geiger counters to better measure radiation levels. She was involved in the top-secret Manhattan Project that helped create nuclear weapons during World War II.

An early advocate for gender equality, she pondered “whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment”.

2. Kono Yasui (1880-1971)

Despite the reluctance of her government to support her studies, Kono Yasui persevered and became a famous botanist in her own right. (Pinterest pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today Despite the reluctance of her government to support her studies, Kono Yasui persevered and became a famous botanist in her own right. (Pinterest pic)

Despite facing gender bias, Yasui had her family’s support in pursuing her passion, and became the first Japanese woman to attain a doctoral degree in science.

Her government initially turned down her application to study in the US, reasoning that “a woman cannot achieve much in science”. She was eventually allowed to go on the condition that she studied home economics and promised never to marry.

Yasui went on to become a successful botanist, researching plant genetics and studying flora affected by the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

3. Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)

While her life was cut short by cancer, Maryam Mirzakhani’s contributions to the field of mathematics remain impressive to this day. (AFP pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today While her life was cut short by cancer, Maryam Mirzakhani’s contributions to the field of mathematics remain impressive to this day. (AFP pic)

Iranian scientist Mirzakhani is the only woman to have received the Fields Award, the recognition most coveted by mathematicians.

A prodigy with numbers, she went on to deepen the scientific community’s understanding of complicated mathematical objects called Riemann surfaces (look it up).

She was famous for doodling on pieces of paper and writing equations next to them. Describing herself as a “slow” mathematician, she explained: “You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math.”

Sadly, the world lost her brilliance to breast cancer in 2017.

4. Kamala Sohonie (1911-1998)

To earn her rightful place in the scientific community, Kamala Sohonie endured sexist treatment from her peers, including Nobel laureates. (Pinterest pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today To earn her rightful place in the scientific community, Kamala Sohonie endured sexist treatment from her peers, including Nobel laureates. (Pinterest pic)

As the daughter and niece of famous chemists, Kamala Sohonie was inspired to follow in her father’s and uncle’s footsteps.

Despite excelling academically, her application as a researcher was initially rejected by the director of the Indian Institute of Science, who doubted women’s abilities as scientists.

She was eventually accepted on a one-year probation – and only on the condition that she would work any time she was instructed to, and not “distract” her male researchers.

Sohonie would go on to study the effects of vitamins on human health and the nutritional values of food commonly consumed by India’s poor.

Addressing the sexism she faced, she said: “I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman… what can one expect if even a Nobel laureate behaves in such a way?”

5. Maria Orosa (1892-1945)

Aside from being a food scientist, Maria Orosa was an active member of the Filipino resistance during World War II. (Wikipedia pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today Aside from being a food scientist, Maria Orosa was an active member of the Filipino resistance during World War II. (Wikipedia pic)

Orosa was a food scientist who focused on eradicating malnutrition and food insecurity by creating nutritious food and drinks in the Philippines.

She actively supported the Filipino resistance during World War II, inventing a canning process that preserved food for local guerrillas. She was also the inventor of banana ketchup, which remains a staple in Filipino cuisine today.

Despite the dangers of the war zone, Orosa refused to leave Manila, saying she was a soldier and would never abandon her post. She devoted herself to her experiments until she was mortally wounded by shrapnel.

6. Rampa Rattanarithikul (born 1939)

Mosquito expert Rampa Rattanarithikul (far left) runs an insect museum in Chiang Mai. (Facebook pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today Mosquito expert Rampa Rattanarithikul (far left) runs an insect museum in Chiang Mai. (Facebook pic)

With Thailand being home to 14% of the world’s mosquito pieces, Rampa Rattanarithikul took an interest in the insects. Starting her career as a lab technician, she collected them for a project to protect soldiers from diseases such as malaria.

She would go on to discover nearly two dozen species, two of which are named after her.

Rattanarithikul’s work continues to be relevant to fellow scientists searching for ways to counter diseases transmitted by mosquitoes. Today, she runs the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai, which she founded in 1999 with her husband.

7. Susan Lim (1952-2014)

Susan Lim’s work on Monogenean flatworms led to the discovery of over 100 species. (Wikipedia pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today Susan Lim’s work on Monogenean flatworms led to the discovery of over 100 species. (Wikipedia pic)

A University of Malaya graduate specialising in parasites, Lim took an interest in Monogeneans, a type of flatworm that preys on freshwater fish. These parasites cause problems in freshwater farms.

She would go on to discover over 100 new species, four of which were named in her honour.

As the first and only Malaysian to be part of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, she was considered to be the leading Monogean specialist in Southeast Asia.

Her contributions to the field remain important even after her passing in 2014.

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