Professor who escaped life of drudgery wins Asian award

Arifa Akbar
Friday 26 May 2006 00:00

A 51-year-old Chinese scientist who fought her way up from the assembly line of a bus factory to become a respected professor at a British university last night won the Outstanding Asian Woman of Achievement Award.

Xiangqian Jiang ­ known as Jane in the UK ­ was taken out of school aged 15 and sent to work as a chassis assembly worker during the cultural revolution in China. She said she resigned herself to the mindless graft for two decades but never gave up on her ambition to become a scientist.

She taught herself at night school, studying for up to five hours every evening to become proficient in engineering, maths and science until she was finally able to go to university. "I had a strong scientific curiosity and I was determined to go to university so that I could contribute more to society," she explained.

After finishing her PhD at the age of 40 in China, she was persuaded to move to Britain in 1995 to work as a research scientist at Birmingham University, and later Huddersfield.

At the same time, she brought up her daughter, who is now a 24-year-old Cambridge graduate and biochemist. She is thought to be the first woman from the Chinese mainland to become a full professor in Britain in any subject.

Based at Huddersfield University's Centre for Precision Technologies, she researches topics ranging from the depth of wrinkles in human skin for the beauty industry, to how to improve the working life of artificial hip joints.

The Asian Women of Achievement Awards, held at the Park Lane Hilton in London, recognised the talents of women whose work in eight categories, including science, business, arts and the humanitarian sector, has made a significant impact in the UK.

Chief Inspector Parm Sandhu, of Sikh origin, the highest ranking Asian woman in the Metropolitan Police, was presented with the Public Sector Award for playing a high-profile role in reassuring communities after the 7 July bombings in London last year. The 42-year-old, who brought up her two sons with the help of her extended family, has worked in the Met's department for counterterrorism since the July bombings. Out of a total of 492 chief inspectors, 38 are women and she is the only Asian.

"There were a lot of negative stereotypes after 7/7 and people began to look at Asians in a different way," she said. "But when they saw a police officer who was Asian, it reinforced the message that it was not about colour but about people working together after the atrocities last year."

When she joined the force in 1989, aged 24, it was "just white men" . She was once told by a senior officer, who has since left, that she would have to choose between motherhood and police work. "He told me: 'You have to make a choice between being a mother and being a police officer. The two don't go together.' That kind of comment would not be allowed to go unchecked today," she said.

Chief Inspector Sandhu said it was now "a changing environment", but still: "Often I will go to senior meetings and I will still be the only woman and the only black woman."

Winners ranged from Shaheen Khan, the actress who played a Punjabi mother in the film Bend it Like Beckham, to Humerah Khan and Sumerah Ahmad, co-founders of Club Asia radio station, and Professor Nazneen Rahman, a researcher in childhood cancers.



Professor Xiangqian Jiang: Academic who escaped oppression under Mao's cultural revolution.


Chief Inspector Parm Sandhu: Met's highest-ranking Asian woman.


Humerah Khan and Sumerah Ahmad: The sisters co-founded Club Asia.


Damini Kumar: In 1999, the 29-year-old invented the world's first non-drip teapot.


Fareena Alam: Managing editor of Muslim magazine Q-News.


Shaheen Khan: The actress who played a mother in the film Bend it Like Beckham.


Professor Nazneen Rahman: Researcher in childhood cancers, 38.


Anila Wickramasinghe: Founder of ReOrient Legal, which provides Shariah consultancy.


Celine Samarasinhe: Founder of two community nursing services in Sri Lanka.

Aysin Yilmaz: Turkish Philanthropic Association.

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