Today's research stands on the shoulders of those who came before us. Get to know these fascinating researchers. Because role models matter.
While assisting my nieces on Asian pioneers in science, I came upon your Giants in History. Thank you, love the site, really helps to inspire young people to enter the science fields.
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Measuring the oceans' capacity to protect the planet
Japanese geochemist Katsuko Saruhashi (22 March 1920 – 29 September 2007) developed the first method and tools for measuring carbon dioxide in seawater, which became known as Saruhashi’s Table. Her work showed that the Pacific Ocean releases twice as much carbon dioxide as it absorbs, indicating that global warming could not be substantially mitigated by seawater’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. Saruhashi also developed a sensitive method for measuring the amounts of radioactive isotopes Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 in seawater. Her research on the radioactive fallout from nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll helped to determine limits for oceanic nuclear testing. Her childhood fascination with rain coupled with her parents' encouragement towards technical knowledge and financial independence led to her earning a degree from the Imperial Women's College of Science, now known as Toho University. Later, she was the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Tokyo and the first woman elected to the Science Council of Japan, she was a strong proponent of equal opportunities for women in science. She established the Society of Japanese Women Scientists as well as the Saruhashi Prize, which is awarded yearly to a female scientist who serves as a role model for younger women scientists. (Photo provided by Toho University)
The marine biologist who protected coral reefs and giant clams
Edgardo Dizon Gomez (7 November 1938 – 1 December 2019) was a Filipino marine biologist who recognized the need to protect marine resources, especially coral reefs, in the Philippines. Gomez played an instrumental role in the world’s first national-scale assessment of coral reef damage, leading to international conservation initiatives such as the Global Reefs and Risk Analysis, Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and the International Coral Reef Action. He also founded the Marine Science Institute at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Gomez was also actively involved in restoring the giant clam population. He was a pioneer in breeding giant clams in marine laboratories and other protected areas. For his work, Gomez was conferred the Order of National Scientists, the highest honour given by the President to an individual who has contributed significantly to science and technology in the Philippines.
The first female doctor in Korea
Esther Park (1877-1910), born Kim Jeom-dong, was the first female Korean physician to practise modern medicine in Korea. As a student, Park worked as a translator for American medical missionary Rosetta Sherwood Hall, who inspired Park to become a physician. After studying medicine in the US, Park returned to Korea and worked at the nation’s first hospital for women, Bogu-yeogwan. During the first 10 months there, Park helped more than 3,000 patients. She often travelled to remote villages, providing free medical services. Recognizing the importance of female education, she also trained the first generation of Korean female doctors.
The Einstein of structural engineering
Fazlur Rahman Khan (3 April 1929 – 27 March 1982) was a Bangladeshi-American structural engineer and architect who invented the tube principle, which formed the basis for modern skyscraper design. He proposed that instead of designing structures around a solid core, the perimeter walls of high-rise buildings should resemble a thin hollow cylinder. His design enabled towers to withstand forces such as strong winds or earthquake vibrations and also significantly reduced construction costs and environmental impacts. Khan was also a pioneer in computer-aided design (CAD), in which computers are used to create, modify, analyse and optimize a design. Khan designed Chicago’s Sears Tower, since renamed Willis Tower, the tallest building in the world from 1974 to 1998 and the 100-story John Hancock Center. For his innovative contributions to modern skyscraper design, Khan is known as the Einstein of structural engineering.
The scientist who enabled the precise measurement of weather
Anna Mani (23 August 1918 – 16 August 2001) was an Indian meteorologist who contributed significantly to the understanding of solar radiation, ozone and wind energy by developing a wide range of measurement tools. One of India’s pioneering female scientists, Mani excelled in the male-dominated area of meteorology and became the Deputy Director-General of the India Meteorological Department. She also held several important positions in the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Mani’s early research on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies at the Indian Institute of Science resulted in five research papers and a PhD dissertation. However, she was not awarded a PhD as she did not have a Master’s degree. Undaunted, Mani studied meteorological instruments at Imperial College London. Dedicated to accuracy, she became an expert at designing meteorological instruments, such as ozone and radiation measuring devices, and started a company to manufacture them. Also passionate about nature, trekking and bird-watching, Mani advised young professionals this way: “We have only one life. First equip yourself for the job, make full use of your talents and then love and enjoy the work, making the most of being out of doors and in contact with nature.”
The mother of aerospace and semiconductor materials
Lin Lanying (7 February 1918 – 4 March 2003) was a Chinese material engineer remembered for her contributions to the field of semiconductor and aerospace materials. Lanying was born into a family who did not believe in educating girls and she was not allowed to go to school. Despite her family’s objections, Lin earned a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Fukien Christian University. She earned another Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Dickinson College and received a PhD in solid-state physics at the University of Pennsylvania. Lin was the first in China to synthesize the crystals of several aerospace and semiconductor materials, including mono-crystalline germanium which led to the development of transistor radios. Her research laid the foundation for the development of micro-electronics and optoelectronics in China. For her contributions to the field, Lin was elected as an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and became the vice president of the China Association for Science and Technology. Lin is known as the mother of aerospace and semiconductor materials in China.
The pioneer of fungi in Singapore
Gloria Lim (1930 - 11 July 2022) was a mycologist from Singapore who studied tropical fungi. One of the first students to attend University of Malaya when it was founded in 1949, she graduated as one of the two Botany Honours students from the inaugural class. Lim went on to become the first female Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Singapore, now the National University of Singapore. Over the course of her career, Lim published 140 research papers, wrote several books on fungi and consulted for private companies and public sectors. She served on the scientific advisory board of MycoBiotech, a company that produces medicinal mushrooms and helped the Ministry of Defence solve the problem of mould growth in their underground storage bunkers. Lim also set up a repository of little-known fungi collected from the region. Her work brought attention to the often neglected field of mycology.
The first registered female doctor of modern medicine in Japan
Ogino Ginko (3 March 1851 – 23 June 1913) was the first registered female doctor to practise modern medicine in Japan. After contracting gonorrhoea from her first husband and being embarrassed from having to seek medical attention from male doctors, Ginko resolved to become a doctor to help women in similar situations. She graduated from Tokyo Women's Normal School (present-day Ochanomizu University) and despite facing prejudice, took her medical practitioner’s examination in 1885. Ogino opened the Ogino Hospital specializing in obstetrics and gynaecology. She was also the staff doctor at the girls’ school of the Meiji Gakuin University. Additionally, Ogino ran a medical practice in Hokkaido and a hospital in Tokyo.
The surgeon who designed prosthetic hearts
A Japanese surgeon, Tetsuzo Akutsu (20 August 1922 – 9 August 2007) built the first artificial heart capable of keeping an animal alive. Akutsu was a member of the artificial heart team, led by Willem Kolff, at the Cleveland Clinic. Akutsu was Kolff’s chief collaborator and designed models of artificial hearts to pump blood using an air-driven system. In 1957, the group implanted an artificial heart in an animal that lived for 90 minutes. This was the first successful experimental implant of a total prosthetic heart in the United States. Akutsu’s work contributed to the implantation of the second artificial heart in a human being in 1981.
The physicist who studied cosmic rays
Bibha Chowdhuri (1913 – 2 June 1991) was an Indian physicist who researched on particle physics and cosmic rays. In 1936, she was the only female to complete a M.Sc. degree at the University of Calcutta. After graduating, she joined the Bose Institute and together with Debendra Mohan Bose, discovered the boson subatomic particle. During her Ph.D. studies at the University of Manchester, Chowdhuri worked on cosmic rays and investigated air showers, which are cascades of ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation produced when a cosmic ray enters the atmosphere. She discovered that when particle density of an air shower increases, so does the density of penetrating events. A life-long researcher, Chowdhuri published her last paper a year before her death. For her contributions, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named a star in the Sextans constellation “Bibha” in her honour.
The scientist who studied in vitro fertilization and invented the pill
Min Chueh Chang (10 October 1908 – 5 June 1991) was a Chinese-American biologist who studied fertilization in mammalian reproduction. In his research, Chang demonstrated that eggs from a female black rabbit could be fertilized outside the body by the sperm of a black male rabbit. When the fertilized eggs were transferred to a white female rabbit, black offspring were born. Chang also investigated sperm development and performed in vitro fertilization of hamster, mouse and rat eggs. These findings laid the foundation for in vitro fertilization techniques in humans. From his research on progestin hormones in reproduction, Chang also co-developed the oral contraceptive pill.
The microbiologist who studied life in extreme conditions
Roseli Ocampo-Friedmann (23 November 1937 – 4 September 2005) was a Filipino-American scientist whose research focused on cyanobacteria and microorganisms that inhabit extreme environments. Together with her husband Imre Friedmann, she travelled around the world to study algae and other microorganisms. One of the places they visited was the Ross Desert in the Dry Valleys region of Antarctica, which was thought to be lifeless as a result of a lack of snow and ice. However, the couple discovered microorganisms, known as cryptoendoliths, that could tolerate the cold and come back to life in the summer. Ocampo-Friedmann managed to culture these microorganisms in the laboratory and NASA recognized the research as supporting the theory that microscopic life could exist on Mars because it has similar environmental conditions as Antarctica. In her lifetime, Ocampo-Friedmann collected over 1,000 types of microorganisms from extreme environments worldwide.
The doctor who alleviated gout
Tsai-Fan Yu (1911 – 2 March 2007) was a Chinese-American physician and researcher who was the first female full professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She discovered that gout, a condition characterized by the painful inflammation of joints, was caused by elevated levels of uric acid in the bloodstream. She also established a clinic at Mount Sinai to treat gout and tested drugs to treat the condition. Yu and her colleagues showed that probenecid, colchicine and allopurinol were effective at treating gout by increasing excretion of uric acid, reducing inflammation and preventing the formation of uric acid respectively. These drugs are still used to treat the condition today.
The scientist who discovered vitamin C in green tea
Michiyo Tsujimura (17 September 1888 – 1 June 1969) was a Japanese agricultural scientist and biochemist recognized for her research of green tea components. Together with her colleague Seitaro Miura, Tsujimura was the first to discover that green tea contains vitamin C while she was a student at the RIKEN research institute. This discovery led to an increase in the popularity of green tea and consequently, a boost in green tea export from Japan to North America in the early 1900s. Tsujimura also isolated and extracted catechin, tannin and gallocatechin, constituents with anticancer properties, from green tea. Her research earned her a PhD from the Tokyo Imperial University and Tsujimura became the first female doctor of agriculture in Japan. A dedicated teacher, Tsuijimura held professor and lecturer positions at Ochanomizu University and Jissen’s Women University, respectively. For her green tea research, she was awarded the Japan Prize of Agricultural Science in 1956 and conferred the Order of the Precious Crown of the Fourth Class in 1968.
The scientist who studied fish fossils
Meemann Chang (born 17 April 1936) is a Chinese palaeontologist who studied the fossils of ancient fish to understand the evolution of life. By examining fossils, she uncovered new insights on how vertebrates, animals with a backbone, migrated from the sea and became adapted to live on land. Chang was named the 2018 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards laureate for her work determining that lobe-finned fish – not lungfish as previously thought – were the evolutionary link between marine life and mammals. In the same year, she received the Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation Achievement Prize, which recognizes the accomplishments of Chinese scientists. Several species have been named in her honour, including the extinct fish Meemannia, the extinct bird Archaeornithura meemannae and the dinosaur Sinovenator changii. Even a unique organ of armoured prehistoric fish, consisting of an internal cavity with an external opening, was named “Chang’s Apparatus” after her. In 1983, Chang became the first female to head the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in China.
The first woman from India to visit Antarctica
Aditi Pant was an oceanographer who was the first woman from India to visit Antarctica as part of the Indian Antarctic Program. Conversations with her parents and outdoor activities sparked Pant’s interest in science and the natural world. Pant was inspired to become an oceanographer after reading the book “The Open Sea,” which described the life of plankton. Her research focused on marine plankton communities and subsequently, salt-tolerant and salt-loving microorganisms involved in oceanic food chains. After India signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1981, Aditi Pant went on the third and fifth expeditions to Antarctica to gather information on food chain physics, chemistry and biology in the Antarctic Ocean. During the third mission, the team also constructed Dakshin Gangotri, the first Indian scientific research base station at Antarctica.
The mosquito expert who established a museum of insects and natural wonders
Rampa Rattanarithikul is a Thai entomologist who is a leading expert on mosquitoes. Rattanarithikul began her scientific career as a technician collecting mosquito specimens for the United States Operations Mission (USOM) malaria control program. Throughout her career, she discovered 23 species and officially described 13 others. Two species are named after her: Anopheles rampae and Uranotaenia rampae. With encouragement from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), she developed illustrated guides to the mosquitoes of Thailand. In 2011, Rattanarithikul received the American Mosquito Control Association's John N. Belkin Memorial Award in recognition of her contributions to mosquito biology. Rattanarithikul and her husband established the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai to share their passion for the natural world and raise awareness for the importance of conservation. On display are insect species, stones, petrified wood, fossils and wood carvings that the couple have collected.
The engineer who researched microwaves
Rajeshwari Chatterjee (24 January 1922 – 3 September 2010) was the first female engineer from Karnataka in India. Chatterjee earned a Master’s degree and doctoral degree from the University of Michigan on a scholarship awarded by the Delhi government. When Chatterjee returned to India, she became a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science’s Department of Electrical Communication Engineering, where she taught electromagnetic theory, electron tube circuits, microwave technology and radio engineering. Chatterjee and her husband set up the first microwave engineering research laboratory in India. In her career, she wrote over 100 research papers and authored seven books. For her contributions to microwave engineering, Chatterjee won many notable awards, including the J.C Bose Memorial prize for the best research paper from the Institution of Engineers and the Ramlal Wadhwa Award for the best research and teaching work from the Institute of Electronics and Telecommunication Engineers. Her contributions to microwave research and antennae engineering are used in the field of radar and aircraft and spacecraft applications. Chatterjee was also interested in societal issues and after retiring from research, worked with social programs to address issues on caste segregation, gender discrimination and poverty.
The molecular biologist who studied human diversity
Syed Qasim Mehdi (13 February 1941 – 28 September 2016) was a Pakistani molecular biologist who was a founding member of the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), which assessed human diversity by studying human migration, mutation rates, relationships between different populations, genes involved in height and selective pressure. His research has revealed new mutations in the tumour suppressor gene p53 in breast cancer patients, as well as new genes involved in night blindness, non-syndromic deafness and microphthalmia in Pakistani families. In his career, Mehdi published over two hundred publications and was a renowned personality in the scientific circles of Pakistan as well as overseas. He held a number of notable appointments, including chairman of the Center for Human Genetics at the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation, as well as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Karachi. In the last years of his career, Mehdi proposed a direction for the future of biomedical research in Pakistan where he envisioned the application of molecular medicine to control infectious diseases.
The biochemist who developed alternative fuels from sugarcane and coconuts
Julian Arca Banzon (13 March 1908 – 13 September 1988) was a biochemist from the Philippines who was a pioneer in alternative fuel research. Banzon investigated the use of indigenous crops as sources of renewable fuels and chemicals. He researched the production of ethyl ester biofuels from sugarcane and coconuts and developed new methods for extracting oil from coconuts using chemicals. The findings of his research contributed to the growth of the food, chemical commodities and biofuel industries. Banzon was also the first director of the Philippine Atomic Research Center (now the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute) and served as the chairman of the division of chemical and pharmaceutical science of the National Research Council of the Philippines from 1972 to 1973.
The physicist who measured radioactive decay
Chien-Shiung Wu (31 May 1912 – 16 February 1997) was an experimental physicist who made several important contributions to nuclear physics. Wu worked on the Manhattan Project – a top-secret program for the production of nuclear weapons during World War II and helped to develop a process for separating uranium into U235 and U238. She also developed improved Geiger counters to measure nuclear radiation levels. At the time, it was believed that symmetry governed everything in nature – known as the law of Conservation of Parity. Among her contributions, Wu is best known for designing the Wu experiment in which she measured the decay of supercooled radioactive cobalt to investigate if symmetry was also conserved in the behaviour of atomic particles. Her findings showed that symmetry during the decay of atomic particles was not conserved, contradicting the law of Conservation of Parity. In 1978, Wu was awarded the inaugural Wolf Prize, a prestigious award which recognizes achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among people ... irrespective of nationality, race, colour, religion, sex or political views." For her research on radioactivity, Wu is often referred to as the "Chinese Marie Curie".
The wheat geneticist who discovered X and Y
Hitoshi Kihara (1893 – 1986) was one of the most famous Japanese geneticists of the 20th century. After graduating from Hokkaido Imperial University, he spent much of his life researching wheat genetics at Kyoto University, the National Institute of Genetics and the Kihara Institute for Biological Research. One of his most significant contributions was identifying sex chromosomes (X and Y) in flowering plants. He also determined the minimum number of chromosomes with all genes essential for wheat to be viable versus fully fertile. Proposing the concept of a genome was another of Kihara’s notable achievements. Using his expertise in chromosomes and genome analysis, he identified the ancestors of cultivated wheat and bred the seedless watermelon. In 1946, Kihara wrote: "The history of the earth is recorded in the layers of its crust; the History of all organisms is inscribed in the chromosomes." The Kihara prize, named in his honour, is awarded by the Genetics Society of Japan to researchers for major contributions to the field. Besides being an energetic scientist, Kihara was an accomplished athlete. He was one of the first skiers in Japan, and led the Japanese Olympic ski team in 1960 and 1964.
The botanist who overcame the odds
Kono Yasui (16 February 1880 – 24 March 1971) was a Japanese botanist who researched the genetics of poppies, corn and spiderworts and surveyed the plants that had been affected by the nuclear fallout after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A pioneer in many ways, Yasui was the first Japanese woman to receive a doctoral degree in science and also the first Japanese woman to publish in an international journal. In 1929, Yasui founded the cytology journal Cytologia. Growing up, Yasui’s family encouraged her to pursue her passions, even if they conflicted with gender norms of the time. The Japanese government initially rejected her application to study in America on the belief that “a woman cannot achieve much in science.” She was only allowed to study overseas on the condition that she listed “home economics research” alongside “scientific research” as her areas of study and that she agreed not to marry. After she returned to Japan, Tokyo Imperial University awarded her a doctoral degree in science for her research on how plants turned into coal, even though she was not an official student. After World War II, Yasui played a pivotal role in the transformation of Tokyo Women’s Higher Normal School into a comprehensive university for women, renamed Ochanomizu University. Together with fellow scientist Chika Kuroda, she established the Yasui-Kuroda Scholarship to provide educational opportunities for young female researchers.
The economist who advocated for agriculture
U Hla Myint (1920 – 2017) was a celebrated economist from Myanmar. Considered a prodigy, he was admitted to Rangoon University to study economics when he was just 14 years old. He went on to earn a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics (LSE). His thesis formed the foundation of his book, “A Theory of Welfare Economics,” which strongly influenced the field. Hla Myint highlighted the importance of free trade, capital accumulation and international specialization for economic development. He particularly stressed the importance of improving agriculture first, which helped provide the foundation for rapid growth in other Asian countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea. He tried to return to teach and work in Myanmar several times, but conflict and political turmoil pushed him back to the U.K., where he taught at the University of Oxford and LSE. For example, he was drafted to serve as the government’s economic advisor shortly after independence in 1948, but found his advice unheeded by the government, which paid farmers less for rice than the world market price. Despite the struggles, Hla Myint was cautiously optimistic about Myanmar’s economic development. He maintained that the progress, although slow, could prevent the country from returning to economic isolation.
The parasitologist who studied flatworms
Susan Lim (14 February 1952 – 2 August 2014) was a Malaysian parasitologist who specialized in studying a class of flatworms, the Monogeans, which are parasites of fishes. Monogean flatworms are of significant economic importance as they can severely affect fishes reared on farms for food. Lim described more than 100 new species of monogeans and discovered a new attachment mechanism. Lim became the sixth most productive monogean researcher and the most prolific female one. She was also the first and only Malaysian elected to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Four monogean flatworm species are named in her honour.
A hero of the environment
Võ Quý (31 December 1929 – 10 January 2017) was a Vietnamese ornithologist who studied the destruction of tropical forests and agricultural lands in Vietnam by Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. In addition to planning forest restoration projects, Quý rediscovered the rare eastern sarus crane, an endangered species that had vanished during the war. He helped establish a treaty with Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to protect migratory birds. His other contributions include discovering a new species of pheasant and publishing more than one hundred books, including The Birds of Vietnam, the first zoological book written by a Vietnamese scientist. Quý founded several conservation organizations in Vietnam, including the Center for Natural Resources Management and Environmental Studies (CRES), Vietnam’s first environmental research and training institute. For his contributions to scientific research and environmental conservation, Quý was awarded the Blue Planet Prize in 2003 and selected as one of the Heroes of the Environment by Time Magazine in 2008. (Credit: Original photograph by Bui Tuan)
The doctor who studied blood disorders using zebrafish
Barry Paw (29 August 1962 – 28 December 2017) was a biologist and oncologist who discovered several novel genes and their functions in red blood cells. Paw dedicated his research career to studying the development of red blood cells. His team was the first to use zebrafish as a model to identify mutations that cause anaemia, thus pioneering the use of zebrafish for analysing genes responsible for diseases in humans. Paw’s research led to new discoveries about blood disorders in humans. When he was a child, Paw immigrated to the U.S. from Myanmar as a refugee. He is remembered as an outstanding mentor who cared deeply about the professional development of his trainees.
The biologist who sequenced jute, fungus, papaya and rubber
Maqsudul Alam (14 December 1954 – 20 December 2014) was a biologist from Bangladesh who is renowned for his research on genome sequencing. During his career, Alam led several international genome sequencing projects. He is especially recognized for decoding the genome sequences of two varieties of jute, an economically important plant used as a natural fiber. Alam and his team also sequenced the pathogenic soil fungus Macrophomina phaseolina, which infects many crops. The genomes of genetically modified papaya and rubber were also sequenced under Alam’s leadership. Alam’s work on genome sequencing led to a greater understanding of the functions of genes in plants and paved the way for genetic engineering to improve the quality of crops such as jute.
The Father of Thai orchids
Rapee Sagarik (4 December 1922 – 17 February 2018) was Thailand’s renowned expert on orchids. Sagarik dedicated his career to the research of native orchids in Thailand. He served as the president of Kasetsart University from 1972 to 1980 and was also the Deputy Minister of Agriculture. Sagarik’s interest in orchids began as a boy, when he nursed some sick orchids back to health. Through his research on orchids, especially in the development of hybrid flowers, Sagarik helped to establish the orchid industry in Thailand, now the world’s leading exporter of orchids. He started the first orchid library in Thailand and founded the Orchid Society of Thailand. A variety of orchid, the Pecteilis sagarikii Seident, has been named in his honour.
The father of videoconferencing
Gregorio Y. Zara (8 March 1902 – 15 October 1978) was a Filipino engineer and physicist best remembered for inventing the first two-way video telephone. Zara’s video telephone invention enabled the caller and recipient to see each other while conversing, laying the foundation for video-conferencing. Zara was an outstanding student who graduated valedictorian in elementary and high school before obtaining a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He went on to graduate with highest distinction in aeronautical engineering and physics from the University of Michigan and the University of Paris, respectively. Zara held 30 patents for devices and equipment. Other notable creations include an induction compass used by pilots for direction, a solar-powered water heater and an alcohol-fuelled aeroplane engine. Zara also discovered a law of electrical kinetic resistance known as the Zara effect.
A true Renaissance man
Salimuzzaman Siddiqui (19 October 1897 – 14 April 1994) was an artist and chemist from Pakistan whose research focused on natural products from plants. While studying chemistry at the University of Frankfurt, Siddiqui’s paintings were exhibited in art galleries alongside renowned artists. In his career, Siddiqui isolated medicinal compounds from native plants in Asia such as Neem (Azadirachta indica) and the devil pepper (Rauwolfia), discovering nine new alkaloid compounds from Rauwolfia. Siddiqui also discovered that compounds extracted from a medicinal plant called Holarrhena antidysenterica could treat dysentery, an inflammatory disease affecting the intestine. Siddiqui established several science councils, societies and research institutes in Pakistan. For his accomplishments in art and science, Siddiqui is often hailed as a visionary and a true Renaissance man.
The engineer whose alloys made aircraft fly faster
Abdus Suttar Khan (c. 1941 – 31 January 2008) was a Bangladeshi engineer who spent a significant part of his career conducting aerospace research with NASA, United Technology and Alstom. Khan invented more than forty alloys for commercial applications in space shuttles, jet engines and industrial gas turbines. The alloys were designed to be used at high temperatures, such as gas turbine blades and jet engines. They were also coated with environmentally resistant coatings. By making engines lighter, these alloys enabled aircraft to fly faster. One of Khan’s inventions, high strength nickel alloys, increased fuel efficiency of F-15 and F-16 fighter engines. Khan held more than 30 patents and received several awards from NASA, the US Air Force, United Technology and Alstom. Khan was also actively involved in serving the Asian community in the United States, such as raising money for Bangladeshi flood victims in 1991.
The presidential engineer
Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie (25 June 1936 – 11 September 2019) was an Indonesian engineer who was President of Indonesia from 1998 to 1999. Before venturing into politics, Habibie worked for German aircraft manufacturing company Messerschmitt to develop the Airbus A-300B aircraft. As an aeronautics engineer in Germany, he developed theories on thermodynamics, construction and aerodynamics, which became known as the Habibie Factor, Habibie Theorem and Habibie Method, respectively. Upon returning to Indonesia, Habibie became a government adviser and chief of a new aerospace company. Later, he headed the Agency for Technology Evaluation and Application. In these roles, Habibie supervised the heavy machinery, steel, electronics and telecommunications industries as well as unveiled the first aeroplane developed in Indonesia.
The vitamin pioneer
Umetaro Suzuki (7 April 1874 – 20 September 1943) was a Japanese scientist best remembered for his research on beriberi, a disease caused by vitamin B1 deficiency, characterized by limb stiffness, paralysis and pain. Suzuki discovered that consumption of rice bran prevented beriberi and was the first to successfully extract vitamin B1 from rice bran. Through experiments, Suzuki confirmed that vitamin B1 was essential to prevent beriberi, thus laying the foundation for vitamin science. Suzuki’s findings were initially dismissed by the medical community which thought beriberi was caused by microbial infection, until biochemist Casimir Funk reported he had crystallized a vitamin B compound from rice bran. In addition to isolating vitamin B1, Suzuki also extracted vitamin A from cod liver oil and invented a synthetic saké that did not require preservatives.
The immunologists who studied allergic reactions
Husband and wife team, Kimishige (3 December 1925 – 6 July 2018) and Teruko Ishizaka (28 September 1926 – 4 June 2019) discovered the antibody class Immunoglobulin E (IgE) that triggers allergic reactions. They also discovered that IgE antibodies attach to white blood cells, known as mast cells, releasing histamine, which causes allergic reactions. A pioneer of her time, Teruko earned a M.D. and Ph.D. in medical science from the Tokyo’s Women’s Medical University and from the University of Tokyo respectively. Teruko was the head of the Division of Allergy at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, while Kimishige was the first scientific director of the institute. The Ishizakas supported young scientists and encouraged a collaborative spirit among the researchers at the institute. On retirement, the couple moved to Teruko’s hometown, Yamagata, Japan, where Kimishige was a specially invited professor at Yamagata University. Throughout their careers, the duo co-authored over 100 papers and reviews on allergy-related topics and won several awards. (Photo courtesy of Yamagata University, Faculty of Medicine)
The biochemist who uncovered protein unfolding
Hsien Wu (24 November 1893 – 8 August 1959) is widely regarded as the founder of biochemistry and nutrition science in China. He was the first to propose that protein denaturation was caused by the unfolding of the protein, instead of chemical alteration. He also developed the first assay to measure blood-glucose, known as the Folin-Wu method. Wu noticed that many Chinese were malnourished and suspected that it was due to their unbalanced vegetarian diet. By studying the relationship between food and human health, Wu found that protein combinations were critical for a balanced diet and set up nutritional guidelines for a complete diet. The findings, together with an analysis of the food composition in China and a nutrition survey, were the first systematic study of nutrition in China. Wu was a prolific researcher who published 163 papers in areas such as protein denaturation, nutrition and immunochemistry.
The founder of the Ramachandran plot
Gopalasamudram Narayanan Ramachandran (8 October 1922 – 7 April 2001) is best known for developing the Ramachandran plot to understand the structure of short chains of amino acids, known as peptides. He was also the first to propose the triple-helical model for the structure of collagen. Most of Ramachandran’s major discoveries were made when India had just achieved independence, a time when scientific research was a low priority. Ramanchandran established the molecular biophysics departments at the University of Madras and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, which have become internationally recognized centres for biophysics research and graduate education in India.
The mathematical genius with no formal training
Srinivasa Ramanujan (22 December 1887 – 26 April 1920) was a math prodigy and widely considered one of India’s greatest mathematicians. Despite having almost no formal training in mathematics, he made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series and continued fractions. His most famous achievements include the Ramanujan Conjecture, a mathematical statement that has not been fully proven, and the Hardy-Ramanujan number 1729, the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. In his short life, Ramanujan recorded thousands of results in three notebooks and a sheaf of papers (the fourth lost notebook). His notebooks, known as Ramanujan notebooks, still inspire mathematical works decades later.
The botanist who sweetened sugarcane
Janaki Ammal Edavalath Kakkat (4 November 1897 – 7 February 1984) was an Indian botanist who studied plant chromosomes and genetics. When she was a child. Kakkat’s parents encouraged her intellectual pursuits. After several teaching stints in India and US, Kakkat received a fellowship to pursue a Doctor of Science in botany in the US, becoming one of the few Asian women to be conferred a D.Sc. by the University of Michigan. Her research on chromosome numbers in plants was vital in the selection of varieties for cross-breeding to produce sweeter sugarcane. Kakkat created a high-yielding variety of sugarcane, a new variety of eggplant named Janaki Brengal, and a variety of magnolias named Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.
An advocate for science in developing countries
Mohammad Abdus Salam (29 January 1926 – 21 November 1996) was a theoretical physicist and the first Pakistani to receive a Nobel Prize in science. He shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for contributions to the electroweak unification theory, which explains the unity of the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism. For more than 40 years, Salam was a prolific researcher in theoretical elementary particle physics, contributing to many discoveries in the field of subatomic particles. A firm believer that "scientific thought is the common and shared heritage of mankind,” he founded Pakistan's space programme, and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, to support researchers from developing countries.
The father of Raman spectroscopy
Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (7 November 1888 – 21 November 1970) was an Indian physicist who performed ground-breaking research in the field of light-scattering. He is best known for discovering that when light passes through a material, some of the deflected light changes wavelength and amplitude – a phenomenon which became known as Raman scattering. The principles of Raman scattering and the Raman effect are applied in Raman spectroscopy, a technique widely used for analysis and identification of materials. For his pioneering work, Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930.
The mathematician who drew doodles
Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (12 May 1977 – 14 July 2017) was the first and only woman and Iranian to date to win the Fields Medal in 2014 for her work on curved surfaces. She liked to focus on particularly difficult areas of theoretical mathematics and geometry, and in her short life, made several important contributions to understanding mathematical objects called Riemann surfaces. Describing herself as a “slow” mathematician who appreciated the beauty in mathematics, Mirzakhani often drew doodles on sheets of paper and wrote mathematical formulas around the drawings.
The chemist who discovered a new taste
Kikunae Ikeda (8 October 1864 – 3 May 1936) was a Japanese chemist who discovered the fifth basic taste, umami. Ikeda was curious about the chemical basis of taste, especially why his favourite dashi broth made with kombu, a type of kelp, was particularly delicious. After analysing the chemical composition of kombu, Ikeda extracted glutamate, the compound which was responsible for the savoury flavour. Ikeda named the fifth taste umami, meaning savouriness in Japanese. In 1908, Ikeda acquired a patent for the mass production of glutamate and together with Saburosuke Suzuki II, set up the company Ajinomoto to produce glutamate in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG).
"I know only butterflies."
Joo-myung Seok (November 13, 1908 – October 6, 1950) was a Korean butterfly entomologist who made important contributions to the taxonomy of the native butterfly species in Korea. By measuring the wing length and comparing the patterns of over 160,000 cabbage butterflies collected throughout Korea, Seok concluded that about 20 previously classified species were actually all the cabbage white butterfly. Seok organized the butterflies of Korea into about 250 species, a reduction from the 921 species categorized previously. Seok was also a linguist and proponent of non-violence. On October 6, 1950, Joo-myung Seok was mistaken for a communist soldier and shot. It is said that his last words were “I know only butterflies.”
A man of the stars
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (19 October 1910 – 21 August 1995) was an Indian astrophysicist who studied the structure and evolution of stars. Chandrasekhar showed that the mass of a white dwarf star could not exceed 1.4 times that of the sun, otherwise they would explode or form black holes when they died – a metric named the Chandrasekhar limit. For this discovery, Chandrasekhar, along with William A. Fowler, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983. A dedicated mentor who cared for the personal and intellectual well-being of his students, Chandrasekhar taught courses at the University of Chicago while he was working at the Yerkes Observatory.
The botanist who developed the Jeju tangerine
Woo Jang-choon (8 April 1898 – 10 August 1959) was a Korean-Japanese agricultural scientist and botanist. Woo performed horticultural research, first in Japan, then in Korea. Although Woo faced discrimination as a Korean working in Japan, he was a dedicated mentor who guided several Japanese students. When he returned to Korea, Woo developed high quality seeds for staple crops such as cabbages, peppers and onions to improve crop production in South Korea during the 1950s after the country gained independence from Japan. Other significant contributions from his research include disease-resistant seed potatoes as well as the Jeju variety of tangerine.
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The scientist who discovered why jellyfish glow
Osamu Shimomura (27 August 1928 – 19 October 2018) was a Japanese organic chemist and marine biologist who dedicated his career to understanding how organisms emitted light. When he was working at a munitions factory near Nagasaki during World War II, the atomic bomb dropped on the city. Shimomura walked home in a shower of black radioactive rain and may have escaped its deadly effects by taking a quick bath. Shimomura showed that the light-emitting apparatus of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) in jellyfish was contained within the protein, suggesting that the GFP gene may be used as an imaging tool. Since its discovery, the GFP gene has been widely used as a tag to visualize the expression of other genes. For the discovery of GFP, Shimomura, together with Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008.
The palaeontologist who discovered dinosaurs in the Gobi Desert
Rinchen Barsbold (born 21 December 1935) is a Mongolian palaeontologist and geologist who was instrumental in discovering and recovering one of the largest dinosaur collections in the world from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and China. When studying fossils from the Gobi Desert, he observed that many features previously only known from birds were also present in different lineages of theropod dinosaurs. This observation provided early evidence that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs, a theory that has since been established as accurate. His work not only helped clarify late stages of dinosaur evolution in Eurasia, it also advanced Mongolia’s international reputation in the field.
The father of radio science
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose (30 November 1858 – 23 November 1937) was a scientist and inventor who contributed to a wide range of scientific fields such as physics, botany and biology. Throughout his life, Bose conducted research selflessly without desire for personal gains or fame. Bose showed that plants, like animals, react to stimuli through the transmission of electrical impulses. He invented the Crescograph – a device which measures tiny reactions and changes in plant cells in response to stimuli. Bose also made many important contributions to the field of radio science. He developed an improved coherer - a sensitive device to detect radio waves and invented the Crystal Detector, which inspired the first radio receivers. A crater on the moon is named after him. Bose was also a pioneer of science fiction in Indian literature and one of his stories The Story of the Missing won a writing contest organized by a hair-oil company.
The couple who primed DNA replication
Tsuneko (7 June 1933) and Reiji Okazaki (8 October 1930 – 1 August 1975) were a Japanese couple who discovered Okazaki fragments – short sequences of DNA that are synthesized during DNA replication and linked together to form a continuous strand. The couple met in Nagoya University and after obtaining PhDs, started a laboratory to conduct research on DNA replication. Funds were tight and the Okazakis often had to pay for research supplies themselves. After Reiji’s death from leukemia at the age of 44 from radiation exposure during the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II, Tsuneko continued their work, while raising their two children. At the time, female scientists were not recognized as full-fledged researchers in Japan and Tsuneko was encouraged to give up research to raise her young family. With support from the scientific community and a neighbour who helped care for her children, Tsuneko discovered that Okazaki fragments were the starting points of DNA replication. Since then, she has received multiple honours and awards, including the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2000. Tsuneko has advocated for better support for women in science and lower education costs.
The scientist who described stars
Meghnad Saha (6 October 1893 – 16 February 1956) was an Indian astrophysicist best known for formulating the Saha ionization equation which describes the chemical and physical properties of stars. The Saha equation relates the ionization state of a gas to the temperature of the light source. From the equation, the temperature of stars and relative abundance of chemical elements can be investigated from spectroscopic data. Saha was nominated repeatedly but unsuccessfully for the Nobel Prize in Physics. In addition to his contributions to astrophysics, Saha was also active in politics and education. He founded the journal Science and Culture, helmed several research institutes and scientific societies, and was elected to the Parliament of India in 1952.
The biologist who used mathematics to explain evolution
Motoo Kimura (13 November 1924 – 13 November 1994) was a Japanese theoretical population geneticist who is best remembered for developing the neutral theory of molecular evolution. Using diffusion equations to calculate the probability of beneficial, harmful or neutral genetic changes, he combined population genetics with molecular biology to explain that most mutations are neutral and spread through populations by chance. As a young student, Kimura was interested in plants and excelled in Mathematics. While studying the chromosome structure of lilies, Kimura connected his interests in botany and mathematics, becoming one of few biologists who excelled in both fields.
The chemist who studied the structures of pigments
Chika Kuroda (24 March 1884 – 8 November 1968) was a Japanese chemist whose research focussed on the structures of natural pigments. Kuroda determined the molecular structure of shikonin, the pigment in purple gromwell (Lithospermum erythrorhizon) as well as the structure of carthamin, the red pigment in safflower (Carthamus tinctorius). Her extraction of quercetin crystals from onion skin led to the development of the antihypertensive drug Kerutin C. Kuroda was a pioneer in many ways. She was amongst the first female students to be admitted to Tohoku Imperial University when it started accepting females and became the first woman in Japan to receive a Bachelor of Science. Kuroda was also the second woman in Japan to receive a doctorate in Science.
The chemist who probed the origins of life
Cyril Andrew Ponnamperuma (16 October 1923 – 20 December 1994) was a Sri Lankan chemist who was interested in the origins of life on Earth. His research in chemical evolution showed how inanimate molecules may have given rise to the building blocks of life – a process known as abiogenesis. About 4 billion years ago, chemicals from Earth’s atmosphere came in contact with energy in warm oceans. In this “primordial soup”, atoms and molecules came together to form the precursors of life, which subsequently evolved into living things. While at Ames Laboratory, Ponnamperuma synthesized the building blocks of RNA and DNA as well as the universal energy currency ATP, further showing that organic matter may have originated from chemical compounds. Later in his career, Ponnamperuma embraced the idea that hydrothermal deep-sea vents were the cradles of life, where early organisms exploited chemical gradients to drive synthesis of ATP. Further investigations into the origins of life are ongoing. Ponnamperuma was also actively involved in astrobiology research and was the principal investigator for analysis of lunar soil brought to Earth by Project Apollo.
The scientist who discovered artemisinin
Tu Youyou (born 30 December 1930) is a Chinese pharmaceutical scientist who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on extracting artemisin from sweet wormwood to treat malaria. Tu performed her research during the Cultural Revolution in China, when scientists were persecuted. Trained in traditional Chinese medicine, she screened over 2,000 traditional Chinese recipes and made 380 herbal extracts, from 200 herbs, before discovering that artemisinin from sweet wormwood could inhibit the malaria parasite. Her work has helped save millions of lives in South China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America where malaria is prevalent. Photo shows her talking with her tutor Lou Zhicen at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in the 1950s.
The father of fibre optics
Charles Kuen Kao (Nov. 4, 1933 to Sept. 23, 2018) was an engineer who is regarded as the father of fibre optics. His work in the 1960s on long distance signal transmission using very pure glass fibres revolutionized telecommunications, enabling innovations such as the Internet. Kao shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for this achievement. Born in Shanghai, he lived and worked in Hong Kong, the UK, Europe and the US, including at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory and The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
A woman ahead of her time
Indian organic chemist Asima Chatterjee (1917 to 2006) studied the medicinal properties of plant products, especially compounds known as vinca alkaloids. Growing up, she shared her father’s interest in botany and pursued higher education during a period when it was unusual for women to attend university. In 1944, she became the first woman in India to be awarded a Doctor of Science. Chatterjee’s research led to the development of an anti-epileptic drug, Ayush-56, as well as several antimalarial drugs. A prolific scientist, Chatterjee published approximately 400 papers in national and international journals.
Sparking the cultured pearl industry
The techniques that make industrial pearl culturing possible were developed over a century ago at the Misaki Marine Biological Station in Japan. Founded in 1886, MMBS is one of the world’s oldest marine stations and is part of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Science. The station’s first director, Professor Kakichi Mitsukuri, emphasized to Kokichi Mikimoto in 1890 that stimulating pearl sac formation was important for pearl growth, and they went on to successfully develop methods for culturing pearls. Their achievements are credited with laying the foundation for today’s pearl farming industry.
Nobel-worthy cancer research
In 1915, pathologist Katsusaburo Yamagiwa and his research assistant Koichi Ichikawa became the first to prove that chronic exposure to chemicals can cause cancer. At Tokyo Imperial University, they induced tumour growth by rubbing coal tar on rabbit ears. Yamagiwa was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1925, 1926 and 1928, and again in 1936 with Ichikawa. They lost out to another scientist whose cancer research was soon found to be wrong, yet the prize was maintained. Today, the first samples of induced tumour are displayed in specimen rooms at the University of Tokyo and Hokkaido University, where Ichikawa worked in veterinarian medicine and comparative pathology.
Solid state ionics
Takehiko Takahashi of Nagoya University was the first to coin the term ‘solid ionics’ in 1967. The field of solid-state ionics originated in Europe, but Takehiko Takahashi of Nagoya University in Japan was the first to coin the term ‘solid ionics’ in 1967. ‘Solid-state ionics’ first appeared in 1971 in another of his papers, and was likely a play on ‘solid-state electronics’, another rapidly growing field at the time. Over the decades, Japanese researchers have expanded the understanding of ionic conduction in solid compounds involving lithium, sodium-sulphur and perovskite structures, which led to the development of a variety of sensors and batteries.
Who was Ali?
Little is known about Ali, a teenager from Sarawak, Malaysia, who was chief assistant to the famous naturalist Alfred Wallace. Most of what is known comes from Wallace’s writings. Ali accompanied Wallace on expeditions throughout the Malay Archipelago from December 1855 to February 1862. Initially employed as a servant and cook, he became Wallace’s most trusted assistant. Ali’s skill and dedication to collecting bird specimens enabled several important scientific contributions, including the discovery of the Wallace’s Standardwing (Semioptera wallacii). This photograph is the only known image of Ali.
The inventor of Prozac
David T. Wong (born 1936) is a Hong Kong-born American neuroscientist who is best known for discovering the antidepressant drug fluoxetine, better known as Prozac. He was inspired to become a researcher at Eli Lilly and Company after seeing the company’s logo on his grandmother’s diabetes medication. During his 32-year career there, he initiated studies on uptake processes of monoamine compounds, which led to Wong and his colleagues discovering fluoxetine, which has been used to treat millions of patients with depression. Wong also discovered the antidepressants duloxetine and dapoxetine, and the compound atomoxetine, which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Presently, Wong serves as a consultant to several pharmaceutical companies.
The first artificial snowflake
Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya (1900-1962) made the world’s first artificial snowflakes. He started his research on snow crystals in the early 1930s at Hokkaido University, where there is an unlimited supply of natural snow in winter. By taking over 3,000 photographs, he established a classification of natural snow crystals and described their relationship with weather conditions. His work still remains a primary reference on crystal shapes. In 1936, after several years of research, he successfully produced the first artificial snow crystal on the tip of a single rabbit hair in his laboratory. "Snowflakes are letters sent from heaven," he wrote in his book “Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial”. Learn more about Hokkaido University's Low Temperature Science.
A hero of the fibre optics revolution
Physicist Narinder Singh Kapany (31 October 1926 – 4 December 2020) pioneered the use of optical fibres to transmit images, and founded several optical technology companies. Born in Punjab, India, he worked at a local optical instruments factory before moving to London for PhD studies at Imperial College. There, he devised a flexible fibrescope to convey images along bundles of glass fibres. This became the precursor to modern endoscopes. Kapany’s innovations made possible other biomedical applications such as imaging live tissue and repairing detached retinas using lasers. Following engineer Charles Kao’s demonstration that optic fibres could be used in telecommunications, Kapany developed fibre couplers, (de-)multiplexers and amplifiers to improve information transmission. Kapany was also an astute entrepreneur who founded several companies including Optics Technology, Kaptron, and K2 Optronics. (Photo courtesy UC Santa Cruz)
An educator for life
Chinese physicist Xie Xide (19 March 1921 – 4 March 2000) was an influential educator and one of China’s pioneer researchers of solid-state physics. A promising student, Xie was awarded a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in physics at Smith College in the United States, and earned a PhD in theoretical physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Returning to China, she taught in Fudan University’s physics department from 1952 to 1956. Despite later undergoing several major surgeries, Xie continued teaching and tirelessly championed science. Her book Semiconductor Physics became one of China’s most widely used physics textbooks. In 1977, Xie founded the Fudan Institute of Modern Physics, and served as its director from 1978 to 1983. She also established eight research laboratories in surface physics. As President of Fudan University, Xie encouraged teachers and students to study abroad and trained several scientists in the semiconductor field. “As long as my heart is still beating, I will always fight for the progress of science,” Xie said. An educator until the end, she donated her body to scientific research after her death. (Photo courtesy of Fudan University)
The doctor behind the surgical mask
Wu Lien-teh (10 March 1879 – 21 January 1960) was a Malaysian-born doctor who invented a mask that effectively suppressed disease transmission. Winning the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship enabled Wu to become the first Chinese student to study medicine at the University of Cambridge. The Chinese government later enlisted Wu to investigate the 1910-1911 pneumonic plague in Manchuria. After Wu established that the disease was spread by airborne droplets, he designed a mask with layers of gauze and cotton to filter the air. That mask is thought to have inspired the design of the current-day N95 mask. Wu took several other decisive actions that curbed the death rate and helped snuff out the Manchuria epidemic within seven months. He instructed that plague victims be hospitalised, their homes disinfected, and contact with others prohibited. He also called for cremating the bodies of those who succumbed to the disease, since rats rummaging among unburied bodies appeared to spread the disease. Over a century later, it’s clear that Wu’s approach to disease control set a valuable example for public health officials wrestling with threats including COVID-19.
The founder of Yakult
Minoru Shirota (April 23, 1899 – March 10, 1982) was a Japanese microbiologist who invented the popular fermented drink Yakult. Shirota’s early concerns with poor nutrition and the unsanitary conditions that caused many Japanese children to die from infectious diseases, prompted him to study medicine at Kyoto Imperial University. Shirota believed in the potential of preventive medicine to improve people’s health. He discovered that a type of beneficial bacteria, lactobacillus, could suppress harmful bacteria in the intestines. Shirota successfully cultured a strain of lactobacillus – known as Lactobacillus casei – that is resistant to stomach acid and can reach the intestines alive. He subsequently began sales of a fermented beverage, Yakult, containing the newly isolated strain. In this way, Shirota transformed his discovery into a practical means of helping people maintain good gut health. (Photo courtesy of Yakult)
The king of acupuncture
After witnessing death and suffering as a youth in his home village during World War II, Nguyễn Tài Thu (6 April 1931 – 14 February 2021) set his sights on alleviating pain by becoming a doctor. After studying Traditional Chinese Medicine in China in the 1950s, Thu returned to Vietnam to serve in military hospitals. Eventually, he became the country’s foremost practitioner of acupuncture, a technique he first learned by inserting needles into himself. Treating injured soldiers, Thu used acupuncture to relieve pain without relying on drugs. He later used acupuncture to treat drug addiction, and also developed a technique called tân châm (renew acupuncture), using long needles to stimulate acupuncture points deep in the body to shorten treatment time. Thu taught acupuncture to many students from all over the world and in 1982 founded the Central Acupuncture Hospital in Vietnam to promote its use. In recognition of his contributions to the field, Thu is known as the “King of Acupuncture”.
The angel of Santo Tomas
Fe Villanueva del Mundo (27 November 1911 – 6 August 2011) was a Filipina paediatrician who founded the Philippines’ first paediatric hospital. The death of her older sister, who had wanted to become a doctor, spurred del Mundo to become a physician. She graduated top of her class at the University of the Philippines, and in 1936 became the first female student to attend Harvard Medical School. Returning to the Philippines during World War II and volunteering for the International Red Cross, del Mundo cared for children of foreigners in an internment camp at the University of Santo Tomas, earning her the name “The Angel of Santo Tomas”. Frustrated by the scarcity of hospital beds while running a government-funded children’s hospital, she sold her home and possessions to build the first children’s hospital in the Philippines, the Children’s Medical Center in Quezon City. In a career spanning eighty years until her death a few months short of 100 years old, del Mundo brought healthcare services to rural regions of the Philippines. She invented an incubator made from bamboo to keep infants warm in villages lacking electrical power.
The father of hybrid rice
Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping (7 September 1930 – 22 May 2021) developed the first varieties of the high-yield, hybrid rice that brought food security to multiple countries including China, which had been ravaged by food shortages as recently as the mid-20th century. Yuan began his pioneering research on hybrid rice in 1964 after a famine in China, leading to his team’s successful cultivation of the high-yield strain in 1973. The increased yield of hybrid rice helps to feed an extra 80 million people a year in China, and is currently grown in more than 60 countries around the world, providing a robust food source in areas at high risk of famine. For the rest of his career, Yuan researched and developed better rice varieties. At the time of his passing, he was developing varieties capable of growing in high salt and alkaline conditions. For his contributions to food security, Yuan—widely known as the “father of hybrid rice”—won the World Food Prize in 2004. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs has called Yuan “a true food hero”. An asteroid was also named for him.
A pioneer of parasitology
Korean parasitologist Seung-Yull Cho (16 November 1943 – 27 January 2019) is remembered largely for his pioneering works to control infections caused by helminthic parasites and his contribution to journal publishing. The soil-transmitted nematodes such as Ascaris, hookworm, and Trichuris were commonplace in Korea when Cho was a student. Trained as a scientist at Seoul National University’s Department of Parasitology, Cho later became professor of parasitology at institutions including Seoul National University, Chung-Ang University, the Catholic University of Korea, and Sungkyunkwan University. Besides developing methods of infection control, Cho improved the diagnosis of these life-threatening, foodborne parasitic infections by developing means to detect antibodies produced by the host when infected by the pork tapeworm, the Japanese lung fluke, and the sparganum tapeworm. The multi-antigen ELISA system developed by him is still working as a standard diagnosis of tissue parasitic helminthiases in Korea. A prolific scientist with a lifelong devotion to advancing medical science in Korea, Cho published approximately 300 papers on parasitology in scientific journals, and served as President of the Korean Society for Parasitology and of Korea’s National Academy of Medicine. In addition to his work on parasites, Cho made huge contributions to medical publishing in Korea. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Korean Medical Science from 1997 to 2006. With other editors of Korean medical journals, Cho founded the Korean Association of Medical Journal Editors in 1996, providing a firm foundation for the publication of medical journals in Korea. He served as President of the Korean Association of Medical Journal Editors from 2002 to 2005. He is a leader of research and publishing of medical science in Korea. (Photo courtesy of Journal of Korean Medical Science)
The biochemist who paved the way for India’s female researchers
In 1939, biochemist Kamala Sohonie (18 June 1911 – 28 June 1998) became the first woman to be accepted into the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Born in Indore, Madhya Pradesh to a family of distinguished chemists, Sohonie wanted to follow in her father’s and uncle’s professional footsteps. Although she topped her class at university, her research fellowship application to IISc was rejected by the institute’s director, who believed women were not sufficiently competent to conduct research. Determined to continue her studies, Sohonie staged a peaceful protest and the director, C.V. Raman, agreed to accept her into the institution. But there were several conditions attached: Sohonie would be on probation for a year until Raman deemed her work worthy; she would work whenever her mentor required her to, irrespective of time of day; and she would not be a “distraction” to male researchers. Sohonie was the first scientist to characterise the proteins in pulses, a type of legume commonly eaten in India. Her research impressed Raman so much that he began accepting women into the program. In 1937, Sohonie received a research scholarship to complete her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, where she discovered cytochrome C, an enzyme important for energy generation, found in all plant cells. When she returned to India, Sohonie studied the effects of vitamins and how to accurately quantify vitamin content in foods. She and her students also examined the nutritional value of foods commonly eaten by India’s poorest citizens. Sohonie discovered that an inexpensive dietary supplement, palm nectar-- also known as Neera-- significantly improved the health of malnourished children and pregnant women. Sohonie passed away in 1998, shortly after having been honoured by the Indian Council of Medical Research.
The pharmacist who saved babies’ lives
Filipino chemist and pharmacist Manuel A. Zamora (29 March 1870 – 9 July 1929) is best remembered for his discovery of the tiki-tiki formula to combat beriberi, a disease caused by Vitamin B1 deficiency. As an undergraduate student, Zamora was already a promising scientist who won several awards for his research before he graduated. In 1908, he established a drugstore and laboratory on Hidalgo Street in old downtown Manila, where he dedicated much of his time to developing what would become tiki-tiki, a Vitamin B1-rich supplement made from rice bran. His invention saved the lives of many infants in the Philippines who suffered from beriberi due to their consumption of polished rice, which lacks Vitamin B1. Zamora also helped to establish the Philippine Pharmaceutical Association, and in 1921 he was appointed the first dean of the college of Pharmacy at the Centro Escolar University (CEU).
A founding father of Chinese anthropology
Chinese palaeontologist, archaeologist and anthropologist Pei Wenzhong (January 19, 1904 – September 18, 1982) is regarded as a founder of Chinese anthropology. After graduating from Peking University in 1928, Pei joined the project at Zhoukoudian to excavate the Peking Man, the fossilised remains of an extinct hominin species thought to be an ancestor of modern humans. Enduring difficult conditions at the excavation site, Pei recovered the first fossil skull of Peking Man while "working in a 40-meter crevasse in frigid weather with a hammer in one hand and a candle in the other.” Known for his willingness to work hard, Pei had few hobbies apart from his job. Besides the Peking Man, Pei also discovered and classified the small, extinct "Zhoukoudian wolf" (Canis lupus variabilis). In 1955, Pei was elected as a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and he became the first Chairman of the Chinese Association of Natural Science Museums. Among his several books is the first Chinese-language prehistory of China.
Bringing rice science into the public eye
Research by Filipino plant scientist Benito Vergara (23 June 1934 – 24 October 2015) on the physiology of rice led to the development of deep-water and cold-tolerant rice varieties. Vergara also made several contributions to expanding public awareness of rice science. With a PhD in Plant Physiology from the University of Chicago, Vergara spent most of his career at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). There, he applied his understanding of the flowering responses of the rice plant to identifying cold-tolerant varieties. He also developed a breeding methodology known as the Rapid Generation Advance to enhance varieties of rice grown in cold areas, and devised a model for developing a high-yield rice known as “super rice”. In addition, he contributed to pioneering research into the effects of ozone depletion in the atmosphere on rice growth and yields. Vergara published more than 100 scientific publications and wrote the book A Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice to enable farmers to easily understand the science of rice cultivation. By establishing the Riceworld Museum and Learning Centre, Vergara brought rice science and growing closer to the popular consciousness. He was also instrumental in designing the NAST Philippine Science Heritage Center (PSHC) or Salinlahi, to highlight the achievements of Filipino scientists. For his work in plant physiology, Vergara was elected a member of the Philippines’ National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) in 1987, and was conferred the title of National Scientist in 2001 in the Philippines. (Photo courtesy of International Rice Research Institute)
The muscle protein pioneer
Chinese biochemist Cao Tianqin (5 December 1920 – 8 January 1995) discovered the myosin light chain, a subunit of myosin, a protein crucial for muscle contraction. Working in a leather processing factory during the Second Sino-Japanese War spurred Cao’s interest in leather protein. At the end of World War II, Cao received a British Council scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge, where he discovered the myosin light chain. When he returned to China, Cao continued his research on muscle proteins at the Shanghai Institute of Physiology and Biochemistry. He and his students pioneered the study of the muscle proteins tropomyosin and paramyosin using electron microscopes. A passionate teacher, Cao is remembered by his students as a lively lecturer who explained DNA and proteins using references to Romeo and Juliet and the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classic text. In 1960, Cao was appointed Vice President of the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry. He was also an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.
The chemist dedicated to education
Eminent Filipina scientist and educator Clara Lim-Sylianco (18 August 1925 – 23 July 2013) is remembered for her extensive research on mutagens – often-carcinogenic agents that permanently alter genetic materials such as DNA – antimutagens and bioorganic mechanisms. She also wrote many chemistry textbooks, some of which remain in use today. Drawing on both organic chemistry and biochemistry, Lim-Sylianco’s research advanced the understanding of specific areas of study including environmental mutagens and the mutagenicity of medical plants found in the Philippines. She published over 50 scientific articles, seven books and five monographs on research encompassing organic chemistry, biochemistry, genetic toxicology and molecular nutrition. In 1958, Lim-Sylianco became a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1977 she received the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology’s Gregorio Y. Zara Award. Lim-Sylianco was also recognised as a National Scientist of the Philippines, the highest award accorded to Filipino scientists by the Philippine government.
Fighting for her country and against hunger
Filipina chemist María Orosa (29 November 1892–13 February 1945) fought malnutrition and food insecurity in the Philippines by devising over 700 culinary creations including Soyalac, a nutrient rich drink made from soybeans, and Darak, rice cookies packed with Vitamin B1, which could prevent beriberi disease caused by Vitamin B1 deficiency. She was also a partisan of the guerrilla movement resisting Japanese occupation during World War II, and died after being struck by shrapnel while working in her laboratory during the Battle of Manila. Orosa completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry, along with a Bachelor’s degree in food chemistry, at the University of Washington. In addition to putting her training to work by creating enriched foods, she also invented an iconic banana ketchup made from banana, sugar, vinegar and spices. During World War II, she devised a process for canning food, which helped the Philippines become self-sufficient. Her multiple food innovations reduced the reliance of the Philippines on foreign imports and helped to save the lives of thousands of Filipinos during the war. ( Photo courtesy of the Orosa family)
The expert on flying dinosaurs and egg-thief lizards
Lü Junchang (1965–9 October 2018) was a Chinese palaeontologist who is remembered as one of the most important dinosaur researchers of the last 50 years. Lü was an expert on reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic period about 252 million years ago. Cumulatively, Lü and his colleague/competitor Xiaolin Wang described and named more than 50 new species of flying dinosaurs known as pterosaurs. Among Lü’s most famous finds is Darwinopterus which had the characteristics of two pterosaur groups. A Darwinopterus fossil discovered by Lü suggested that the dinosaur died laying an egg, providing the first evidence of gender in pterosaurs. Lü was also a leading authority on oviraptorosaurs or “egg-thief lizards.” He and his colleague described the unusually tiny oviraptorosaur Yulong mini. Lü also facilitated the return of an oviraptorosaur embryo, nicknamed Baby Louie, to China where it was fully described.
The physician who tamed a deadly disease
Indian scientist and physician Upendranath Brahmachari (19 December 1873–6 February 1946) is best known for creating a drug called Urea Stibamine, used to safely and reliably treat visceral leishmaniasis (or Kala-azar), a severe infection caused by the Leishmania parasite. Kala-azar was later named Brahmachari Leishmanoid in his honour. Brahmachari was nominated for the Nobel Prize twice, in 1929 and 1942, almost winning India’s first Nobel Prize in Medicine. In addition to these landmark accomplishments, Brahmachari made significant contributions to understanding other deadly diseases including malaria, black-water fever, and cerebrospinal meningitis. Having synthesized Urea Stibamine in a poorly-equipped hospital room, Brahmachari later mused that eliminating visceral leishmaniasis would be “the happiest and proudest day of my life if it falls to my lot to see it.” Indeed, the compound, considered the most potent drug against the Leishmania parasite, has led to the successful treatment of millions of Indians suffering from Kala-azar. Brahmachari sold Urea Stibamine to the government at cost price and donated generously to several public institutions. In addition, this committed humanitarian established India’s first blood bank in Calcutta in 1939, and was instrumental in launching the Blood Transfusion Service of Bengal and the St. John Ambulance of Bengal.
The first Nobel Prize laureate in Chemistry from Asia
Japanese chemist Kenichi Fukui (4 October 1918 – 9 January 1998) was the first Asian scientist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Together with Roald Hoffman, he received this honour in 1981 for his independent research into the mechanisms of chemical reactions. When Fukui was a student, learning about quantum mechanics and the Schrödinger equation stimulated his interest in science. It was then that Fukui developed a belief that breakthroughs in science occur at the unexpected intersections of remotely related fields. Although chemistry was not his favourite subject, Fukui decided to join the Department of Industrial Chemistry at the Kyoto Imperial University on the advice of Professor Gen-itsu Kita. In 1952, Fukui developed a theory that showed that the properties of the orbits of electrons (the areas around the nucleus of an atom where an electron is most likely to be found) that are most weakly bonded to the atom are crucial in understanding chemical reactions. This was among the insights that led to Fukui being awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
The physicist who built her career on clay
Purnima Sinha (12 October 1927 – 11 July 2015), the first Bengali woman to receive a doctorate in physics, analysed clay structures using x-ray equipment that she built from salvaged World War II-era parts. Her later work at Stanford University’s 'Origin of Life' project uncovered a connection between the X-ray structure of clay and the patterns in DNA. Growing up in a progressive family that rejected the strictly-defined female roles of the day enabled Sinha and her sisters to pursue their interests in science. Sinha earned a Master’s degree in Physics from Calcutta University, where her passion for the subject caught the attention of Satyendra Nath Bose, best known for his research on quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Bose suggested that Sinha’s doctoral work should examine the structure of clay from different parts of India, using techniques such as thermal and chemical analysis and X-ray scattering. Her subsequent efforts led to a complete classification of more than fifty clay samples. Outside the laboratory, Sinha translated science books into Bengali. She was also a talented musician who played the tabla, a percussion instrument usually played by men.
Revealing the physics of popcorn
South Korean theoretical physicist Daniel Chonghan Hong (3 March 1956 – 6 July 2002) achieved fame in the public sphere through his research into the physics of popcorn. Hong was also the first proponent of the diffusing void model of granular flow, which describes how granular materials such as particles move in a confined space. As a scientist, Hong enjoyed relating his research to everyday phenomena, in order to make the research more understandable, and he possessed an uncanny ability to explain the simple physics behind complex observations. His study on the physics of popcorn resulted in a published paper on controlling the size of popcorn by monitoring the pressure of the cooking chamber. The study attracted the attention of media around the world. Hong was also a science writer who tackled a variety of topics ranging from natural sciences to philosophy.
The doctor who championed wildlife protection in Thailand
Thai physician and conservationist Boonsong Lekagul (15 December 1907 – 9 February 1992) made major contributions to the preservation of his country’s wildlife by founding organizations including the Association for the Conservation of Wildlife (ACW), writing about Thailand’s natural heritage, and supporting conservation initiatives. Trained as a medical doctor, Lekagul also established Thailand’s first polyclinic in Bangkok in 1935. An avid hunter at first, Lekagul turned his attention to conservation when he realised that Thailand’s forests were becoming fragmented, threatening its wildlife. In the mid-1950s, he and the ACW lobbied for a bird sanctuary on the banks of the Chao Phraya River to protect the country’s only known openbill stork nesting site. In 1962, Lekagul founded the Bangkok Bird Club, now known as the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, and worked closely with the International Council for Bird Preservation, now BirdLife International, and the World Wildlife Fund to conserve Thailand’s birds and nature. Passionate about education and outreach, Lekagul published conservation news in English and Thai and created educational pamphlets on the topic for school children. Among his works are Bird Guide of Thailand, the Field Guide tothe Butterflies of Thailand, and Mammals of Thailand. A talented artist, Lekagul also created the illustrations for his publications. In recognition of Lekagul's contributions as a conservationist, several animals have been named for him, including two species of birds, a bat, a squirrel and a snake. (Photo courtesy of The Bird Conservation Society of Thailand)
A Nobel Prize winner who opposed nuclear weapons
Shinichiro Tomonaga (31 March 1906 – 8 July 1979), together with Richard Feynman and Julian Schwinger, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, for their contributions to advance the field of quantum electrodynamics. Tomonaga was also a strong proponent of peace, who actively campaigned against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and promoted the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Tomonaga’s research established the basic principles of quantum electrodynamics and resolved some of the field’s key problems. For his scientific contributions, the physicist received many awards and honours, including the Japan Academy Prize, the Order of Culture of Japan and the Lomonosov Gold Medal, bestowed by the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was also the president of the Tokyo University of Education from 1956 to 1962 and chairman of the Japan Science Council. (Photo courtesy of Japan Information Centre, London)
Exploring the medicinal potential of native plants
The research of Filipino pharmaceutical chemist Luz Oliveros-Belardo (3 November 1906 – 12 December 1999) focussed on essential oils and other chemicals derived from native Philippine plants. In a career that spanned five decades, Oliveros-Belardo extracted 33 new essential oils for use in pharmaceuticals, in food production, as scents, and in other applications. She found that compounds in lemongrass such as potassium citrate may be effective at treating high blood pressure. She also investigated the anti-cancer properties of the alkaloids, glycosides, terpenoids, sterols, fatty acids, and volatile oil extracted from the periwinkle plant. Oleoresin, extracted from Apitong, a tree commonly used to make charcoal, paper pulp, and timber in Southeast Asia, was used by Oliveras Belardo as a component in motor fuel. For her extensive research on herbal medicine and plant extracts, Oliveros-Belardo was recognised as a National Scientist of the Philippines in 1987, the highest award accorded to Filipino scientists by the Philippine government. (Photo courtesy of The National Academy of Science and Technology)
The visionary who studied ancient plants
Birbal Sahni (14 November 1891 – 10 April 1949), a pioneer of Indian palaeobotanical research, and founder of what is now the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, made multiple contributions to the study of prehistoric plants. These include the discovery of a new group of fossil gymnosperms (named Pentoxylae), reconstruction of the extinct Williamsonia sewardiana plant, and description of a new type of petrified wood from the Jurassic age. As a child, Sahni went on many trips with his family to Bhera, a region close to the Khewra Salt Mine, famous for its production of pink Himalayan salt. The geological features of the area are believed to have inspired the young Sahni’s fascination with geology, while his interest in science was influenced by his grandfather, an amateur chemist, and his father, Indian meteorologist Ruchi Ram Sahni. After studying with the well-known botanist Shiv Ram Kashyap at the Government College, Sahni moved to England to pursue studies in botany. There, he was invited to revise a book on botany for Indian students. A prolific researcher, Sahni is remembered for his many contributions to palaeobotany, and as an astute observer with a remarkable ability to apply theories to his observations. After examining coniferous wood remains from Harappa, for example, Sahni inferred that there were likely trade links between Harappa people and people in the mountains where conifers grew. The Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, created shortly before his death, was founded on his vision of coordinating palaeobotanical research through international goodwill and cultural cooperation. (Photo courtesy The Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences)
Uncovering the link between viruses and cancer
Ground-breaking cancer researcher Kamal Jayasing Ranadive (8 November 1917 – 11 April 2001) advanced the understanding of the causes of leukaemia, breast cancer and oesophageal cancer through the use of animal models. She was also among the first to recognise how susceptibility to cancer is linked to tumour-causing interactions between hormones and viruses. Trained as a botanist, before turning her attention to tissue culture, Ranadive returned to India after a postdoctoral stint at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Back in her homeland, she established the country’s first tissue culture laboratory at the Indian Cancer Research Centre. The lab’s renown in the field was due, in part, to Ranadive’s talent for recognising scientific talent and her efforts to encourage researchers to work in various areas of cancer biology. Ranadive also contributed to the development of a leprosy vaccine through her research into the leprosy-causing Mycobacterium leprae bacterium. With the goal of promoting public knowledge of science, especially among women and children, she founded the Indian Women Scientists’ Association (IWSA). After retirement, Ranadive worked to improve the health of women and children in Maharashtra’s rural communities by providing health and nutrition education, and by training women as healthcare workers.
The father of the Malaysian rubber industry
Known as Mr. Natural Rubber, chemist and researcher B. C. Shekhar (17 November 1929 – 6 September 2006) introduced a number of technical innovations that helped put Malaysia’s natural rubber industry on the world map. A firm believer in fair employment, Sekhar also championed the rights of Malaysian plantation workers, ensuring that they received a monthly wage and recognition from the government for their contributions to the economy. Starting as a chemist at the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia (RRIM), Shekhar went on to work in the industry for 50 years. Under his leadership as RRIM’s Asian Director, the institute was transformed into a premier centre for natural rubber research. 21 patents were filed during Sekhar’s tenure at RRIM, one of which resulted from his research on the stabilisation of rubber. Sekhar also led research to develop stimulants that greatly increased the latex yield from rubber trees. He was instrumental in inventing and developing the Standard Malaysian Rubber process, which ensured the production of high-quality rubber as a raw material for industrial applications.
Rock researcher wrote the first Chinese palaeontology textbooks
Palaeontologist Yichun Hao (1920 – 2001) co-authored the first Chinese textbooks on palaeontology and micropalaeontology. Her research on Foraminifera – amoeba-like organisms with shells – was vital for the exploration and utilisation of marine energy resources. Hao also made significant contributions to the fields of stratigraphy and palaeontology, petroleum exploration and palaeoceanography. Together with her research team, she mapped the rock layers in the northeast and southwest regions of China. Hao’s academic positions included serving as vice-president of the Palaeontological Society of China, as president of the Micropalaeontological Society of China, and as a member of the International Science Union. In 1980, she became an academician in the Academic Division of Earth Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The first Japanese Nobel laureate
Hideki Yukawa (23 January 1907 – 8 September 1981) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1949 for predicting the existence of the pi meson subatomic particle. Japan’s first Nobel laureate, Yakawa also expressed his support for nuclear disarmament by signing the Russell–Einstein Manifesto in 1955. Despite his talent in mathematics, Yukawa decided against becoming a mathematician after he proved a theorem on a high school exam in a way his teacher wasn’t expecting and the teacher marked the answer as incorrect. Yukawa also turned his back on a career as an experimental physicist because he could not master glassblowing - a skill required for spectroscopy experiments at the time. After graduating from Kyoto Imperial University, Yukawa became interested in theoretical physics, particularly the theory of subatomic particles. His theory on mesons, published in 1935, explained the interaction between protons and neutrons. Yukawa’s prediction of the existence of the pi meson was confirmed in 1947 when physicists Cecil Frank Powell, Giuseppe Occhialini and César Lattes discovered the particle.
The accidental agricultural scientist
In his over 30 year career in rice research, Munshi Siddique Ahmad (1924 – 19 October 2011) developed more than 30 varieties of high-yielding rice, including the BRRI Shail strain, which was responsible for increasing the rice production of Bangladesh from 8 million tonnes in 1965 to 20 million tonnes in 1975. Ahmad was also instrumental in setting up and planning the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, where he served as head of the breeding division. An accidental agricultural scientist, Ahmad originally wanted to be a physician. However, when Ahmad arrived in Dhaka to study medicine in 1946, he discovered that he had missed the admission deadlines of most colleges, the one exception being the Agriculture College at Dhaka University. Ahmad enrolled in the college and, following his education there, obtained his PhD in genetics and plant breeding from Texas A&M University in the United States.
The fiercely independent organic chemist
A pioneer of bio-organic chemistry, Darshan Ranganathan (4 June 1941 – 4 June 2001) is remembered for developing a protocol for synthesising imidazole, a compound used to make antifungal drugs and antibiotics. Widely considered India’s most prolific researcher in chemistry, she also published dozens of papers in renowned journals on protein folding, molecular design, chemical simulation of key biological processes, and the synthesis of functional hybrid peptides and nanotubes. Educated in Delhi, Ranganathan’s career moved into high gear when she received a research fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, which enabled her to conduct postdoctoral research on organic natural products at Imperial College London. There, she studied compounds such as cycloartenol, a type of plant sterol found in jackfruit. Since jackfruits weren’t available in England, Ranganathan enlisted her mother’s help to ship them from India. Independent and strong-willed, Ranganathan was undeterred when, upon her return to India, she was denied faculty status in the same university department as her husband, owing to administrators’ concerns over conflict of interest. In response, Ranganathan funded her entire research career through multiple independent fellowships, a strategy which enabled the couple to publish several books on organic chemistry together. Ranganathan became a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences. She also won the A.V. Rama Rao Foundation Award, the Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Visiting Fellowship, Third World Academy of Sciences Award in Chemistry, and the Sukh Dev Endowment Lectureship.
India’s greatest civil engineer
Sir Mokshagundam Srinivasa Shastry Vishveshwarayya (15 September 1860 – 14 April 1962) is widely regarded as India’s most outstanding engineer. In a career that spanned almost his entire life, Vishveshwarayya played a pivotal role in several engineering projects, including designing the Krishnarajasagara dam that is still the source of irrigation and drinking water for parts of Karnataka today. He also served as one of the Chief Engineers of the flood protection system for the city of Hyderabad. Optimistic about the potential of technology to transform economies and societies, Vishveshwarayya wrote two books on the industrialisation of India. Although he was conferred a British knighthood and the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, Vishveshwarayya did not seek fame or publicity for his accomplishments, preferring to work diligently in the background. To commemorate his achievements, his birthday on 15 September is celebrated as Engineer’s Day in India.
Pioneering zoology in Malaysia
Lim Boo Liat (21 August 1926 – 11 July 2020), a leading authority in the conservation of Malaysia’s biological diversity, had his initial interest in the outdoors piqued by nature lessons in school. Lim, who helped found the National Zoo of Malaysia and re-establish the Malaysian Nature Society, had a particular interest in researching zoonotic diseases associated with small animals. His path to becoming a celebrated zoologist began humbly. When World War II disrupted his studies, Lim worked odd jobs to support his family, including a stint on Carey Island where he harvested salt from seawater. It was there that Lim learned to identify animals from the Indigenous people living on the island, known as Orang Asli. Despite his lack of formal education, this knowledge opened the door for Lim to take up a position as a temporary laboratory assistant at the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) in Kuala Lumpur. After earning his Master’s degree, Lim returned to IMR to head its medical ecology division and pursue his interest in zoonotic diseases. In 2003, he became the first Southeast Asian person to become an honourary member of The American Society of Mammalogists (ASM).
The pioneer of enzyme engineering
Japanese chemist Takamine Jokichi (3 November 1854 – 22 July 1922) founded the Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Company, where he isolated a starch-digesting enzyme (named takadiastase) from the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. After emigrating to the United States, Jokichi established a research laboratory and licensed the rights to takadiastase to one of the U.S.’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Parke-Davis, which marketed it as a treatment for dyspepsia. Subsequently, Takamine patented several discoveries that enabled the industrial production of enzymes and in 1894 was granted the first patent on a microbial enzyme in the U.S for the process of extracting takadiastase. Supported by the substantial profits from takadiastase’s sales, Jokichi also isolated the hormone adrenaline, the first effective bronchodilator to treat asthma, from animal glands. Aside from his research and business activities, Jokichi was dedicated to maintaining goodwill between the US and Japan. Together with the mayor of Tokyo, he donated many of the blossoming cherry trees in the West Potomac Park surrounding the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC.
Propelling Malaysia into space
Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, Mazlan binti Othman (born 11 December 1951) was instrumental in launching the country’s first microsatellite, and in sending Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, into space. The first landmark was realised while Mazlan served as Director General of the government's new Space Science Studies Division in the 1990s; the second during her term (between 2002 and 2007) as founding Director General of Angkasa, the Malaysian National Space Agency. She has also had a significant impact at the international level. Appointed by the United Nations twice to the post of Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), Mazlan has tackled issues including international cooperation in space, prevention of collisions with space debris, the use of space-based remote sensing platforms for sustainable development, co-ordination of space law between countries, and the risks posed by near-earth asteroids. Her path towards this illustrious career began when her teachers recognised Mazlan’s aptitude for science and encouraged her to study the subject. After obtaining a PhD in astrophysics from New Zealand’s University of Otago, Mazlan returned to Malaysia where she led the creation of the astrophysics programme at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. She also oversaw the development of Planetarium Negara, Malaysia's national planetarium, before moving into her pioneering roles with the country’s space program. Mazlan’s work has been recognized through her receipt of the President's Medal, awarded by the Institute of Physics (IOP), and the "Polarstern-Preis" (Polarstar Award) from the Austrian Space Forum. In the 1997 Agong’s honours list, Mazlan was conferred the federal decoration Panglima Jasa Negara, which comes with the title "Datuk".
Keeping a royal cuisine alive
Hwang Hye-seong (5 July 1920 – 14 December 2006) was an expert on Korean royal court cuisine, the knowledge of which she dedicated her career to keeping alive. Formerly an assistant professor of nutritional science, Hwang met the last kitchen court lady in the Joseon Dynasty Han Hui-sun and, from her, learned about the culinary traditions of the royal court. To propagate Korean royal court cuisine, Hwang founded the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine in 1971. In 1972, she was appointed the Technical Expert of Cultural Properties in the Office of Cultural Properties. In a career spanning thirty years, Hwang produced several publications on Korean royal court cuisine, made presentations in the media, and conducted courses all over the world.
Thailand’s first female doctor
The first Thai woman to receive a degree in medicine, Margaret Lin Xavier (29 May 1898 – 6 December 1932), is best remembered for her compassion towards her less privileged patients. Specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, Xavier worked as an obstetrician for the Thai Red Cross and Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok and established a clinic with her sister to provide quality care to women in Thailand. Embodying true compassion, Xavier treated many sex workers and marginalised women who could not afford treatment, providing care free of charge.
Breaking new ground in plant and human genetics
Archana Sharma (16 February 1932 - 14 January 2008) conducted research into plant and human genetics that expanded the understanding of both botany and human health. In relation to botany, she uncovered the means by which asexually-reproducing plants evolve into new species. Her interest in the causes of mutations in humans, meanwhile, included studies of populations exposed to environmental pollutants, leading to the discovery that long-term exposure to pollutants in water (such as arsenic) can induce mutations that may promote diseases such as cancer. She also studied the effects of plant products in reducing the toxicity of those agents. Together with her husband, cell biologist Arun Kumar Sharma, Sharma developed new staining and pre-treatment techniques for studying chromosomes, which are still used today. The couple also initiated the formation of the School of Cytogenetics and developed the Centre for Advanced Studies in Cell and Chromosome Research in India. For her contributions to science and education, Sharma was conferred the Padma Bhushan, one of her country’s highest civilian awards, by the President of India in 1984.
The molecular biology pioneer of India
Maharani Chakravorty (1937 – 2015) was one of India’s earliest molecular biologists whose research paved the way for advances in the treatment of bacterial and viral infections. Making strides in the fields of bacterial genetics and virology, Chakravorty’s discoveries included understanding virus reproduction in infected bacterial cells, and establishing that the membrane complex of the bacterial pathogen Salmonella typhimurium is the site of DNA and RNA synthesis. Salmonella typhimurium is a food-borne pathogen that causes diarrhoea, and her work allowed for further investigations of this bacteria at the molecular and genomic levels. Growing up, Chakravorty was inspired to become a scientist by her maternal grandfather who told her stories of scientific discoveries, and her teachers who cultivated her interest in mathematics and science. As a scientist and mother, Chakravorty juggled experiments in the laboratory with raising her young family together with her husband. Undaunted by the unfavourable environment faced by female scientists at the time, she remarked in her biography that “If you are upright and vocal you face many problems in a male dominated academic world.”