Honouring women’s scientific achievements

  • Business
  • Saturday, 28 Mar 2009

FOR the layman, few things can be more intellectually strenuous than sitting in on research presentations by senior professors at the imposing grand hall of the Institute of France in Paris.

Even in ordinary circumstances, talks on physics, chemistry and Astronomy – revolving around esoteric phrases such as “organic metals”, “the physics of messy materials”, “the life of stars” and “harnessing light for cancer therapy” – are tough to absorb.

Throw in the fact that you have busts, statues and paintings of some of the greatest minds in French history standing watch over the stately room, and it becomes an even bigger challenge not to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of science.

When you look around, you see that most of the people there are women scientists. They, of course, have no problem appreciating the presentations.

After all, the session is part of this year’s instalment of the For Women in Science programme, which was created in 1998 by L’Oreal and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

It brings together leading female scientists and young women researchers from all over the world.

They come to Paris to receive recognition for their work and to take part in various activities under the programme.

The research presentations may well be the most technical portion of the six-day programme in March, but it is certainly not merely an academic exercise.

The programme’s aim is to promote women in scientific research, and that requires more than an avenue for scientists to talk shop.

Rewarding women scientists

The apex is the L’Oreal-Unesco Awards for Women in Science, which have become a coveted accolade among female scientists, perhaps second only to the Nobel Prize.

Incidentally, of the 789 individuals who have been awarded the Nobel Prize, only 35 are women. Of the 35, 12 won for their achievements in physics, chemistry or medicine; the rest are for literature or peace. Marie Curie is a two-time Nobel laureate, receiving the prize for physics in 1903 and for chemistry in 1911.

These facts reinforce the basis for the For Women in Science programme – that women are under-represented in the research industry, that women deserve more recognition for their contribution to science, and that Curie should not be the sole inspiration for budding female scientists.

Says L’Oreal, “Since the creation of L’Oreal in 1909, science has been at the heart of our business, and women are fundamental to everything we do. It is L’Oreal’s dream to identify and give recognition to outstanding women in science who aspire to contribute to humanity’s progress.”

The recipients (also known as laureates) of the L’Oreal-Unesco Awards for Women in Science are selected from five regions: Africa and Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America.

The awards alternate yearly between life sciences and physical sciences, and the latter is this year’s theme.

The 2009 laureates are Tebello Nyokong (from South Africa), Akiko Kobayashi (Japan), Athene Donald (Britain), Beatriz Barbuy (Brazil) and Eugenia Kumacheva (Canada). They each receive US$100,000.

In addition, the programme annually grants International Fellowships to 15 young women researchers – they have to be under 35 years – at the doctoral or post-doctoral level, whose projects have been accepted by a reputable institution outside of their home countries.

These international fellows each gets up to US$40,000 over two years to help finance her research.

Among the winners this year is Chan Yean Yean, a lecturer with Universiti Sains Malaysia. She is the third Malaysian to have bagged an international fellowship.

While in Paris, the international fellows attend training on practical areas such as networking, raising funds, getting published and patents. They also get to hear from past fellows on their experiences.

The programme has a third tier, the National Fellowships awards for the respective countries. The initiative in Malaysia provides financial assistance to young female researchers to pursue their scientific projects locally.

The case for diversity

It is easy to see a justification for L’Oreal’s support for the For Women in Science programme. It makes sense for a company that bills itself as “the world’s largest cosmetics company” to go the extra mile to enlarge the role of women in science and more broadly, in society.

The goal of the programme is reflected in its tagline: “The world needs science. Science needs women.”

Ahmed Zewail, who presided over the jury that chose this year’s laureates and himself a Nobel laureate for chemistry, expands on this.

“I believe, like many others, that the core of human civilisation is shaped by the quest for knowledge – in one word, it’s science. Without women in science, we are deprived of the contribution of Earth’s population.”

Donald, one of this year’s For Women in Science laureates, points out that it is always a bad idea to have only one kind of approach to any subject.

She says the spirit of the programme reflects the importance of diversity.

“If you have a diverse group of people doing science, then they will bring diverse ways of doing science and that will only enrich the subject,” she explains.

Nyokong, another laureate, sees it as an honourable way for the company to give back to women, who make up the majority of the consumers of its products.

Difficult balance

L’Oreal’s bulging portfolio of brands are split into four divisions: consumer products (with names such as Garnier, L’Oreal Paris and Maybelline NY), professional products (L’Oreal Professionnel, Kerastase and Redken), luxury products (Lancome, Biotherm, Helena Rubinstein and Shu Uemura) and active cosmetics (Vichy and La Roche-Posay).

The Body Shop is also part of the L’Oreal group.

For Donald, it is almost irrelevant that L’Oreal is a cosmetics company.

“The important thing is that it really believes in the programme and is putting so much weight behind it,” she says, adding that a keen understanding of many women’s issues is a key feature that L’Oreal brings to the table.

“I don’t know a lot about its internal policies, but given that most of its customers and more than 50% of its researchers are women, it knows the major challenges of balancing family and work.

And it can incorporate this awareness in the programme.”

Indeed, achieving the work-life balance is huge consideration for women in the scientific community.

The laureate from Asia-Pacific, Kobayashi, recalls having to rely on childcare services and neighbours when raising her daughter. Even so, it was always a struggle.

“When she was very young, I had very limited time for my work. That’s one of the biggest difficulties faced by other women scientists as well,” she says.

Donald says it is often harder for women to establish a career in science because the field changes fast and it is harder to dive back into work after a break of a year or two. Also, scientists are reluctant to work on flexible hours or on a part-time basis because they fear that it will hurt their career prospects.

She adds, “For young women just starting out in science, balancing work and life is still the biggest worry. It’s difficult but not impossible. One crucially important thing about this prize is that it says it is possible to be a successful scientist and still, for instance, have a family.”

Malaysia’s target

This is a powerful aspect of the For Women in Science programme – its potential for sparking interest in science, particularly among girls and young women.

Says Zaweil, the jury president, “I know from experience that role models make a profound impact. They demonstrate that it is possible to achieve excellence independent of race, sex or faith.”

There is also the fact that the awards’ considerable cachet enhances the recipients’ credibility and visibility.

Nyokong, for example, hopes that laureate status will give her a platform to make people realise the importance of science.

“There are people in high positions who cannot link science to development, who cannot see why it is important to study science in schools. I am on many committee and councils. I have to fight all the time to say we need more scientists,” she says.

“With this award, maybe they’ll no longer say, ‘She’s just that crazy little woman.’ Maybe they’ll now go, ‘She must know what she’s talking about.’”

The prestige of the L’Oreal-Unesco Awards for Women in Science is alluring to Malaysia as well.

Although it is no small feat to have three international fellows from the programme, the big prize remains a priority target because it can be a potent catalyst for education and science in Malaysia.

Says Datuk Kenneth Luis, Malaysia’s permanent delegate to Unesco, “We want to have a laureate in a year or two. We can come up with a plan so that a Malaysian will be the Asia-Pacific representative for the awards soon.”

Meanwhile, L’Oreal Malaysia has recently launched the fourth edition of its Women In Science Fellowships, which offers RM20,000 each to young female researchers to undertake projects in Malaysia.

The applications have to be submitted to the Malaysian National Commission for Unesco by July 31. Go to www.loreal.com.my for details.

TO mark its 10th year in 2008, the For Women in Science programme came up with a 10- point charter of commitment “to change the face of science”.

On Mar 5 this year, the five 2009 award laureates added their signatures to the charter to show their support for the following objectives:

· Act as a role model to inspire future generations

· Transmit passion for scientific research

· Encourage women scientists to act as agents of change

· Strengthen and support scientific research on all continents

· Foster creativity and innovation

· Advocate for diversity and gender equity

· Build sustainable net works for women scientists

· Participate as women scientists in public policy decision making

· Shape attitudes to change the face of science

· Promote science as a source of progress

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