Historically, the women in Kashmir have remained empowered enough to be part of every sphere of life. Though they have traditionally picked a set of jobs as their careers in education, governance, business and medical science to suit their homemaking role, some of them have opted for challenging careers. Humaira Nabi talks to a number of Kashmir women scientists detailing their journeys in the challenging field and their core research focus

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A group of Kashmir women scientists (L to R) Zahida Qamri, Beenish Rufai, Manejah Yaroob, Humaira Gowhar, Samina Raja and Nasheeman Ashraf. KL Graphics

In Kashmir, throughout history, women have remained equal partners in life. It was the partnership between the men and women that made Cashmere Shawls dictate the fashion trends on Paris streets even when they hardly had enough to manage their meals. Two centuries later, half of the doctors in Kashmir are women. They are part of every field of life and, off late, they are academically performing better than men at all levels. So, how could they not be in science?

Though women have routinely chosen particular areas as their careers, there are dozens of Kashmiri women who have opted to be scientists, comparatively a challenging area. Some of them have impressive research to their credit and a few have actually pioneered newer systems and protocols to understand the complexity and diversity of life. Most of these scientists are serving offshore laboratories. Their journeys were interesting and belonged to the era when the infrastructure, back home, was not adequate enough to encourage their return. Most of them did research in these institutions and settled there. However, a few younger ones in recent years availed new openings to return home and serve Jammu and Kashmir.

The trend has only started and is expected to improve in the near future.

The Saffron Scientist

Kashmir has remained home to the world’s costliest spice for many millennia. Though there were efforts to study it scientifically and certain things were better understood. However, the spice waited for Srinagar scientist, Dr Nasheeman Ashraf to study it at the genetic level.

Nasheeman’s interest in Kashmir’s agriculture developed with her graduation when she studied at SKAUST-K’s Wadura campus in Sopore. With an All India Ranking (AIR) of 25, she passed the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) postgraduate admission examination and joined GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Uttarakhand for a master’s in Biochemistry. She did her doctorate from The National Institute of Plant Genome Research, Delhi.

“It took me six years to complete my PhD. My research was based on chickpea, where I studied Fusarium wilt- a widespread plant disease that impacts its yield,” Nasheeman said.“I along with my fellow researchers developed transcript profiling of susceptible and resistant genotypes during chickpea-Fusarium interaction.”

This study led to the identification of a set of differentially expressed genes among which some were common to both genotypes while a subset of genes was specific to either of the genotype. “This helped us plan a strategy to develop the resistant cultivars,” she said.

Within a month after defending her PhD, Nasheman was offered a principal scientist position at the Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM), an institution tasked to discover new drugs and therapeutic approaches from natural products. She picked Crocus sativus, the Kashmir saffron. The choice was dictated by her urge to work on something that finds utility back home.

“The desiccated stigma of Crocus sativus forms the saffron, however, in some species of the plant, many other parts of the flower also form saffron,” Nasheeman said. “So, I tried to study the regulatory pathways of Crocus which enable these varieties to form saffron in the stigma and in petals as well.”

She started working on developing a transcriptome map for Crocus, which was used for the identification of genes involved in the regulation of this process. This helped her understand that Corcuspathways can be manipulated to develop the required components in other parts of the plant as well, which can increase the biomass produced. Normally, one kilogram of saffron demands the cultivation of 25o thousand blossoms. If the manipulation at the genetic level becomes a success, it can improve the yield, manage the demand-supply chain better and have better returns for the grower.

As an acknowledgement of her research, Nasheemanwas awarded with CSIR Raman Research Fellowship in 2016, which enabled her to work as a visiting scientist at the University of Kentucky, USA followed by an EMBO short-term fellowship to work in Spain.

“In Spain, they were already working on Saffron. It helped me to incorporate their expertise in my research and I got to study some of the plant samples, which produce saffron in petals as well,” Dr Nashman said.

Currently exploring non-traditional areas having the potential for saffron production, Dr Nasheeman asserts that all Kashmir districts can produce saffron. “Last year, I distributed saffron bulbs among a group of my students belonging to various districts for cultivation. We covered all the 10 districts and found that it grew everywhere,” she said. “The findings of the study will determine whether any other areas of Kashmir have the potential for saffron cultivation.”

Apart from starting her laboratory literally from the scratch and making it big, Nasheeman, now a principal scientist, has pioneered developing a gene database of Saffron which consisted of around 64000 genes. After she published the data, many offshore laboratories picked the thread and are following it up.

Planning For World

From Gagribal in Srinagar to the United States and then devising urban planning systems that interested a key UN agency, it has been a fulfilling journey for Dr Samina Raja. Trained as a civil engineer from Jamia Millia Islamia, Dr Samina Raja had a predicament that while she was being trained to build she was not trained to think. With apprehensions about the impact of building on human health, Dr Samina saw challenges on a bigger scale and decided to pursue her Master’s in Planning, with a focus on housing, from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. Later, she opted for a PhD programme in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Prof Samina Raja heads the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities laboratory in the University of Buffalo, New York. Photograph by Alexender J Becker

“I remember the first lecture I attended during my PhD programme being about ethics, which, despite being an important aspect in all fields, is not widely discussed in developing countries,” Dr Raja said. “It focused on the fundamental concerns of why and for whom we are building while planning. It was a pivotal lecture. So, my PhD ended up being about land development and layered on to that was public finance. I studied the impact of land development decisions and buildings on human health and future generations.”

Subsequently, Samina Raja focused her training with economists and urban planners on what happens to local government’s public finances and taxes in the United States when an urban planner develops land for construction.

“There is a concept of the highest and best use of land in urban planning. It is also used sometimes in Kashmir and in South Asia.  So, there is a heuristic notion that if, for example, farmland is converted into a building, we conceive that to be the best use of the land,” Dr Raja said. “I actually measured whether that was accurate. There is a widespread global method that teaches urban planners how to judge whether land development is good or bad. I tested the accuracy of the methods and discovered that the methods that planners use are flawed. It led me to my judgment that some ways an urban planner plans can be hurtful to the general public. To simplify, if you see a patch of farmland converted into a mansion and you think it’s a sign of progress, it turns out that it’s not, it’s complicated.”

Dr Raja’s PhD raised more questions than it offered answers for herself and many others. The key question her dissertation raised was about the general understanding of the appropriate use of land. That research forced her to reimagine how to plan and set her on a trajectory to develop tools and resources for healthy city planning.

“I ended up contributing to the newly emerging field of food systems planning. My research lab was the first one in the world that uses urban planning to improve food systems,” Dr Samina Raja, who now wears many hats said. Now Prof Raja is an Associate Dean and Director of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, which operates within the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Buffalo. “So, I was able to take my learning from the dissertation and apply it in one particular way to develop the lab, work with city governments, develop technical assistance models and train students. So, I think the impact of that dissertation is translated into the real world today in unexpected ways.”

In 2014, Dr Samina Raja along with her team conducted a national survey of urban planners in the United States. With 40,000 local governments across the United States, her team reached out to them about the impact of urban planning on human health and food and found that only one per cent of local governments were focused on the impact of their planning decisions on food systems. Dr Raja took note of the situation and along with her team pushed for a change to help urban planners in the United States to impetus their planning techniques.

“There is an association called the American Planning Association, which is the largest professional association of urban planners. In 2008, they published Planners Guide to Community and Regional Food Systems, the first advisory report on the topic for American planners. It was written by me and my colleagues and that was one of the contributions of our lab. Our lab trains local governments across the United States about the impact of a comprehensive plan, Master Plan as it is called in Kashmir, on human health. Similarly, I led the development of a report for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) on the impact of urban planning on food and health. Our team with the help of GIS and other technologies monitors the impact of urban planning on human health,” Dr Samina Raja said.

She is now dividing her time between teaching, supervising research, and advising civic organizations, local governments and national and global agencies. She has many researchers from Kashmir on her team, and her laboratory is already working with various scientists in Kashmir.

A Caset Scientist 

Keen to talk hard science into Kashmiri, Dr Humaira Gowher is a Srinagar-born biochemist who is an Associate Professor at Purdue University and an Adjunct faculty at the University of Kashmir-run Centre for Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation (CIRI). She is studying the regulation of DNA methylation in development and disease in her high-end laboratory.

Having persuaded her early education at Caset Experimental School, Karanagar, Humaira considers herself being lucky to have grown up in a school which had the word ‘experiment’ associated with it. “Prof Chuni Lal Vishen, chairman of Caset Experimental School was way ahead of his time. He was a Princeton returnee, and had a vision of imparting education which was prevalent in the west but was not much appreciated here,” HUmaira said. “I believe that a fair share of my inherent knowledge has come from the school, and I’m very thankful to him for that.”

Being fond of biochemistry from an early age, Humaira joined the Aligarh Muslim University, then the only institute offering the course. “I completed my bachelor’ and subsequently my master’s in Biochemistry from the AMU. During the course of my studies, I developed an inclination for research. I was fortunate enough to be a part of experimental research as a summer trainee for a couple of months in Dr SE Hasnein’s lab at the National Institute of Immunology,  Delhi, which instilled a love for the subject and associated research.”

After qualifying GATE examination, with a very high percentile, Humaira applied for the Indian Institute of Science and topped the biochemistry department. This made her the first Kashmiri woman to enrol at the institute. After spending two years at ISC, she left the programme and flew to Germany with her engineer husband. There, she continued her PhD at Justus Liebig University.

Having picked her research skills in India, she completed her PhD in 30 months. Her PhD revealed that the short catalytic domain of the mammalian DNA methyltransferases Dnmt3a and 3b are active without their large N-terminal part, which led to characterization, crystallization, and those enzymes in multiple labs around the world.  There, she published seven first-author research papers. She was awarded Summa cum laude, an honorary title used by educational institutions to signify a degree that was earned “with the highest distinction”.

“I received a lot of offers from UK and US, but I chose United States because I felt it to be more inclusive unlike Europe,” Humaira said. “I joined one of the pioneers in the field of chromatin Biology named Gary Fasenfeld, who is a student of the legendary Linus Pauling. I had the privilege of working in his lab for eight years and the experience was outstanding. While I learned science and associated things, the best thing about working with Gary Fasenfeld was that I learned how to be humble. Working with someone, who has produced around eight Nobel laureates, you don’t expect him to be that humble but he is.”

With a vision of working independently and owing a lab, Humaira after her postdoc, was appointed as an Assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Purdue University. During the course, she has established her own laboratory and is working independently.

Perfecting A Vaccine

A Ramanujan fellow and previously a Senior Resident at AIIMS Bhopal, Dr Beenish Rufai is a young Kashmiri scientist who did the genome-sequencing of all the tuberculosis strains inflicting India and for the first time created the circular reference genome of the pathogen Myobacteriumorygis. Student of Kothibagh Higher Secondary School, Beenish chose Microbiology as a major during her graduation and post-grad studies in Dehradun. “I chose microbiology because I was always fascinated by the microbes,” Beenish said. “I loved to see these tiny creatures under the microscope who happen to be a cause of much of the disturbance in the world.”

At AIIMS in Delhi where she did her PhD, she joined the clinical microbiology division under Dr Sarmand Singh. For more than a year, she studied various aspects of microbiology. It included studying all the seven strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis that have come up right during the course of its evolution.

“I studied these lineages with the basic goals of analysing how they spread in India, how they are evolving, and why there is such a high prevalence of drug resistance in India,” she said. “We found 52 per cent of patients infected by Beijing lineage prone to drug resistance.”

The study revealed every stain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis has occupied specific geography. In North India, they found a Central Asian strain of Mycobacterium Tuberculosisis. In South India East African lineage of the disease dominates. The Beijing lineage was in the North Eastern region because of its Chinese origin but during the epidemiological transmission survey, it was found that these strains are circulating all over India.

“We found North Eastern part more TB drug resistance and more vulnerable to the disease,” Beenish said. “It was at that time we did comparative genomics-aligning the genome of all the strains of TB and studied their commonalities. We found that a particular gene known as CRISPR, which is known to provide some adaptive immunity to the bacterial cell is deleted in Beijing strain.”

Later, she went for postdoctoral training at McGill University in Canada, where she researched Mycobacterium Bovis. Mycobacterium Bovis is a zoonotic disease which spreads from infected animals to humans. This settled a myth forever. Earlier, it was presumed that in India people get infected by TB transmitted from animals but it was not. “In microbiology, there is a strain, known as a reference strain, which is defined as any microorganism acquired from a recognized culture collection,” Beenish explained. “It is the standard that allows it to be compared to other strains. We didn’t have any reference strain of Mycobacterium orygis so I had to develop a circular reference Mycobacterium orygis so that we could distinguish a suspected sample of Mycobacterium orygis from other strains. I got successful and developed the first circular reference genome of Mycobacterium orygis.

It was later that Beenish started probing the TB vaccine in vogue and came to the conclusion that humanity lacks an effective TB vaccine. Discovered in 1921, the BCG vaccine was the outcome of science when the genetic architecture of the strains wasn’t fully understood. With evolving strains and increased drug resistance, the efficiency of the BCG strain to provoke our immune system and give protection against TB has also rained down.

It was this project that brought her back home to work at IIIM in Srinagar where she had to establish her laboratory from a scratch, almost following Nasheeman. She is working on techniques that can improve the efficacy of the BCG vaccine. “I work on membrane vesicles of TB that are released from the bacteria inside the host body,” explained Beenish. “These vesicles are already known to have a role in immune invoke evasion. I thought to engineer the BCG strain. If there are some vesicles that are actually helping our immune system in a positive manner against infection, so we can engineer this BCG strain so that they release these vesicles. I aim is to work on the BCG strain to engineer it with such genes that aid in the secretion of these vesicles thus enhancing the efficacy of the strain.”

Dr ZahidaQamri

For Zahida Qamri, it was a quantum jump when she convinced her family that she must move out and study. This led her to get admission to Jamia Hamdard. Fighting weather and managing the cosmopolitan culture, Zahida did her master’s and a PhD in biochemistry.

Her research work was around diarrhoea, one of the major health problems in children under one year of age. In certain cases, it could prove fatal. “During my doctoral programme, I examined the stool of the children and developed DNA fingerprinting of the bacteria I found,” Zahida said. “The purpose of my study was to identify and characterize the bacterial strains which cause diarrhoea in infants, by using various techniques. I also studied drug resistance among diarrhoea-causing bacteria.”

During her post-doctoral programme in microbiology, Zahida developed an interest in oncology. She was selected to Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi as a research scientist, where she worked on breast cancer. “During our research, we hoped to identify a cancer-causing gene in the North Indian population. If we locate that gene in any person during genome sequencing, we can inform them about their propensity for cancer.”

At that time, there was a job opening at Harvard Medical School for breast cancer and she applied for a post-doc. “ I had studied breast cancer at Safdarjung Hospital; I incorporated brain and lung cancer in the study during my postdoc at Harvard. It was a great opportunity. I started drawing experiments and writing grants independently,” Zahida remembers.

After spending 30 months at Harvard Medical School, she moved to  Ohio State University where she worked for 12 years. Later grants dried up.  Then, she did a master’s degree in clinical and pre-clinical research from the same university. “The programme helped me get into a new field of managing clinical research and the impact of our work that we do in labs, on common people,” Zahida said.  Clinical trials, she said, is a new and emerging discipline. “For better management, Western countries are outsourcing the field. To enter the field, you do not require a specialist degree. You may even participate from home, thus the current work-from-home culture made forth by the pandemic is a bonus. Internet access and electricity are two fundamental requirements in this field.”

Now, she spends her time with JK Scientists, a Srinagar-based network of scientists who identify and guide new talent.

Medical Innovation

Married to a networking engineer from Silicon Valley, Dr Manijha Yaqoob was a successful medical professional from SKIMS, Soura, when destiny subjected gave her an opportunity to get into the technology side of health care in San Francisco after marriage. She is into medical innovation. “While I enjoyed medical practice, I decided to take leverage of the immense technology that I was surrounded with,” Dr Manijha said.

Currently serving as a Physician Scientist at Roche USA, Manijha for the last 18 years has been working with various companies including Abbott Vascular, Medtronic Neurovascular and many others. Apart from working on various drugs and medical devices, her most remarkable work includes a drug-eluting coronary stent called XIENCE V. Whereas coronary stent, made of plain metal, was invented long back, XIENCE V decreased its risk reduction which included restenosis, a stage when an artery previously opened with a stent or angioplasty becomes narrowed again. Besides, she has also been a part of the team whose innovation helped retrieve clots from stroke patients’ brains.

Stressing upon the importance of health technology, Manijha believes that medical students must not shy away from choosing an interdisciplinary medical profession if they have a bent on technology. “I have trained medical professionals across the world,” Manija said. “Doctors have a major role to play in innovating products and devices, by giving a medical perspective thereby proposing inventions with better efficacy. Doctors must not stick to writing a prescription, they must broaden their vision.”

(This report is merely a start to showcasing the Kashmir women in science. More is in pipeline.)

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