Giants in History - Asia's Women in Science

Research stands on the shoulders of those who came before us. Here we celebrate some of Asia's pioneering female scientists in history.

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Additionally, check out our article on Addressing gender bias in STEM communications, our compilation of organizations working to support women in research today and our Experts for Media: Women in Research page.

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.

Dal Basi


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A champion in the fight against cholera

Iranian physician and bacteriologist Azar Andami (8 December 1926 – 19 August 1984) developed a cholera vaccine to combat an outbreak that swept through the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and Africa in 1937. Andami’s vaccine halted the spread of the disease by helping people develop immunity to cholera. While working as a teacher, Andami had developed an interest in the natural sciences. This led her to embark on a new career as a medical doctor specialising in gynaecology and bacteriology. For her contributions to bacteriology, the International Astronomical Union named a crater on Venus “Andami” in her honour. 

The first female Mission Operations Manager of NASA

Angelita Castro Kelly (1942-2015) was the first female Mission Operations Manager (MOM) of NASA. She spearheaded and supervised the Earth Observing System missions during its developmental stage. The Earth Observing System comprises of three satellites – Terra, Aqua and Aura – that carry instruments to measure specific phenomena of the land, water and atmosphere respectively. As the MOM, Kelly developed overall mission operations concepts, working with spacecraft and ground system developers to ensure the implementation of mission requirements. Prior to leading the Earth Observing System missions, Kelly helped to develop the Shuttle/Spacelab Data Processing Facility as the project manager of the facility. Her achievements have been recognised by numerous accolades awarded by the Philippines government and NASA, including the President Fidel Ramos’ Presidential Award and the Goddard Space Flight Center Exceptional Service Medal. Kelly was also listed as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women in the United States by the Filipina Women’s Network.


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.”

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.

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.

Improving potato production in Pakistan

Pakistani botanist Azra Quraishi (22 September 1945 – 22 November 2002) is recognised for developing virus-free seed potatoes that increased potato production in Pakistan by an estimated five per cent. Her work on tissue culture also enabled the screening of salt tolerance in local wheat and rice cultivars, leading to crops with improved traits. In recognition of her contributions to agriculture, Quraishi received several awards, including the Ordre des Palmes académiques, bestowed by the French Republic on distinguished academics and teachers who have provided valuable service to universities, education and science.


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.  

Making an impact on higher education and scientific research

Chinese biochemist Chi Che Wang (1894 - 1979), one of the first Chinese women to study abroad, advanced to prominent research positions at American institutions including the University of Chicago and the Northwestern University Medical School. Wang’s interest in nutrition and food chemistry produced several research projects exploring childhood metabolism. These formed an important part of her distinguished research and teaching career. Wang was a department head in Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital, and in 1922 was elected as a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. A proponent of female empowerment, Wang also co-founded the Chicago Chinese Women's Club. The Chi Che Wang Park in Chicago is named in her honour.

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 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 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.

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.

Uncovering secrets of the sun

Turkish astrophysicist Dilhan Eryurt (29 November 1926 – 13 September 2012) conducted research on how the sun affects environmental conditions on the moon.  This helped NASA engineers develop the technology required for lunar missions, including the Apollo 11 moon landing. Contrary to the prior belief that the sun heated up over billions of years to reach its current temperature, Eryurt discovered that the star was brighter and hotter in the past. This finding shed light on the chemical compositions of the earth and moon, and helped engineers plan for space flights. For her contributions to the success of the moon landing, Eryurt earned the Apollo Achievement Award in 1969.

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.  

Freshwater fish specialist

During her short life, Fahire Battalgil (1902 - 1948) achieved renown as the first zoologist from Turkey to make strides in the field of freshwater fish biodiversity. Battalgil began her career teaching biology to students in the town of Tercan. Later, she was an assistant at Istanbul University, where she identified 30 new fish species. In 1933, Battalgil was appointed as an Associate Professor of Zoology at the university, making her one of the first women to be appointed as a professor at a Turkish university. During her career, she also taught at the Sorbonne, in Paris.

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.

Bringing spirulina’s nutritional boost to Bangladesh

Flora Zaibun Majid (6 December 1939 – 30 October 2018)  was an accomplished Bangladeshi researcher in botany and nutrition science and the first female chairperson of the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.She reached these heights despite facing personal challenges that included a life-long disability caused by having contracted polio as a child. Majid’s most notable achievement is leading a project to grow the highly nutritious algae spirulina in Bangladesh. Spirulina usually grows in hot climates and Majid faced the challenge of adapting the algae for cultivation in Bangladesh’s environment. By modifying the medium of production, Majid and her team became the first to cultivate spirulina successfully in the country’s monsoon conditions, paving the way for commercial production of the highly nutritious food in Bangladesh.

The first scientist to clone HIV

Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist Flossie Wong-Staal (27 August 1946 – 8 July 2020) was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes. Her research laid the groundwork for proving that the virus causes AIDS, in turn leading to the development of HIV diagnostic tests and drug cocktails to treat HIV infections. During her appointment as the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego, Wong-Staal launched the university’s Center for AIDS Research. She was also co-founder of the biopharmaceutical company Immusol, later renamed iTherX Pharmaceuticals, that seeks to develop more effective drugs for treating Hepatitis C. The Institute for Scientific Information named Wong-Staal "the top woman scientist of the 1980s." In 2019, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

(Photo: National Cancer Institute)

Unravelling the impacts of agriculture on society

Filipina sociologist Gelia Castillo (1928 – 2017) pioneered the concept of “participatory development,” (which calls for development projects to engage with local communities), and studied the impacts of agriculture in the Philippines on health, gender relations, the environment, and poverty. Guided by the idea that “science must serve a human purpose,” Castillo’s work influenced policymaking and laid a foundation for subsequent waves of research on agriculture and rural development in the Philippines. In addition to serving on the boards of several development, agriculture, and health organisations, she was a long-time consultant with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and a champion of women’s rights.  Some of Castillo’s research dealt with the importance of financial support in enabling nuclear families to maintain close ties with extended families, and in empowering women to become more economically productive. A prolific author, Castillo’s most famous book was Beyond Manila, dealing with income distribution, employment, labour, education, and migration in the rural Philippines. Another volume, All in a Grain of Rice, examined Filipino farmers’ responses to new technology. Castillo was awarded the Outstanding Filipino Award in 2004, and in 1999 was conferred the title National Scientist, the highest honour given to Filipino scientists by the Philippine government. 


Making a mark on Filipino culture

Through her iconic stories featuring fictional scenes from the history of the Philippines, language teacher and academic Genoveva Matute (3 January 1915 – 21 March 2009) helped strengthen the Filipino identity. Her most popular story, “Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti” (“The Story of Mabuti”), is still read by Filipino school children, and several of Matute’s historically based stories are included in textbooks for elementary and high school students. From 1951 to 1961, Matute received four Don Carlos Palanca awards for her work. Commonly referred to as “the Pulitzer Prize of the Philippines,” it is the country’s highest literary honour. In 1992, Matute also received the Gawad Para Sa Sining, the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ most prestigious award.

The pioneer of fungi in Singapore

Gloria Lim (1930 - 11 July 2022) was 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 astronomer who watched the sun

Haisako Koyama  (1916 – 1997) was a Japanese solar observer whose dedication to recording sunspots – cooler parts of the sun’s surface that appear dark – produced a sunspot record of historic importance. Her detailed sunspot sketches over several decades became central to other scientists’ efforts to reconstruct a continuous sunspot record dating back to 1610. Sunspots are the precursors of solar flares – intense outbursts of energy from the surface of the sun that can disrupt radio transmissions and power grids on Earth – and monitoring them provides insights into how and why solar flares occur. Koyama’s forays into astronomy began when she was a young woman living in Tokyo during World War II. She constructed her own telescope, and during air-raid blackouts of the city would seize the opportunity to observe stars in clear and dark skies.  Koyama went on to work as a solar observer at the Tokyo Science Museum, now the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, for over four decades, and sketched sunspots every day that she was at work. By the time she retired, she had produced more than 10,000 drawings, featuring more than 8,000 unique sunspot groups. Koyama was also passionate about sharing her interest in astronomy with the public. She hosted amateur astronomy outreach events, taught during the holidays, and wrote for national Japanese astronomy bulletins. 


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.

Uncovering the link between X-rays and chromosomal abnormalities

Irene Ayako Uchida’s (8 April 1917 – 30 July 2013) strides to understand genetic diseases such as Down syndrome paved the way for early screening of chromosomal abnormalities in foetuses. Uchida discovered that pregnant women who had undergone abdominal X-rays had a higher chance of giving birth to babies with Down syndrome. Uchida also found out that the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome could be inherited from either parent, not just the mother as previously thought. Besides uncovering the link between pregnancy, X-rays and chromosomal abnormalities, Uchida developed a test for the genetic disorder Edwards syndrome, the first diagnostic blood test in Canada to profile an infant’s chromosomes that kickstarted Canada’s first clinical program for cytogenetics – the study of chromosomes and how changes in their structure and number can cause disease. Early in her career, Uchida also developed one of the largest twin registries in North America and used it to research the genetic disorders of twins with heart disease. Driven by a desire to help people, Uchida believed that "Science is a rewarding and challenging career. Young people going into science must keep an open mind to all ideas in an effort to find every possible way to help people." 



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.

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 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.

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 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.

Advancing electron microscopy

Chinese electron microscopy specialist Li Fanghua (6 January 1932 – 24 January 2020) facilitated the high-resolution imaging of crystal structures by eliminating interference. After embarking on her scientific career, partly the result of her high school teachers’ encouragement of her interests in astronomy, mathematics and physics, Li’s research was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. However, she never stopped thinking about her work and eventually managed to access the library at the Institute of Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in order to follow the latest developments in electron microscopy. In 1973, Li was recognised as an academician of the Institute, where she had spent most of her scientific career. She was also elected one of the "Top 10 Outstanding Women" of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2001 and was the first Chinese female scientist to receive the L'Oréal-UNESCO award, which recognises the contributions of outstanding women researchers. A firm believer in gender equality, Li advised aspiring women scientists to “stick to the subject you are really attracted to and interested in and do not give up easily.”

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.

Exploring the medicinal potential of native plant

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)

Improving healthcare for mothers and children

Maggie Lim (5 January 1913 – November 1995) was a Singaporean physician who promoted family planning and expanded the access to clinics to improve the quality of life for mothers and children in Singapore’s early days. She also made history by being the first young woman and second Singaporean to win the Queen’s Scholarship in the 45 years of the award’s history. After returning from London where she was trained as a physician, Lim worked as a public health officer in Singapore. She specialised in maternity and childcare and noticed that the children of poor women were often malnourished. To address this issue, Lim established a system of maternal and child health clinics in the young nation. Her efforts led to Singapore having the best maternal and child health service in the Commonwealth. As the Honourary Medical Officer of the Singapore Family Planning Association, Lim volunteered her time after work to advise patients on family planning to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, despite opposition from religious groups. In 1963, Lim became the head of the Ministry of Health’s Maternity and Child Welfare Department, where she continued to lead efforts in these areas until her retirement. For her significant contributions to maternal and child healthcare, Lim was posthumously inducted in the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014.  


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.”

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.

Fighting for her country 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 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.

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".

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 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.

Advancing women’s rights in India

Muthulakshmi Reddy (30 July 1886 – 22 July 1968) founded India’s Adyar Cancer Institute, and fought to improve the lives of impoverished women and girls. In addition to the cancer institute, she established the Avvai Home & Orphanage to shelter, protect and educate orphan girls and deserted women. A champion of women’s rights from a young age, Reddy resisted being married off at adolescence, instead becoming the first female student in the Department of Surgery at the Madras Medical College. As a doctor, Reddy opposed the practice of wet nursing, in which babies of upper caste women were breastfed by oppressed lower caste women. Nominated to the Madras Presidency Council and subsequently becoming its first female deputy president, Reddy was also responsible for several reforms that improved women’s social standing and welfare. Among them were setting up hospitals for women and children, introducing measures to improve medical facilities for people living in slums, and constructing toilets for women. Reddy also fought to raise the age of marriage for girls and championed women’s rights to property, education, and career. For her contributions, she was conferred the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the Republic of India, in 1956.  



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 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 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 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.

Developing potent vaccines

Ruby Sakae Hirose (1904 – 1960) was a Japanese-American scientist whose research contributed significantly to our understanding of blood clotting, allergies and cancer. Her research on serums and antitoxins paved the way for the development of effective vaccines for polio and other infectious diseases. In addition, her research on allergic reactions enabled Hirose to improve the pollen extracts used to desensitize hay fever sufferers and reduce their symptoms. Hirose also discovered that thrombin, an enzyme integral to clot formation, exists in an active and inactive forms. From her research on cancer, Hirose proved that some chemotherapy drugs can inhibit cancer by stopping cancer cell growth or DNA replication. Although Hirose faced several family tragedies and discrimination, she overcame the odds and became the first second-generation Japanese-American to graduate from her high school, and was awarded a fellowship during her PhD studies at the University of Cincinnati. 


Paving the way to better crops

Indian botanist Shipra Guha-Mukherjee (13 July 1938 – 15 September 2007) made a breakthrough discovery that enabled the genetic study of plants and, by extension, the development of improved varieties of rice, wheat, potatoes, and other crops. Those advances hinged on Guha-Mukherjee’s  discovery of a technique to produce haploid plants (containing one set of chromosomes) through the culturing of anthers, the male reproductive part of a plant that produces pollen. This paved the way, in turn, for techniques to culture ovules and ovaries – the female reproductive parts of plants. These advances were crucial to the development of more nutritious foods through biotechnology. As a student, Guha-Mukherjee was fascinated by Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s work that showed that plants had a metabolism similar to that of animals, demonstrating that plants were not inert objects as previously thought. Inspired by Bose, and determined to understand how plants functioned, Guha-Mukherjee became an expert in plant tissue culture and plant biotechnology. She held academic positions at universities in the United States and at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, and collaborated with M.S. Swaminathan, a key figure in India’s Green Revolution. Guha-Mukherjee received the Senior National Bio-scientist Award and the Om Prakash Bhasin Foundation Award in Biotechnology, and was elected a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Science, Bangalore, and the National Academy of Science, Allahabad. 


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 Marie Curie of Japan

Toshiko Yuasa (11 December 1909 – 1 February 1980) was the first Japanese female physicist whose research on radioactivity shed light on beta decay – the process in which an atom emits a beta particle (electron) and turns into a different element. To carry out her pioneering experiments, Yuasa also created her own laboratory equipment, including a new type of apparatus for measuring beta rays. As a young teaching assistant in Japan, Yuasa fought against prejudice and stereotypes that women could not make significant contributions to science. Inspired by the discovery of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the daughter and son-in-law of Marie Curie, Yuasa headed to France just months after World War II broke out to learn from the Joliot-Curies. Impressed by her dedication, the Joliot-Curies took her in, although research institutes were closed to foreigners at the time, and helped Yuasa through the turmoil of the war. After her studies in France, Yuasa remained devoted to teaching and research in nuclear physics throughout her career. In 1964, she published an article in 1954 warning of the dangers of hydrogen-bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. 


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 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.

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)

Rock researcher wrote the first Chinese paleontology 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.