Archana Sharma

Archana Sharma was a renowned Indian botanist, cytogeneticist and cytotoxicologist.

Archana Sharma, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Featuring artwork by Harsho Mohan and words by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

Research in biological sciences in India has been steadily progressing through the increasing number of institutions carrying out research, training students in latest techniques, imparting knowledge, and recruiting people to run the institutions. The progress can be divided into three epochs, the first was in the post-independence period of 1950’s when new educational institutions were constructed, the second epoch was in the 1980’s that marked the formation of new biological research institutes, and the third one took shape in 2000’s as the biotechnology enterprise was rising and making India internationally competitive.

Archana Sharma (1932–2008) was a part of that nation building phase, who played a key role in establishing a robust curriculum of biology education, carried out cutting edge research and established a center of excellence.

Early life

Archana Mookerjea was born in Pune, Maharashtra, in a family of academicians. Her father N. P. Mookerjea was Chemistry professor in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Soon after her undergrad from Bikaner, she moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and finished her M.Sc. (1951), Ph.D. (1955) and D.Sc. (1960) degree from Calcutta University (C.U.). She was the second woman to be awarded D.Sc. degree from C.U. She joined the Department of Genetics at C.U. as a faculty in 1967, and remained there till her retirement.

Archana Sharma (nee Mookerjea) (Image courtesy: Indian National Science Academy)

In 1955 she married Arun Kumar Sharma, who was also her thesis supervisor and they remained life-long partners in personal life and in academia. She and A.K. Sharma, also known as the ‘Father of Indian Cytology’, successfully collaborated on many research projects.

Indian scientist with global fame

Cover of the seminal book on chromosome visualisation techniques by Archana Sharma and Arun Kumar Sharma.

Archana was a pioneer in studying chromosome structure and developed techniques for chromosome labeling. In collaboration with A.K. Sharma, she published the seminal book “Chromosome Techniques- Theory and Practice”, that became a standard reference book for chromosome staining worldwide.

Amongst Archana’s most notable discoveries was a new concept of speciation in vegetatively reproducing plants, one of which was published in the journal Nature in 1957. She also contributed to the cytotaxonomy of flowering plants.

In addition, she had interest in human cytogenetics, and studied polymorphisms in populations of eastern India and its correlation to diseases. She researched the mutagenic and genotoxic effects of pesticides and other environmental pollutants in cells. Her other scientific contributions includes understanding the effects of plant products on cytotoxicity induced by pollutants and the effect of heavy metals (e.g. Arsenic, Zinc, Copper) on cell division.

Archana Sharma (second from right) and Arun Kumar Sharma (fourth from right) at the Kihara Institute of Biological Sciences, Japan in 1981. (Image courtesy: U.C. Lavania, “Living Legens in Indian Science: Arun Kumar Sharma”, Current Science, Vol. 107, No. 524 3, 2014)

In her stellar career she published 400 research papers, 8 books, supervised 70 Ph.D. theses. She was a founder of the cytology journal Nucleus, and remained its editor until 2007.

Laying the foundations of research in post-independence India

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Archana and A.K. Sharma the power couple of Indian science in the 70’s and 80’s. They were influential all over the country and left a lasting impression on the plant science community.

Archana Sharma(second row, third from left) with attendees of the 47th Annual Indian Academy of Science Meeting in 1981.(Image Source: Indian Academy of Sciences)

Archana’s success is not limited to her scientific achievements. Through her lab she created a strong lineage of researchers, who went on to hold important positions in their careers. She was also as an outstanding teacher at C.U. and had inspired many bright minds. Additionally, Archana was actively involved in many policy-making bodies, which included Science and Engineering Research Council (DST), Environmental Research Council (Ministry of Environment and Forests), and various technical committees of UGC, DST, DBT.

Archana Sharma with her colleagueas at Calcutta University. (Image courtesy: U.C. Lavania, “Living Legens in Indian Science: Arun Kumar Sharma”, Current Science, Vol. 107, No. 524 3, 2014)

In recognition of her contributions she won many awards, which includes the Shanti Swarup Batnagar Prize (1976) by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Padma Bhushan (1984) by the Government of India. In 2019, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, established a Chair in the name of Archana. She joined the list of 11 other luminary women scientists who have each been honored with a Chair.

Archana Sharma.

She represents a generation of scientists who laid down the foundation of science education and research in post-independence India. As a dedicated teacher and a passionate scientist, she remains a lasting legacy in the scientific community.

Timeline-

1932- Born on February 16th in Pune, Maharashtra, to N. P. Mookerjea and R. Mookerjea

1951- Obtained MSc from Calcutta University

1955- Obtained PhD from Calcutta University

1955- Married Arun Kumar Sharma

1956- Research Officer

1955- Ph. D. from Calcutta University

1960- DSc from Calcutta University

1967- Joined Calcutta University as a faculty

1971- Appointed Reader in Genetics

1977- Appointed Prof. of Genetics

1983–1985- Secretary General of Indian Science Congress Association

1986–1987- President of Indian Science Congress Association

1976- Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award

1984- Padma Bhushan by President of India

2007- Passed away

Further reading & References:

About the author:

DR. SUMBUL JAWED KHAN

Content Editor,Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.

About the artist:

HARSHO MOHAN CHATTORAJ

Contributing Artist, Sci-Illustrate stories

Harsho Mohan Chattoraj is a graphic novelist and illustrator based in Kolkata, India. He’s worked in the comic medium for fifteen years, on individual projects and for clients in India, UK, Australia and the US. Some of his recent graphic novels include ‘ Ghosts of Kingdoms Past’, ‘Destiny Awakes’, ‘Pagla Shaib’s Grave’, ‘Hyderabad Graphic Novel’ and ‘Kolkata Kaleidoscope’. Harsho also has worked as a journalist, visualizer, storyboard artist, voice-over artist and promo producer, but has always been a fan of comics since his first dosage of ‘Asterix’ at the wee age of five.

About this series:

These are stories I wish I knew when I was growing up.

There are the stories of persistence, ingenuity, calibre, scientific achievement against all odds.

These are the stories of Indian women who were the pioneers of Science in India.

These are stories of lives that must be remembered and cherished.

Sci-Illustrate stories is proud to add a new chapter in our WIS series where through the words of the sci-illustrate team, complimented by the artwork of a very talented Indian artist Arghya Manna, we will be revisiting and highlighting the lives of some incredible Indian women in science.

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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