20 incredible women leading the way to scientific advancement

14 Nov 2016

Image: attilio pregnolato/Shutterstock

The human capacity for curiosity, experimentation and innovation is limitless. But, on the path to scientific advancement, who’s leading the charge?

Women scientists Science 50

As Science Week kicks off across Ireland, we kick off the Science 50 – Siliconrepublic.com’s look at the women making essential contributions to science around the world – with 20 women who are changing the game across all fields of scientific study.

Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam Mirzakhani is an Iranian-American mathematician and a professor of mathematics at Stanford University. She holds a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University.

In May 2016, Mirzakhani was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences – one of the highest honours a scientist can receive – in recognition of her original research, which focuses mainly on hyperbolic geometry.

Mirzakhani is also a recipient of the Fields Medal, mathematics’ Nobel prize equivalent. The International Mathematical Union presented the medal to Mirzakhani in 2014 for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”.

Michaela Black

Dr Michaela Black is head of the School of Computing and Intelligent Systems at the University of Ulster, and has more than 50 publications to her name.

In August, it was announced that Black would lead a multimillion-pound research project using the power of big data to better inform public policy. Black hopes that the 40-month project, MIDAS, will enable the implementation of more effective healthcare policies across Europe.

Black also strives to encourage more women into her field. As a result, the School of Computing and Intelligent Systems won a Bronze Athena Swan award earlier this year.

Lydia Lynch

An associate professor at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Lydia Lynch has earned a lot of accolades, including the Newman Scholar fellowship and the L’Oréal-UNESCO International Women in Science fellowship.

In 2009, Lynch secured the Marie Curie international fellowship and travelled to Harvard Medical School to research the properties of special cells found in fatty tissue.

In 2014, Lynch progressed her research by establishing Lynch Laboratory, which investigates how particular lipids (fats) could manipulate the immune system to prevent or treat obesity and type 2 diabetes.

In late 2015, Lynch received €1.8m in Horizon 2020 funding to support this research.

Earlier this month, Lynch received the STEM award at the Irish Tatler Women of the Year Awards in Dublin.

Niamh Kavanagh

After graduating with a physics degree from University College Cork (UCC), Wexford native Niamh Kavanagh began work on her PhD at Tyndall National Institute.

As a researcher at the Irish Photonics Integration Centre, Kavanagh studies fibre-optic communications, exploring the future possibilities for faster internet. Her other work uses laser technology to monitor air pollution levels and improve aviation safety.

In April of this year, Kavanagh was named the national winner of FameLab, a competition in which scientists pitch their research ideas. She went on to represent Ireland at the international finals in June.

Kavanagh was a finalist in 2015’s Thesis in 3 competition.

Catherine Godson

A biochemistry graduate, Catherine Godson received her PhD in pharmacology from University College Dublin (UCD) before travelling to Geneva and San Diego to complete postdoctoral fellowships. She returned to UCD in 1997, becoming professor of molecular medicine.

In the same year, Godson was appointed director of the UCD Diabetes Complications Research Centre, where she currently works alongside other biopharmaceutical scientists.

Godson and her team previously received funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) to support their research into the genetic factors that lead to the development of diabetic kidney disease. The five-year project will aim to provide vital information for future treatment of the disease.

Charlotte Blease

Dr Charlotte Blease is a cognitive scientist and philosopher of medicine, holding the title of research fellow in prestigious universities, including UCD and Harvard Medical School.

A speaker at this year’s Inspirefest, Blease’s presentation on statistics and diagnosis in healthcare was eye-opening, and one of the event’s highlights. Her views on medicine and how we rely on health services and health professionals are fascinating, and were detailed in both her Inspirefest keynote and a recent TEDx talk.

Blease has become an advocate for philosophy classes in Irish schools, creating Philosophy Ireland to help drive the message home.

Lisa Helen

Lisa Helen, Tyndall National Institute researcher and Inspirefest 2016 speaker, has hit on a concept that feels like something someone should have thought of years ago.

Helen’s invention turns an ordinary hypodermic needle into something far more precise. By placing a sensor at the tip of the needle, Helen and her team have enabled doctors and anaesthetists to guide and place needles more accurately, mapping their real-time location under the skin.

As well as aiding in placement, the smart needle decreases risk by allowing the needle to make its way to a chosen destination without any damaging nicks here and there along the way.

Louise Kenny

Prof Louise Kenny is the founding director of INFANT, Ireland’s first dedicated perinatal research centre.

Kenny, currently professor of obstetrics at UCC, spoke about her research last year at Inspirefest, discussing why she believes commercial technology in smartphones can empower women to manage their pregnancies like never before.

Her work as a pioneer of biobanking, a real flavour of the month in modern science, landed Kenny a major award from the American Heart Association last year.

That work in biobanking has fed into Cork company Metabolomic Diagnostics’ development of technology for early detection of pre-eclampsia.

Emma Teeling

Bat expert Emma Teeling has established an international reputation as a major player in the fields of mammalian phylogenetics and comparative genomics.

Teeling is the founding director of the Centre for Irish Bat Research at UCD and, in 2012, spoke at TEDxDublin about the fascinating mammal and its importance to the global ecology.

Last month, Teeling co-authored a paper in Journal of Anatomy, which draws parallels between the naturally occurring clefts in bats’ jaws and the occurrence of cleft lips and palates in humans.

“This is just another example of the benefit of studying and understanding these extraordinary mammals,” she said.

Valeria Nicolosi

Professor of nanomaterials and advanced microscopy at AMBER in TCD, Valeria Nicolosi has had a busy 2016.

In February, Nicolosi was awarded a €2.5m ERC Consolidator Grant to create an innovative new type of energy storage device that can charge in just a few minutes, last longer than today’s batteries and be hidden within any kind of material, even the human body.

Valeria Nicolosi, Amber

AMBER researcher Prof Valeria Nicolosi. Image: Naoise Culhane

In July, a further €150,000 in funding top-up was added. This brings to €12m the amount of funding Prof Valeria Nicolosi has brought to TCD in the last five years.

Jennifer Doudna

Although not a household name, Berkeley-based biologist Jennifer Doudna played an integral part in developing a technology that could fundamentally change what defines us as human.

Along with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umeå University, Sweden, Doudna developed CRISPR-Cas9, which allows researchers to edit the human genome by adding or removing genetic material, opening the road for genetically altered humans.

Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR

Image: UC Berkeley Photo Services

Now leading her own lab at UC Berkeley, Doudna has spoken a number of times about the potential the technology has to eradicate genetic conditions like HIV, while also advocating for increased awareness of the ethical implications for such a powerful tool.

Cori Bargmann

As one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Cornelia ‘Cori’ Bargmann rose to prominence through her work on the roundworm C. elegans, which shares many gene mechanisms with mammals. Bargmann is attempting to uncover, by studying the roundworm, how neurons and genes affect behaviour.

Cori Bargmann

Image: Rockefeller University

In 2013, Bargmann co-chaired a research committee started by Barack Obama to revolutionise our understanding of the human brain. In September of this year, she was named president of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to oversee a multibillion-dollar effort to unlock understanding of the human body down to the cellular level.

Pardis Sabeti

Once described as the rollerblading rock star scientist of Harvard, Iranian-American computational biologist Pardis Sabeti rose to prominence for her breakthrough creation of an algorithm that explains the effects of genetics on the evolution of disease.

Perhaps her biggest breakthrough – and the one that saw her named as one of Time’s people of the year – was as the geneticist who first sequenced the Ebola genome following the 2014 West African outbreak.

Pardis Sabeti

Pardis Sabeti speaking during a TED talk in May 2015. Image: TED

Sabeti now runs her own lab in Harvard, creating technologies for the development of tailored sequencing pipelines for some of the world’s most deadly viruses and bacteria.

Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli

Hardly anyone can claim they played a part in the discovery of the God particle, but Moroccan nuclear physicist Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli from the Mohammed V University certainly can.

As the university’s vice president, El Moursli leads a team working in the consolidation of a Distributed Analysis Support Team (DAST) for the enormous ATLAS particle detector in CERN.

Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli

Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli. Image: Brigitte Lacombe/CERN

For playing a crucial role in the simulation and construction of the electromagnetic calorimeter of ATLAS, El Moursli was recognised at the 2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards. She felt the prize was “important for Morocco and for Moroccan women”.

Jennifer McElwain

Based in UCD, where she works as a professor of plant palaeobiology and palaeoecology, Jennifer McElwain has spent much of her career examining the evolutionary responses of plants to long-term climatic and atmospheric change.

Jennifer McElwain, UCD

Image: Siliconrepublic.com

McElwain remains one of the country’s most vocal researchers when it comes to the effects of climate change on Ireland and the world, having advocated for a new Irish climate centre earlier this year.

Most recently, she co-led a research project that showed how deep-time reconstruction demonstrates that tropical forests can deeply impact climate change over millions of years.

Lihadh Al-Gazali

Dr Lihadh Al-Gazali has dedicated her life to the identification and characterisation of genetic conditions and abnormalities unique to families in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She was also instrumental in setting up the Centre for Arab Genomic Studies and founded a clinical genetics service offering support to families affected by congenital disorders.

Al-Gazali syndrome, a genetic disorder marked by eye and skeletal abnormalities and short life expectancy, was named after the doctor due to her tireless work in the field of genetics.

Al-Gazali has been awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science and the Distinguished Performance Award in Research and Clinical Services of UAE University.

Tia Keyes

Professor of physical chemistry at Dublin City University (DCU), Tia Keyes is the author of over 180 publications, a book and numerous contributory chapters.

Tia Keyes, DCU

Image: SFI

Keyes has been working in supramolecular and interfacial photochemistry at DCU since 2002 and is currently researching the development of probes for monitoring the dynamic cellular environment. Her research group has developed highly versatile cell membrane models, which can be exploited to support membrane proteins that are important for drug targets.

Keyes holds a Marie Curie Fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland.

Maria McNamara

When she’s not lecturing in UCC’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Dr Maria McNamara is busy making breakthroughs in palaeobiology.

McNamara has recently been able to reconstruct a fossil in full living colour for the first time. The 10m-year-old fossil had strong tissue preservation, which allowed McNamara to see many different pigment cells that she was able to reproduce as the original colours.

Maria McNamara. Image: Thomas Spear

Image: Thomas Spear

McNamara will also be featured in Accenture’s Women on Walls project – supported by the Royal Irish Academy – in which she will be one of eight female scientists featured in a group portrait to celebrate the achievements of women.

Tanya Levingstone

A medical mechanical engineering graduate of DCU, Dr Tanya Levingstone currently works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Tissue Engineering Research Group (TERG) at Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI).

Earlier this year, Levingstone, her team at TERG and a group of researchers from AMBER, TCD, discovered a new material, which repaired damaged knee cartilage on a horse. The patented, multi-layered 3D porous scaffold, ChondroColl, returned the injured horse to competitive showjumping.

RCSI start-up SurgaColl is bringing the technology to market, and the breakthrough could one day be applied to humans.

Laoise McNamara

Prof Laoise McNamara lectures undergraduate students in biomechanics at NUI Galway.

Along with her research team, McNamara is currently working in the area of mechanobiology, which seeks to understand how bone responds to mechanical forces, such as gravity or exercise, and how bone tissue adapts in these environments. This research will also look into ways to biochemically target bone loss in osteoporosis.

McNamara also collaborates with various medical device companies on computational and experimental biomechanics of various surgical and minimally invasive devices. She has multiple awards for her research, including the ‘Bone and Joint Decade’ New Investigator Award from the Orthopaedic Research Society.