THE L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science awards ceremony held at the Unesco headquarters in Paris on March 3 was akin to a fashion show as the winners were all decked out in their national costumes. They looked resplendent, and photographers had a field day snapping pictures of these brainy beauties.
The recipients of the international fellowships were:
> From Asia and the Pacific: Tan Yifen (Malaysia), Marissa Teo (Singapore) and Antima Gupta (India).
Antima, 29, hails from Lucknow, and is the youngest of three siblings. She is married to a scientist, so her husband is understanding and supportive of her work.
Her father was a lecturer in education while her mother was a housewife. Thanks to their guidance, Antima is where she is today, pursuing what she loves.
“Bio-technology and science are for humankind, to meet the needs of society. I want to contribute to meet those needs and thus, improve society,” said Antima in an interview.
Her research revolves around the development of new models of medicine for fighting tuberculosis.
“Please don’t think that illnesses are wiped out just because we have medicines against them. Diseases are always evolving. Incomplete, or the misuse of, treatment leads to resistance to antibiotics.
“To prevent antibiotic resistance, patients must finish their antibiotics treatment,” she emphasised.
> From Africa: Marietta Solange Soupi Nkeutcha (of Cameroon), Djoudi Roukia (Comoros), Elisabeth Lendoye (Gabon).
Lendoye, who speaks fluent French, dedicates her award to her mother, “who did everything for me.” Her father died when she was just three years old.
“My mother is an impassioned woman who stands up for what she believes in,” said Lendoye in an interview. “She is a social/AIDS worker, and studied in France from 1960 to 1965.
“She always encouraged my siblings (there are 10 in the family; Lendoye is the eighth) and I to do our best in what we were strong in. I’ve always wanted to do science, and was prompted to pursue bio-chemistry. I’m a medical doctor, too.”
Her area of research covers the study of muscle physiology and a new approach to Type 2 diabetes.
“Through this fellowship, I can network with the other women scientists,” said the mother of one.
> From the Arab states: Hadeer Ibrahim El-Dakhakhni (Egypt), Nawal Bouaynayne (Morocco), Ghalia Boubaker (Tunisia).
> From Europe and North America: Irene Margiolaki (Greece), Maria-Teresa Guardiola-Claramonte (Spain), Svitlana Yablonska (Ukraine).
Guardiola-Claramonte, better known as Maite, 34, from Valencia, is interested in waste water recycling and its implications on public health and the environment.
Maite’s motivation for her work comes from her desire to improve the lives of the needy. “Since young, I’ve wanted to work in other – especially poorer – countries, and to help the people there,” she said.
Her parents were both teachers, and she has two older brothers.
> From Latin America and the Caribbean: Diana Marcela Bolaٌos Rodriguez (Colombia), Maria Gabriela Gei (Costa Rica), Margoth Mitchela Moreno Vigo (Peru).
The 15 fellows presented their scientific work, attended briefings (dealing with topics such as patents and protecting their discoveries, how to get published, funding, media training and multi-disciplinary networking), and were given hair and make-up sessions in preparation for their photo shoots, and rehearsed for the awards ceremonies (separate ceremonies were held for the laureates and the international winners).
In addition to the international fellows, five women scientists – one from each of the five continents – were honoured as laureates for their outstanding contributions to humankind and the environment, and for being a source of support, motivation and inspiration for other women in science.
They were: Prof Rashika El Ridi (Egypt), Prof Lourdes J. Cruz (the Philippines), Prof Anne Dejean-Assémat (France), Prof Alejandra Bravo (Mexico) and Prof Elaine Fuchs (the United States).
The scientific presentations by the five laureates was held on March 2 at the Academy of Sciences at the Institute of France, facing the River Seine. They elaborated on their findings in the august surroundings of the hall, adorned by several busts and statues of famous scientists, such as Charles Augustin Coulomb, Jacques Delille, Henri Etienne and Michel Montagne. The awards ceremony for the laureates, also held at the Unesco headquarters, took place two days later. During this event, these extraordinary women presented capsule reviews of their scientific discoveries.
New treatment for cancer
Research director Prof Dejean-Assémat of the Pasteur Institute, France, was named laureate for her discovery of the molecular and cellular mechanisms at the origin of certain cancers, such as liver cancer and leukaemia, thus paving the way for new treatment procedures.
Her father was an engineer and environmental protection activist while her mother was a mathematics professor.
“They instilled in me their independence, and an inclination to question things and to protest when necessary,” said Prof Dejean of her role models.
“Our house was open to all, and evenings were filled with endless discussions. From this open environment, I developed a questioning mind as well as combativeness.”
The molecular biologist added: “The issue that matters most at this moment is continuing the quest for knowledge, for the good of our planet and its inhabitants. Non-programmed, non-channelled, fundamental research represents a country’s future, and its scientists are a resourse that must not be wasted.
“The greatest discovery in cancer came from a researcher doing research on (the totally unrelated subject of) sea urchins!” she said in an interview with StarTwo, emphasising the need for scientists to be free to carry out their research without the limitations or pressure of getting certain results or working on a certain application.
“The qualities of a great scientist are commitment, passion, creativity, talent, a bit of luck and diligence,” said Prof Dejean.
Juggling the various facets of a woman – as daughter, spouse, mother, homemaker and scientist – is extremely challenging but she loves each of these facets of womanhood and tries to maintain the fragile equilibrium between them.
“I’m trying my best to keep each of these facets by being extremely well organised. I do everything myself, and at home, I also do the laundry,” said the mother of three grown-up children aged 23, 21 and 18.
Medical hope from marine snails
The beauty of certain marine snails belie their extremely poisonous nature, and their venom can prove fatal. Biochemist Prof Cruz of the University of Philippines has discovered the structure and functioning of conotoxins produced by such snails, and provided the medical world with some powerful tools for researching the nervous system.
In medicine, these toxins serve as components for developing drugs to fight pain, epilepsy and other neurological disorders.
Determined to improve the lives of individuals in her community, Prof Cruz plans to use the L’Oreal-Unesco Award money to purchase a piece of land to serve as a new base for the Rural Livelihood Incubator (Rural Linc) programme which she started in 2001, including a site for a fruit-processing facility run by women farmers, where the indigenous tribes can sell fruits from the orchards and forest trees.
“I established the (Rural Linc) programme to try and mobilise science and technology to alleviate poverty,” said Prof Cruz.
Rural Linc strives to create jobs, and fight poverty and socio-political instability, over the long term in the rural areas of the Philippines.
Working on skin stem cells
Stem cells and the key processes involved in skin development, maintenance and repair are the focus areas for Prof Fuchs of the Rockefeller University in New York.
Her considerable body of work has revolutionised the scientific approach to skin stem cells, which make it possible to reverse hair loss or regenerate the cells of the epidermis. Fascinated by skin and hair, Prof Fuchs is at the leading edge of cutaneous biology and genetic skin disorders, including cancers.
Heading the Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development at the university, her vast body of work has considerably contributed to our knowledge of skin biology and skin stem cells, and associated human diseases.
“In studying the stem cells of the skin, there is tremendous potential not only for regenerative medicine, but also for studying and developing new and improved treatments for poorly understood but devastating genetic disorders, including cancers,” she said.
She thinks that, in spite of enormous progress, there are still disparities between men and women in science.
“This becomes increasingly obvious at the upper end of the achievement ladder, where fewer women are there to ‘remind’ their male colleagues of the importance of not ignoring the scientific accomplishments of their female peers,” she added.
Her role models were the women in her life: her mother, a housewife, who felt that Fuchs would make a fine chemist; her aunt, a biologist; and her older sister, a neuroscientist.
The petite woman that is Prof Bravo, who works at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Cuernavaca, Mexico, was honoured for her understanding of the mechanism of a bacterial toxin that acts as an environmentally-friendly insecticide.
Prof Bravo believes that the rapid progress of technology in science should be harnessed to diagnose and prevent disease and counteract emerging bacteria, viruses and insect pests.
She explained that global warming will lead to the development of new insect pests and epidemic diseases.
“We need to improve science to counteract these problems because they affect food production and health.”
Vaccine against a tropical disease
Prof Rashika is attached to the Department of Zoology in the Science Faculty at Cairo Univerity in Egypt. She has paved the way for the development of a vaccine against the tropical parasitic disease known as schistosomiasis or bilharzia or “snail fever” which causes about 280,000 deaths a year. “A schistosomiasis vaccine will help the world eradicate the parasite, as we did with the smallpox variola virus and the polio virus.
“We can reasonably expect to see the development of such a vaccine within the next five years,” said Prof Rashika, an immunobiologist, in a press release.