Supporting women in science
Women in Science In the UK, girls make up just over half of GCSE students studying science; yet this level of participation in science dramatically decreases as the academic level rises, particularly when compared to their male counterparts.
Today, women make up 12% of all employees in STEM occupations in the UK, and in academia only 9% of all full-time professors in STEM departments are women.
The L’Oréal UNESCO For Women In Science international programme was founded fifteen years ago by L’Oréal and UNESCO to address this imbalance, on the premise that ‘the world needs science and science needs women’. The awards programme is designed to promote and highlight the critical importance of ensuring greater participation of women in science, by awarding promising female scientists with fellowships to help them further their research. Since the programme was founded, over 1,700 women in over 108 countries have been recognised for their research and received funding to further their studies. Here we talk to 4 of the recent winners.
Professor Pratibha Gai
2013 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Laureate for Europe
Professor and Chair of Electron Microscopy
University of York
Prof Gai was awarded this prestigious prize for ingeniously modifying her electron microscope so that she was able to observe chemical reactions occurring at surface atoms of catalysts which will help scientists in their development of new medicines or new energy sources.
Finding ways to see what cannot be seen with the naked eye constitutes some of the most ground-breaking achievements in the annals of science. From 16th century optical microscopes to 21st century electron microscopes, advances in our ability to view previously invisible processes of nature have opened up floodgates of new knowledge.
Professor Gai is among the relatively few scientists in history who can lay claim to such a key advancement. Thanks to her truly ingenious modifications to electron microscopes, her work enables us to actually see chemical processes that were once completely mysterious.
Reading about Marie Curie when I was in school inspired me to become a physical scientist. As a young girl I was curious to know how the energy we use, the medicines we take and the food we eat came about. So I took science to understand the world around me. I went to the University of Cambridge to study physics and during my PhD I decided I wanted a career in science.
I missed not having female role models in the physical sciences when I was starting my career. Being a woman in a male-dominated science discipline is challenging. I combined curiosity to know how things work, determination, persistence, confidence, passion and enthusiasm for research.
However, over my career I have seen an improvement in scientific opportunities for women. L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science awards are tremendously important as they help put women scientists’ research on the world stage and this visibility motivates younger women to take up scientific careers.
I have an endowed Professorship and major awards including the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science award and the Gabor medal and prize of the Institute of Physic, but I will continue to strive to extend the science. My new development is opening up the whole new field of how single atoms (which are basic building blocks of matter and are about one tenth of one billionth of a metre in size), control chemical reactions which are the backbone of healthcare and technology. I am using my development to find effective new medicines for human healthcare, sustainable energy sources and improved environmental control for the benefit of humanity. I am also involved in training students, including female students, in advanced sciences.
Winning the award has been a wonderful experience for me. It will help with my research funding for further projects and to travel to international conferences to see the advances being made in the sector. Practically, I will also be able to buy some minor equipment for my research. I am also fortunate to have the opportunity to encourage more female students to take up science.
Dr Nathalie Pettorelli
L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science UK & Ireland Fellow 2010
Institute of Zoology Research Fellow
Zoological Society of London
Dr Nathalie Pettorelli is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London. Dr Pettorelli was awarded a fellowship for her research into how effective protected areas are in conserving the world's major ecosystems.
Monitoring protected areas is vital to ensuring ecosystems continue to provide clean water, wild food and genetic materials to societies. Protected areas also mitigate the impacts of climate change through carbon capture storage and acting as a buffer against natural disasters. Nathalie's innovative research will build the first global picture of protected area effectiveness. The fellowship will help Nathalie to carry out satellite data extraction and analysis as well as undertaking collaborative visits to spatial agencies such as NASA.
As far as I can remember, I have always enjoyed travelling, writing, learning new skills, and meeting new people from different backgrounds. I was pretty much interested by everything at school – from economics, to languages, history and science. I never liked to be told what to think, and wanted a job I wasn’t going to get bored of a job that builds on my interests. A career in ecology ticked all these boxes, while allowing me to do what I like doing the most: explore
Being a scientist isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of tenacity and hard work to secure a permanent job in academia. It takes even more tenacity and hard work to do this as a woman. My main challenge has been, and still is, to find ways to successfully combine my personal and professional lives: I believe the current system makes achieving this goal particularly difficult for women in science in the long term. My second endeavour is to successfully challenge pre-conceived ideas about what women in science can achieve, such as the belief that the lack of female scientists in top positions is a consequence of their inaptitude of dealing with high levels of stress and responsibilities. I will never know how these ideas have affected, or will affect, my own career progression, but I am deeply aware that they are there.
I hope to always stay as enthusiastic about my job as I am right now. I work in conservation biology because I care about human wellbeing and passing on a biodiverse planet to the next generations: I hope I’ll always produce research that helps develop solutions to conserve biodiversity and ensure a sustainable future in the face of environmental change. I also hope to help raise a new generation of scientists, who are specialists in being generalists, able to easily work at the interface between scientific disciplines.
Receiving the FWIS fellowship was a massive confidence boost, in a world where praise and encouragement is extremely rare. The fellowship allowed me to develop new ideas and set-up my team; the award increased my visibility and gave me the confidence to approach a publisher with my book proposal and to get this book published. It also allowed me to embark, together with Dr Seirian Sumner, on the Soapbox Science adventure. We had this simple idea – putting fantastic examples of female scientists onto the streets of London, on soapboxes, to show that you do not need a beard to be a brilliant physicist, an exciting engineer, or an inspirational biologist (see video below for a coverage of our 2013 event). Summer 2014 will be our fourth event in London, and we hope the first year we’ll manage to get Soapbox Science events outside London.
Dr Emily Flashman
L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science UK & Ireland Fellow 2011
Current Position: Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow
Chemistry Research Laboratory, University of Oxford
Dr Flashman’s research investigates how oxygen- sensing enzymes function normally, how they are damaged in cancer cells and, most importantly in terms of cancer treatment, how this damage might be prevented by antioxidants such as vitamin C.
I was always interested in science at school and I found it satisfying to understand how things work. My undergraduate degree was in biochemistry though when I left university I wasn’t 100% sure wanted to carry on in science. However, I needed a job and landed one in a laboratory in Oxford. Once I was in, I was hooked and carried on to do a PhD.
Coming back to work after having my second child has been hard. However, I think it is also difficult for men who take on the child care responsibilities. I have found it encouraging that grant bodies are more and more accommodating to career breaks and the resulting gaps in research publications.
I would really like to carry on doing interesting research. I am not a meglamaniac – I love what I do.
I used the fellowship money to purchase a new piece of kit that has been a hugely important factor in my research. It has helped to raise my profile and exciting things have happened as a result. For example, I contribute book reviews for the Times Higher Education Supplement and have been a panellist for The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.
Dr Elizabeth Murchison
L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science UK & Ireland Fellow 2009
Current position: Reader in Comparative Oncology and Genetics, Department of Veterinary Medicine, Cambridge Veterinary School
*Note: at the time of winning the 2009 FWIS Fellowship Dr Elizabeth Murchison was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
Dr Murchison was awarded a fellowship to undertake research on understanding the origins and development of transmissible cancers. Looking at these cancers provided Dr Murchison with unique insights into what happens when a cancer can survive beyond its host. In evolutionary terms this affords Dr Murchison a fascinating glimpse of the risk factors for the potential outbreak of similar diseases in other species, including humans. It is possible that transmissible cancers of this kind have had significant impact in past evolutionary events, perhaps even wiping out whole species. Dr Murchison says, "this award is very important as it allows women to get around obstacles and remain in the scientific field."
As a child, I was always interested in genetics and inheritance patterns – I was fascinated with how we look like our parents. Growing up in Tasmania I developed a passion for the natural environment and native wildlife. It is wonderful now, to have a career that combines my two interests: genetics and Tasmanian devils.
I think the main challenge for me is feeling confident that my successes and failures have come as a result of an even playing field in science - I think it is difficult sometimes to know when my gender has played a role.
My research is centred on transmissible cancers, of which there are only two known to be naturally occurring – the Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease and the canine transmissible venereal tumour. My goal is to understand how the cancers have emerged and adapted to their hosts and ultimately to develop a treatment.
Winning the L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship gave me confidence and support at a critical time in my career. It’s given me the opportunity to meet a whole network of inspiring women in science.