In her essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote that for most of history, Anonymous was a woman. As science is a field commonly perceived to be a masculine field, a woman’s contribution to the advancement of science was historically not credited under her own rightful name, but rather to her male peers or worse, anonymously, despite women’s vast contribution to science since 4000 years ago. Traditional gender roles barred women from entering the fields of science professionally as science was deemed ill fitting with the expectations of women’s roles to be domestic and feminine. In order to fit in with the masculine image of science, women scientists often feel the need to hide their femininity for the mere reason of to be taken seriously in their respective field.
Nowadays, efforts in recognising and celebrating women’s contributions and achievements in science are increasing. Since 2015, the United Nations commemorates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science every 11th of February to campaign and work to close the gap in STEM where women, being half of the world’s population make up only less than 30% of researchers throughout the world today. In October, another day celebrating women in science is known as Ada Lovelace Day, celebrated on the second Tuesday of October every year, in memory of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer.
In the contemporary history of women in science, we have come to recognise the household names in science such as the two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson – whose calculation helped Neil Armstrong landed his feet on the moon, and Rosalind Franklin – who was crucial in the discovery of DNA’s molecular structure, among others. Now let’s meet Southeast Asia’s very own heroines of science!
Indonesia — Prof. Aisjah Girindra
Prof. Aisjah Girindra was a professor of biochemistry from Bogor Agricultural University. She was the first woman to be awarded the doctorate degree in the field of Agricultural Biochemistry from the university in 1979. Her contribution in science were as one of the founding members and the first president of the World Halal Food Council in 1999 as well as ensuring strict and standardised procedures in issuing halal certificates through multidisciplinary scientific researches during her tenure as an expert in halal foods.
Malaysia — Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman
Regarded as Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, Dr. Mazlan is also the first woman ever awarded for a Ph.D in physics from her alma mater in the University of Otago, New Zealand in 1981. She served as the founding Director General of Angkasa, Malaysian National Space Agency and launched the first Malaysian astronaut to space before sitting in a more prestigious position as the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs from 2010 to 2014.
Singapore — Prof. Gloria Lim
Singapore’s renowned mycologist (someone who researches fungi) was the first woman to hold a position as Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Singapore (present day National University of Singapore after becoming the first woman appointed to head the Department of Botany at the same institution. She published more than 100 research papers on fungi which remains as the references for today’s mycology researches.
Philippines — Jacquiline Romero, Ph.D
Representing the younger generation of women in science, Jacquiline Romero is currently living her childhood dream of becoming a physicist, an experimental quantum physicist to be exact, investigating the weird rule of quantum physics using photons. Her deep passion for physics earned her a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program International Rising Talent Prize in 2019 among other awards in the previous years. As a champion for gender equality in science, she strives to debunk the myth that mothers cannot be successful scientists.
Thailand — Salinee Tavaranan
For the underprivileged, the conventional technology in harnessing energy is already a luxury, let alone renewable ones. But for Salinee Tavaranan, this should not be an issue. She co-founded SunSawang, a social enterprise providing renewable energy technology to the rural villages in the Thailand-Burma border. The recipient of 2014 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards expressed that helping people has been her calling all her life, and how amazing it is that she is able to fulfil that while doing something she is passionate about, engineering.