Friday, March 07, 2008

2008 L'OREAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

Yesterday five women from around the world were presented with L'OREAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO. The awards alternate between the life sciences and material sciences, with this year's awards going to leading life scientists.

Africa & Arab States: Professor Lihadh Al-Gazali

"For her contributions to the characterization of inherited disorders."
Dr. Al-Gazali is a professor in Clinical Genetics an Pediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at United Arab Emirates University. Her research focuses on birth defects and genetic disorders, and established a registry for monitoring birth defects in the UAE.

She told L'Oreal that she believes the biggest obstacle for women in science was trying to balance professional and family life. They are also "generally excluded from the male-dominated 'networking' that is ever-prevalent in scientific circles." She believes the obstacles are similar the world over:
In my personal experience, I did not find any difference between my culture (Iraqi) and western culture regarding working as a woman in Science.
• Asia/Pacific: Assistant Professor V. Narry Kim
"For elucidating the formation of a new class of RNA molecules involved in gene regulation"
Dr. Narry Kim is one of the pioneers in the study of the biology of microRNAs (miRNAs) at Seoul National University in Korea. miRNA are relatively short RNA sequences that regulate gene expression. The field is rather new - miRNAs were first described in 1993. She is by far the youngest award winner this year, having only received her Ph.D. in 1998. In 2005 Kim was interviewed in Quest (an Invitrogen-sponsored magazine), where she talked about her research and running a lab. It's not surprising to me that she turns out to be passionate about her research and seems to do more than normal days could accommodate:
Science is always full of interesting inquiries, and I am thrilled when I'm challenged to seek out answers to new questions. I have a tendency to concentrate on what intrigues me most, which is both one of my strengths and weaknesses. I follow my intuition to lead me in the right direction on what to work on, and I naturally end up devoting all my energy to it. These days I try not to bury myself completely in research and instead attempt to gain a balance among the various roles I perform as a group leader and a teacher, as well as a mother and wife. It is sometimes a difficult challenge for me to carry so much responsibility, but I enjoy all of my roles and the diversity in my life. I realize that I am truly a lucky person.
As she told L'Oreal, however, it wasn't always easy:
[Working as a scientist in Korea] we were often tol that it might be difficult to get a decent permanent position as a woman, even when we excelled in terms of scientific capability. That was very discouraging. The working environment in the lab in Korea in the early 1990's was not very friendly to women students. But things have in many ways improved signficiantly over the last ten years. The difficulty still remains, however, esspecially with childcare - which needs changes not only in Korea but also worldwide.
In 2007 she was named one of three Korean Woman Scientists of the Year. Her web site links to additional interviews in Korean.

• Europe: Professor Ada Yonath
"For her structural studies of the protein biosynthesis system and its disruption by antibiotics."
Dr. Ada Yonath is a structural biologist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. Her research focuses on determining the structure of ribosomes, a large complex of proteins and RNA that uses a messenger RNA template to assemble amino acids into polypeptide chains. According to the Jerusalem Post, her achievements are in spite of the fact her research was "scoffed at for years":
She was the first in the world to pioneer ribosomal crystallography against all odds and single handedly, when others couldn't even conceive its possibility.
In the course of her career, she developed new methods that have become standard in crystallography today.

In her interview on the L'Oreal web site, she talks about the encouragement she received to pursue a career in science:
My father died when I was 11 years old and left my mother with me and my sister but no income, so I was needed at home. Nevertheless, my mother realized my luust for science and provided me with massive emotional support. She did not object to my academic studies, although at the time this was not so common for females. When I became a scientist, my mother, sister, and later on my daughter and granddaughter always supported my scientific activies, in my presence as well as in my frequent absences.
Yonath has also won the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry and the Israel Prize, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Israel Academy of Sciences.

• Latin America: Professor Ana Belén Elgoyhen
"For her contributions to the understanding of the molecular basis of hearing."
Dr. Ana Belén Elgoyhen is an investigator at the Institute for Research on Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology, National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her research focuses on the physiology of hearing, particularly the transmission of signals in the cochlea.

In her interview with L'Oreal, she noted that the number of women in science and other professions has increased dramatically. She notes, however, that women have more outside responsibilities than men:
I think the opportunities are equal for men and women. However, in general women go slower in this frantic race because we have extra work compared to men; we are scientists, we have to help support our family, we give birth to our children and raise them, and we have to run the house and family.
I suspect that young scientists might find her recipe for success to be discouraging:
The key to success is hard work, intelligence, a huge cup of luck and being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right, good people.
• North America: Professor Elizabeth Blackburn
"For the discovery of the nature and maintenance of chromosome ends and their roles in cancer and aging."
University of California at San Francisco biochemistry professor Elizabeth Blackburn studies telomeres, the repetitive DNA sequences that protect the ends of chromosomes from destruction. In 2007 Time Magazine named her one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World".

Blackburn has received numerous awards, including the National Academy of Science Award in Molecular Biology, the Australia Prize, the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor, and the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Biomedical Research (called the "American Nobel"). She is a former president of the American Society for Cell Biology and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. From 2002 to 2004 she served on the President's Council on Bioethics, on which she fought for a policy on human embryonic stem cell research that was based on science rather than politics. Not surprisingly, she was one of two committee member who were not appointed to a second term.

She told L'Oreal that growing up in Australia, she received encouragement from her mother - a physician - to pursue a career in science. She notes that women still encounter discrimination in the sciences:
Even when women are accomplished scientists, discriminatory remarks can have a devastating effect. The vulnerable early stage of being a scientist is one where a young woman can be especially impacted. What does a young person who does not have a career of achievements and recognition to fall back on do for reassurance?
Unfortunately, she didn't give an answer to that question.

As part of the awards festivities, there was a special gala celebration for the 10th anniversary of the awards, with 37 former Laureates in attendance. That must have been an amazing crowd. The current and former Laureates signed the Charter of Commitment "For Women in Science," committing themselves to:
- 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 networks 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
Those goals sound like they could lead to positive change both for women interested in science careers, in in the public perception of science.

(And shock horror, four of the five winners are wearing pants in their group photo. Don't tell Erik Jensen.)

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