Five of the UK’s most promising female scientists were last night named Fellows of the L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women in Science programme, in recognition of their scientific achievements in areas as diverse as gene mutation and evolutionary change; molecular changes in the brains of acute head injury patients; and Chagas disease.
The winning scientists, selected from nearly 400 applicants, were announced at a prestigious ceremony hosted at the Royal Society. They are:
Dr Sophie Acton, University College London, Immunology/Cell Biology
Dr Maria Bruna, University of Oxford, Mathematics
Dr Sam Giles, University of Oxford, Palaeobiology
Dr Tanya Hutter, University of Cambridge, Physical Chemistry
Dr Louisa Messenger, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Public Health
The UK & Ireland fellowships have been designed to provide flexible financial help to outstanding female postdoctoral scientists to continue research in their chosen fields. The fellowships, worth £15,000 each can be spent on whatever they may need to continue their research.
This year, four of the five winners, who are mothers of young children, plan to use part of their prize money to help with childcare costs, ensuring that they can continue their research whilst also raising young families. In addition, the money will help fund expensive equipment and travel to international conferences.
The L’Oréal- UNESCO For Women in Science programme aims to support and help increase the number of women working in sciences. In the UK, women are still underrepresented in the science community, with only 15% of STEM roles taken by women.*
Further, the sector still suffers a perception problem which is even more acute in the UK than elsewhere in Europe; research has shown that when asked to think of a scientist, just 31% of people in the UK would picture a woman (compared with 41% across Europe), while 71% think men are more suited to being high level scientists, than women (60% in Europe.)**
In response to these issues, L’Oréal has launched a manifesto (www.forwomeninscience.com) in association with UNESCO, encouraging people to show their support for increasing gender equality in science careers. Dr Steve Shiel, Scientific Director at L’Oréal UK & Ireland, said: “At a time when there’s still a significant gender imbalance in the UK science community, it’s vital that organisations like ours find ways to support women in getting into and staying in science. As a company founded on science, we are committed to helping breakdown the barriers standing between students and potential scientific careers because, simply, science needs women.”
Professor Dame Carol Robinson, Head of the Judging Panel and a L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Laureate, said: “We were really impressed by the research projects each our finalists is working on, and it was tough to decide on our winning group – each is working hard to solve a specific question. We are excited that they will benefit from the very real, flexible support provided in the Fellowship, at a critical stage in their careers.”
About the winning Fellows:
Dr Sophie Acton is a cell biologist researching the interactions between leukocytes and stromal cells within lymphoid organs as part of the body’s immune response. Her research focuses on how dendritic cells help transmit danger messages to lymph nodes, what causes lymph nodes to swell and expand, and how these findings can be applied to a tumour microenvironment.
Dr Maria Bruna is a mathematician developing models which can improve the efficiency of particle separation technologies, which are critical to a wide range of sectors from the food and pharmaceutical industries to clinical research. In stem cell research, for example, individual stem cells must be identified and separated from many thousands of neighbouring cells before they can be used in therapies.
Dr Sam Giles is a paleobiologist who is using x-ray tomography to study the evolution of the brain and its surrounding bone structure in ray-finned fishes, the largest living group of vertebrates, containing over 30,000 species. By comparing the brains of modern fish with 3D reconstructions of their ancestors, the research will help understand how the evolution of the brain contributed to the success of this group, with significant ramifications for understanding rates of gene mutation and evolutionary change.
Dr Tanya Hutter is a chemist developing a real-time online sensor which can measure molecular changes in the brains of acute head injury patients. The technology will improve upon current labour- and time-sensitive medical techniques, saving time and money. It will also allow more patients to be monitored in critical care units – an intervention which can dramatically improve patient outcomes.
Dr Louisa Messenger is a specialist in public health, who is conducting research into Chagas disease which, in the Bolivian Gran Chaco region, affects more than 97% of adults - approximately 30% of those will develop cardiomyopathy, for which there is no curative adult treatment available. Her research will help develop new diagnostic tests to identify which patients are at highest risk of complications, and refer children for treatment.
Three runners up were awarded £1,000 prize money:
Dr Tatiana Habruseva is an optical physicist examining how the latest semiconductor and silicon nanotechnology can be used to develop new, cost- and energy-efficient optical devices providing increased bandwidth, compactness, and lower power consumption than existing technology. This will support the growing need for increased bandwidth to provide high-speed internet, cloud computing, data communication and multimedia broadcast systems.
Dr Tzany Kokalova Wheldon is a nuclear physicist studying how chemical elements are forged in the stars. Her research will examine the decay of the rotating Hoyle State in the carbon-12 isotope, a process which is key to understanding how elements are produced, to reveal its underlying structure and the forces which create elements such as oxygen and carbon.
Dr Nathalie Vriend is a physical scientist examining the physics behind the formation and movement of desert sand dunes, a fast-moving phenomenon which threaten the settlements and infrastructure of up to a billion people worldwide. The research will focus on the dynamics of sand dune migration from the formation of a small ripple to the full-scale movement of a mature dune.
*According to Women in Science and Engineering, UK STEM workforce, 2015: https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/resources/2015/09/women-in-the-stem-workforce
**According to L’Oréal Change The Numbers research, 2015: http://discov-her.com/en/article/changethenumbers-discover-the-most-striking-results
(press release from The L’Oréal- UNESCO For Women in Science programme https://www.womeninscience.co.uk/news/2016-winners)