L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards to increase in scope

27 Jun 2014

The winners of the 2014 L'Oreal UNESCO For Women in Science UK & Ireland Fellowships (left to right) Dr Eva-Maria Graefe, Dr Clémence Blouet, Dr Tracy Briggs and Dr Sneha Malde. Photo by Drew Gardner

The 2014 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science awardees have been announced, and for 2015 women researchers in computers, maths and engineering will also be eligible to apply.

How can single-gene disorders lead to lupus? Can measuring the differences between matter and anti-matter help us find a new physics? How do you punch holes in quantum systems? And how is the brain involved in regulating weight gain?

Those are questions being asked by this year’s recipients of the L’Oreal UNESCO For Women in Science UK & Ireland Fellowships, which were announced in London last week.

Now in its eighth year, the initiative seeks to support early career women scientists: each awardee receives stg£15,000 and can choose to use it for scientific equipment, childcare, travel, or other essential supports that they need to continue their research.

More than 280 applied this year, and eight shortlisted women were the people of the moment at an event in the Royal Society in London to announce which four were to ultimately scoop the awards.

At the event, chairman of L’Oreal UK & Ireland Jean-Jacques Lebel spoke about the importance of women in science. “(In science) talent makes all the difference, and it is inconceivable to deprive ourselves of the talent of half of the human race,” he said. “Science needs women more than ever.”

Winning research

All who made this year’s shortlist are in the UK, but previous winners based in Ireland include chemist Prof Silvia Giordani in 2012 (who was in Trinity College Dublin and is listed as one of Silicon Republic’s Top 100 Women in STEM) and in 2010 Dr Lourdes Basabe-Desmonts, who was at the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute in Dublin City University.

The four awardees for 2014 were announced as Dr Sneha Malde at the University of Oxford, who is interested in the differences between matter and anti-matter, Dr Eva-Maria Graefe at Imperial College London for her work on engineering holes in quantum systems, Dr Tracy Briggs at the University of Manchester for research on single-gene disorders that lead to the auto-immune condition systemic lupus, and Dr Clémence Blouet at the University of Cambridge for her work on the consequences of high fat intake on a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and mechanisms behind obesity.

The research of the other four shortlisted candidates was commended, and included work to develop protective coating to replace the cold chain for vaccine storage and delivery (Dr Asel Sartbaeva, University of Bath), a search for new drug targets for vascular inflammation to fight disease (Dr Margaret Rose Cunningham, University of Strathclyde), using quantum technology to improve telescopes (Dr Aglae Kellerer, University of Durham), and developing new tools to guide the clinical management of pancreatic cancer patients (Dr Chiara Braconi, Institute of Cancer Research).

Extending the scope

At the awards ceremony, Lebel described how, for 2015, the programme will encourage applications from engineering, mathematics and computer science fields and increase the number of fellowships from four to five. “In addition, we will be dedicating a separate annual fund of stg£20,000 for the UK and Ireland fellows community to support their work as STEM ambassadors engaging the wider population, and particularly young people, in science,” he said.

The widening of eligibility for the awards has been welcomed in Ireland. Regina Moran, president of Engineers Ireland and CEO of Fujitsu Ireland, told Siliconrepublic.com: “Any move to encourage and reward the achievements of exceptional females in any discipline should be welcomed. There has been so much convergence happening between science, technology, engineering and maths leading to breakthrough innovation. More and more teams are multidisciplinary. It is encouraging that the L’Oreal awards are following suit, and I look forward to seeing a new generation of outstanding female mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists honoured for their work. Young girls need all the inspiration they can get!”

Dr Joanna Mason, business development manager with the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry (MACSI) at the University of Limerick, also expressed a positive reaction to the news. “I am delighted that this prestigious award has expanded its scope,” she told Siliconrepublic.com. “It is a real opportunity to recognise and encourage talented early career researchers in maths, computer science, and engineering.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication