Darshan Ranganathan

Known as the most prolific organic chemist in India for her work in bio-organic chemistry, simulating protein folding and supramolecules in the lab.

Darshan Rangonathan, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Harsho Mohan & words by Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

While researching Darshan Ranganathan’s life and work, I read her husband’s memoir and essay in her honour. It felt like the most beautiful love letters were those that focused on her intellect with true admiration and complete respect, while also highlighting her warm personality. Thank you to Dr. Subramania Ranganathan for painting such a well described and beautiful portrait of Darshan so that generations following will know the woman who broke the glass ceiling with courage and a smile.

Early Life

Darshan Ranganathan, source: Anand Ranganathan Twitter

Darshan was the third child born to Shantiswarup and Vidyavati Markan in Karol Bagh in New Delhi, India on June 4, 1941. She was a bright child, with a love for music and dance, while also being a top scoring student in school. She was educated in Delhi, going to Aryasamaj Girl’s Primary School (1946–1951) and Indraprastha Higher Secondary School (1951–1958). It was at Indraprastha that her teacher, S.V.L. Ratan, inspired her to pursue the field of chemistry.

Darshan joined Delhi University, where she also completed her PhD in Chemistry in 1967 under Prof. TR Seshadri. Simultaneously, while working on her PhD, Darshan also taught the subject at Miranda College. She rose in ranks and was appointed the Head of the Chemistry Department at Miranda College. At this time, she became a coveted awardee of The Senior Research Scholarship of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, a prestigious award that enabled her to conduct her postdoctoral work at Imperial College in London.

Funding her research world

Darshan moved to London in late 1960s to work with Prof. D.H.R. Barton where she started studying cycloartenol in jackfruits. Since jackfruit was not easily accessible in London, Darshan would ask her mother to send the dried form from Delhi, India, thus furthering Barton’s research. At Imperial College she pioneered work in the field of protein folding. With a passion for reproducing biochemical processes in the lab, she created a protocol for the autonomous reproduction of imidazole, an important ingredient found in antifungal drugs and antibiotics. With wealth of knowledge and experience, Darshan returned to India in 1969.

Subramania Ranganathan, Source: “S. Ranganathan: An Organic Chemist and an Artist by Nature” by N. Sathyamurthy

In 1970, she met and married Subramania Ranganathan and this was the start of a relationship of mutual respect. Darshan moved to Kanpur with her husband, and began working at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IIT Kanpur). The marriage was a true partnership of equals. Due to both being cooperative and supportive of each other, they published many papers and books, and also started many courses and lectures related to organic chemistry. Together they published Challenging Problems in Organic Reaction Mechanisms (1972), Art in Biosynthesis: The Synthetic Chemist’s Challenge (1976), and Further Challenging Problems in Organic Reaction Mechanisms (1980), as well as editing an ongoing series titled “Current Organic Chemistry Highlights”.

While at IIT Kanpur, Darshan continued her research on the basis of fellowships. Despite her track record of achievements and ongoing activities, she was overlooked for a faculty position. An unwritten, unofficial rule that spouses would, or should, not be appointed in the same department (a rule that many institutions continue to follow), citing possible conflict of interest or professional miscommunication was used as an excuse. This did not deter Darshan. With her husband’s full support, she shared all resources including students, equipment, chemicals, project funds while they continued to work on their own research domains. She loved to work with her hands and worked long hours. Despite all the trials, tribulations and prejudices she faced, she did exceedingly well and published independently becoming a member of the Indian Academy of Sciences. She was so well revered for her work that her early naysayers became fans.

Getting a “real” job

In 1992, Darshan got her first “real” job at the Regional Research Laboratory, Trivandrum (now known as the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology) where she set up a laboratory for her bio-organic research. With the backing of an institution, she excelled, publishing many articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (16 to be exact!), a feat that did not gone unnoticed by many!

In 1998, upon the invitation of Dr. Raghavan, Director at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Darshan and her family moved to Hyderabad where she took on the position of Deputy Director. During these years, she conducted research in collaboration with Dr. Isabella Karle at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. Though they never met in person, together they published multiple papers.

Darshan received many Fellowships of the Indian Academy of Sciences (1991), The Indian National Science Academy (1996), AV Rama Rao Foundation Award (JNCASR), Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Visiting Fellowship (INSA, 2000), Third World Academy of Sciences award (TWAS) in Chemistry (1999) and Sukh Dev Endowment Lecture (NCL).

During her acceptance speech at the TWAS, the audience witnessed her difficulty in breathing. Upon her return to India, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, one that she fought until her passing on her birthday in 2001. In her memory, a biennial “Professor Darshan Ranganathan Memorial Lecture”, was established by her husband which is to be “delivered by a woman scientist who has made outstanding contributions in any field of Science and Technology”.

Allyship and Attitude

Subramania and Darshan Ranganathan, Source: “S. Ranganathan: An Organic Chemist and an Artist by Nature” by N. Sathyamurthy

Reading about Darshan as a person, her devotion to her research, and her passion for simulating molecules in the lab, one also learns about her courage. She was known as someone who was full of life, dawning a bindi and a Kancheepuram saree. She was loved by her students and faculty along with their families. She was known to be warm, quiet and dignified. Along with all this, she also faced numerous prejudices. While those below her were being promoted to professor statuses, she was forced to remain as a fellow with her husband at IIT Kanpur. Darshan had a passion for reproducing natural biochemical processes in the laboratory. She developed a working simulation of the urea cycle and had outstanding contributions to bio-organic chemistry, particularly supramolecular assemblies, molecular design, chemical simulation of key biological processes (like pituitary hormones and DNA cleaving agents), synthesis of functional hybrid peptides and synthesis of nanotubes. While she funded all her research through fellowships, she never received an Indian award, but she also never cared for one.

Her husband believed that Darshan realized that women scientists face additional hindrances and planned her career accordingly. While she worked hard till the very end, fighting without animosity towards those who opposed her, she was also married to her biggest ally. With her husband’s resources at her disposal, she had the help she needed to continue with her passion. This is where with her dedication and his allyship in harmony gave us the woman scientist we should all look up to (and him as true allies).

Timeline

1941: Born in Karol Bagh, New Delhi

1946–1951: Aryasamaj Girl’s Primary School

1951–1958: Indraprastha Higher Secondary School

1967: Graduated with a PhD in Chemistry from Delhi University. Taught at Miranda College

c1967: Awarded The Senior Research Scholarship of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Goes to London for Postdoctoral work

1969: Finishes postdoctoral fellowship at Imperial College, London and returns to India

1970: Marries Dr. Subramania Ranganathan and moves to IIT Kanpur

1972: Gives birth to their only child, Anand Ranganathan

1991: Receives Fellowship of the Indian Academy of Sciences

1992: Starts independent research lab at Regional Research Laboratory, Trivandrum

1996: Receives Fellowship of the Indian National Science Academy

c1997: Diagnosed with breast cancer and seeks treatment

1999: Received the Third World Academy of Sciences award (TWAS) in Chemistry

2001: Passes away from metastatic breast cancer

About the author:

DR. ROOPALI CHAUDHARY

Content Editor Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Dr. Chaudhary has an MSc in Genetics (University of Waterloo, Canada) studying Drosophila embryogenesis (fruit fly embryo development), and a PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology (McMaster University, Canada) studying intestinal inflammation in a novel mouse model. She furthered her career in a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship studying the immune memory in food allergies (McMaster University, Canada). Dr. Chaudhary’s continually strives to make science accessible, be with through her edible science art (custom cakes), teaching or her outreach activities.

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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Passion for science and art coming together in beautiful harmony to tell stories that inspire us