Life of Science Education

Ruling the roost


Meet Kavita Shah, an environmental biotechnologist developing biosensors, and one of very few women science bosses at BHU.

Benaras Hindu University in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, has been titled as an institute of national importance by the government but is infamous for improperly dealing with sexual assault within campus and also lacks leadership by women. Kavita Shah is one of the few faces at the top of the hierarchy at BHU. She is currently the only woman director at the university. She leads the Institute of Environmental and Sustainable Development.


Kavita started off as a chemistry student at women’s college at BHU named Mahila Mahavidyalaya (MMV). Years later, she would set up the first CIL — Central Instrumentation Laboratory here — a deck of necessary scientific instruments. But before she could do this, Kavita had to gather her scientific mettle. She did a Ph.D, also at BHU. Her research question involved a range of biochemical experiments. Following this were post doc stints in Japan and Switzerland. When she returned to India she took up lectureship in NEHU (North East Hill University) in Shillong. As an opportunity propped up, Kavita returned to Varanasi to teach at BHU. She brought her first PhD student with her from Shillong.


Kavita’s scientific life now spans 24 years. After setting up the CIL in the women’s college that is still in use, Kavita moved to the science faculty and then the IESD, of which she is now director. Kavita’s scientific focus is on enzymes and how to make use of them. She won the ‘Women Scientist Award 2011’ from The Biotech Research Society for developing an enzyme-based sensor of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This sensor can monitor levels of dopamine in neurological patients to help administer proper dose of the drug to patients with Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s diseases. Kavita had found another novel application of this enzyme. Using nanotechnology, she has created a pollutant biosensor from this enzyme.

Dye houses that exist in thousands in the saree-producing Varanasi area are small units using chemicals affluents. “They discard the waste water directly in the soil after dying, but this water ultimately comes to their own tap water and drinking water or their agricultural land. It gets accumulated in the water table and then there is no way to remove it. To avoid such contamination we are preparing to give dyers the small instruments (bioreactors) at a very low cost so that the contaminated waste water can be treated. We have a prototype for testing it,” she said.

Additionally, with her students she is involved in mapping polluting sources of the Ganga including sewage and prolonged use as funeral sites that has led to silting. She also has methods to make transgenic tomatoes, genetic sequences of common root rot and protein models of enzymes that come from rice.

The author is a science writer and part of The Life of Science project. To know more about women scientists in India and their research, visit

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 10:43:48 PM |

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