A look at the life of one of India’s top women scientists

Epilepsy is a condition that comes in all shapes and sizes, with the intensity and ability to control seizures varying from person to person. Whilst this disease entails a number of difficulties in day-to-day life, public misperception about epilepsy also increases the challenges faced by sufferers. Today is National Epilepsy Day in India, where around 10 million people suffer from the condition. On this occasion, DiscovHER looks back on the work of Dr. Asima Chatterjee, a pioneering Indian scientist who, among other achievements, developed the anti-convulsive drug Ayush-56 to treat epilepsy.

Dr. Asima Chatterjee was born in Bengal in 1917 and spent most of her life working and teaching at the University of Calcutta. During her studies in chemistry, Dr. Chatterjee developed an interest in plants and their chemical properties. She obtained her masters and doctorate from the University of Calcutta, and spent a number of years carrying out research at the University of Wisconsin, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Zurich.

Upon her return to India, Dr. Chatterjee began her long-term research into the plants native to the Indian subcontinent. She used degradative, spectroscopic and synthetic methods to isolate a wide variety of products from these plants. One of her major contributions was her investigation into the properties of vinca alkaloids, derived from the periwinkle plant and other vinca plants. These substances are now used in chemotherapy, inhibiting cells’ ability to divide. Dr. Chatterjee also developed Ayush-56, an anti-epilepsy drug that reduces the number of seizures experienced by sufferers and allows them to sleep for longer during the night.

Conducting research wasn’t always easy for Dr. Chatterjee, as research grants and scholarships were few and far between. However, her passion for plants led her to persevere and become one of the most important figures in science in India. Her accolades are too long to list, but highlights include her founding the chemistry department at Lady Brabourne College, an institution for women’s education, as well as a regional research lab in Calcutta dedicated to researching plant properties. A true role model for women in India, Dr. Chatterjee was also the first female laureate of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, awarded for outstanding and notable work. She passed away from old age in 2006, but her achievements in science continue to inspire.

Which women scientists should we shine a spotlight on in the future? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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