Research stands on the shoulders of those who came before us. Here we celebrate some of Asia's pioneering female scientists. If you would like to suggest a researcher, please email us at info AT researchsea.com. Additionally, check out our article on Addressing gender bias in STEM communications and compilation of organizations working to support women in research today.
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.”
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 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 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 scientist who created light-emitting materials
Vivian Wing-Wah Yam (born 10 February 1963) is a Hong Kong chemist whose research focusses on organic light-emitting diodes (OLED), which are brighter and more energy efficient than conventional light-emitting diodes. OLED, in which a film of organic compound emits light in response to an electric current, enable the creation of more efficient mobile phone and laptop displays. As a child, Yam was intrigued by mercury flowing from a broken thermometer and was inspired to become a scientist. In her 30-year career, Yam helped to create new types of chromophores and luminophores, compounds which absorb or radiate light, which helped provide more energy-efficient options to meet growing demand around the world. Yam was elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2001, becoming its youngest member at the time. She received the 2011 L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science "for her work on light-emitting materials and innovative ways of capturing solar energy."
The pioneer of fungi in Singapore
Gloria Lim (born 1930) is a retired 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 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 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 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.
Discovering how miRNAs are regulated
V. Narry Kim (born 1969) is a South Korean scientist most noted for her work on microRNA (miRNA) biogenesis. miRNAs are small RNAs involved in gene regulation. Tight control of miRNAs is vital for normal cellular function and dysregulated levels of miRNA have been linked to diseases such as cancer. Kim’s research clarified how miRNAs are regulated, specifically identifying the pathways for their creation and processing. These insights have helped inform cancer treatments and stem cell engineering. Kim and her team have also developed technologies to remove specific miRNAs, which may lead to cures for cancer in the future. For her work in understanding miRNA regulation, Kim has been awarded the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, Ho-Am Prize in Medicine and The Korea S&T Award. Currently, Kim is a professor and SNU Distinguished Fellow at Seoul National University. She is also the director at the Center for RNA Research at the Institute for Basic Science.
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 marine biologist who studies blue whales
Asha de Vos is a Sri Lankan marine biologist and conservationist who is known for her research on blue whales in the northern Indian Ocean. de Vos started the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project – the first long term research study on the little-known blue whales of the Northern Indian Ocean. Through the project, her team discovered a whale species which was not previously documented in Sri Lankan waters. de Vos also founded Oceanswell – the first marine conservation research and education organization in Sri Lanka. de Vos sits on Sri Lanka’s National Research Council and is a Senior TED Fellow. In 2018, she was chosen to be on the BBC 100 Women list, an annual award which recognizes 100 inspiring and influential women.
Detecting ripples in space-time
Nergis Mavalvala (born 1968) is a Pakistani physicist who was one of the first scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) to observe gravitational waves, the disturbances in the curvature of space-time caused by accelerating objects such as neutron stars or black holes. Mavalvala’s parents raised her without stereotypical gender roles and encouraged her to pursue higher education overseas. While a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Mavalvala designed an automatic system to precisely align the mirrors of interferometers, which are instruments used to detect gravitational waves. Mavalvala and her team also developed a novel method to cool mirrors to within a degree of absolute zero (0.8 K) so that they stay still. From her research, Mavalvala became a pioneer in the emerging discipline of quantum optomechanics. Mavalvala was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010, a prize to recognize individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction."
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 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 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 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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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)