On 3rd May 2017 the 10th annual L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland ‘For Women in Science’ awards were held at the Royal Society in London. The awards are part of a wider L’Oréal-UNESCO programme which aims to encourage and back women working in the UK science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector, an area currently dominated by men. The prize money awarded to the winners, can be spent in any way needed as part of their research, be that equipment, field trips or childcare.
At the presentation, five promising UK scientists won the fellowships of flexible funding worth £15,000 in order to continue their postdoctoral research in fields as diverse as haematology and mathematics. Chosen from a pool of nearly 300 applicants the five winners were: Dr Radha Boya (University of Manchester; nanoscience), Dr Annie Curtis (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland; immunology), Dr Manju Kurian (University College London, Great Ormond Street; neurology), Dr Bethan Psaila (University of Oxford; haematology) and Dr Priya Subramanian (University of Leeds; mathematics).
Dr Radha Boya is a nanoscientist who is looking to produce atomically thin channels through layers of two-dimensional materials such as graphene. ‘Sieves’ like this can be used for filtration for periods of months using water, but become quickly blocked when using air. Her research is examining the relationship between the channels and the liquid used as the main component for filtration, in order to find whether other solutions would alter the interaction.Dr Annie Curtis is an immunologist researching how the power of our internal body clock might be harnessed to control inflammation. She hopes her study of 500,000 patients will help explain why people are more prone to inflammation at particular times of the day and how disruptions to our body clock (e.g., shift work, chronic jet lag, exposure to light at night) could result in an increased risk of inflammatory disease.
Dr Manju Kurian is a geneticist researching the possible genetic causes of cerebral palsy. Although the condition has in the past been associated with birth injury, many children actually have a faulty gene causing their symptoms. In a preliminary study, she found a genetic cause in half of the children assessed and was able in some instances to identify targeted treatments that have led to significant improvements. Some of the disabled children have even regained the ability to walk without assistance.
Dr Bethan Psaila is a haematologist investigating the role of blood cells (megakaryocytes) in bone marrow in the rare but fatal disease myelofibrosis. Most patients survive less than five years after diagnosis and around 20% develop blood cancer. There is no current treatment which cures or improves survival but Dr Psaila hopes that a better understanding of how the disease develops at a genetic level could help in the development of more successful treatments.
Dr Priya Subramanian is a mathematician examining mathematical recipes for never-repeating quasicrystals. She is especially interested in never-repeating patterns because they have an order but no repeatability. Quasicrystals with atoms and molecules in such an arrangement might need less energy to assemble and could therefore offer advantages in manufacturing, insulation and photonic devices.
In addition to the five fellows, two PhD students (Amanda Dalby from the University of Cambridge and Ellen Dorothea Moss from Newcastle University) were selected as poster competition winners and five runners up were awarded £1000 prizes: Dr Eleanor Raffan (University of Cambridge; genetics), Dr Sarah Fiddyment (University of York; biochemistry), Dr Emma Chapman (Imperial College London; astrophysics), Dr Alyssa-Jennifer Avestro (Durham University; organic chemistry) and Dr Sarah Rasmussen (University of Cambridge; mathematics).
Many of this year’s winners with young families said that they would use the award to help better balance time between their career and their family, whilst others said that the funding will help them realise collaboration or travel ambitions. When asked, the Scientific Director at L’Oréal UK and Ireland Dr Steve Shiel, said he thought the programme was very important because “Women still face significant barriers to STEM careers, from a shortage of female role models for young children to a lack of support once on their chosen career path.” Professor Dame Carol Robinson, who is Chair of the Jury and a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Laureate added that, “These awards are well known in the science community and are always fiercely contested because of the vital support they provide.”
Research Features caught up with Karina O’Gorman, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at L’Oréal UK and Ireland to find out some more about the L’Oréal-UNESCO programme.
Can you tell us a little bit more about L’Oréal-UNESCO, its core mission and heritage?
It was 18 years ago that L’Oréal and UNESCO founded the For Women in Science international programme to recognise the achievements of exceptional female scientists and award them with fellowships to help further their research. In support of the international programme L’Oréal markets around the world run national fellowship programmes. In the UK and Ireland, we have run our fellowships for the past ten years, and they offer a personal flexible funding award to five early career researchers each year.
How do the annual fellowship programmes/awards by L’Oréal support outstanding female researchers and promote the increase of women working in STEM professions?
It is widely reported that the biggest drop off point for women in STEM is in the early part of their careers, often coinciding with a busier work/life balance; that is why our award is flexible funding that can be used for their work or even for childcare to help minimise those barriers that can on occasion prevent a career in STEM.
For our readers, what type of candidates would be eligible for a L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship award and how can they apply?
The applications are open to female candidates who are hosted at a UK or Ireland university and have less than ten years postdoctoral work experience.
What are your personal achievements and highlights at L’Oréal?
A highlight for me has been creating and building strategic corporate social responsibility activities for L’Oréal that utilise the brand purpose to make a positive difference in the areas of science education and confidence through beauty.
When it comes to teaching science, early childhood educators have a tremendous impact and influence on shaping the thoughts and opinions of children – can you tell us about L’Oréal’s new partnership with the charity Education and Employers which runs the ‘Inspiring the Future’ programme, and its campaign?
We recognise that children as young as six-years-old can rule out future job roles based on gender. We understand it is imperative that primary school-aged children can hear about a myriad of careers and job roles and see women working in professions such as science so that they are able to be broad-minded about their future opportunities as they grow up. Our Women in Science campaign is calling on speakers to go into primary schools and help ignite the spark in the next generation of scientists. Over 150 volunteers who have signed up already will help us reach 50,000 primary school children over the next academic year. If you would like to read more you can do so here: www.educationandemployers.org/programmes/inspiring-women-campaign/
How does the L’Oréal-UNESCO campaign for Women in Science ensure that it is not negative towards men?
The campaign celebrates science as a whole and the important place science has in the world. It acknowledges that still to this day, statistically there are much fewer women in science and we must do all we can to help change this.
What does the future hold for the L’Oréal-UNESCO campaign?
We will continue to run our fellowships and for 2018, we are launching an online community to connect our fellows all around the world with free training and personal development resources. As well as the training, it will also offer the chance for the fellows to build a supportive network with other women in science. This came about from conversations with many of our winners who say that being a woman in science can often be quite isolating; we want to help them build a broad network of peers.
What needs to be done to ensure that women continue to enter STEM education and careers?
I think having as many touchpoints as possible along the talent pipeline is imperative to ensure we are engaging as many young people as possible in science, and then as we move up through to key drop off points for women, we have supportive programmes such as our fellowships.
• If you would like to find out more about the ‘For Women in Science’ campaign, programmes and awards by L’Oréal and UNESCO partnership, please visit their website at www.womeninscience.co.uk/