Women and scientific excellence

Every year, five female scientists from all over the world receive a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award. Brazilian scientist Mayana Zatz, the laureate for Latin America in 2001, was a member of the 2014 jury. She reveals this year’s winners and talks about the outstanding achievements of the five laureates.

Last year, in my first class as part of the genetic course administrated to medical students, before I could even open my mouth, a 18-year old beautiful girl sitting in one of the first rows raised her hand and asked me: “Is it true that you won the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science? ” Yes, I replied smiling. “I also want to win this prize” was her next comment. I was happy to hear that. It meant that the prize is slowly reaching its goal, motivating young females toward sciences.

The Double helix book written by James Watson, in 1968, was recently translated to Portuguese (I was asked to comment on it for an important Brazilian newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo). At the end of the book, Watson recognizes the fundamental contribution of Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of DNA structure. He states that they (the male scientists who won the Nobel Prize for this discovery) only realized the battles that an intelligent woman has to face to be accepted by a scientific world that frequently envisages women only as distractions from serious thinking, many years later.

Fortunately this is improving. I have repeated many times that personally I never felt that I have had less opportunities to follow a scientific career as a woman than I would have had as a man in Brazil. But, unfortunately, this is not the rule. About 45 years later, women scientists are still discriminated against in most countries. That is why the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards, currently in their 16th year, have been so important. Reinforcing the role of women in science and showing to the non-scientific audience how their work is contributing to scientific knowledge will certainly attract more young women to the scientific world.

I believe that this fantastic initiative is slowing reaching its goal. Indeed, as a former Laureate (for Latin America in 2001) and being a member of the jury since then I can witness that the number of excellent candidates is turning the selection each time more difficult. And this year many of them were really young, in their forties or even late thirties. But, who are the extraordinary women who won the prize this year?

Dr. Segenet Kelemu for Africa and the Arab States discovered fungi and bacteria that live in important tropical forage grasses and contributed to the understanding of the role of these microorganisms in plant development and environment adaptation. Her studies have improved grass productivity enabling farmers to choose the most productive and pathogen-resistant forage grasses, which is of utmost relevance in the tropics and sub-tropics countries.

Professor Laurie Glimcher, for United States, discovered key factors which control immune response in allergy and autoimmune diseases paving the way for new treatments. Childhood diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis among others are examples of conditions were our immune system attacks our own tissues as if they were foreign “enemies”. Needless to say how important it will be to treat these diseases well know by all of us.

Cecilia Bouzat, from Argentina, is the youngest one this year. She had been awarded a L’Oréal fellowship in 2007 and is now reaping the benefits. She is now the Laureate for Latin America. Her research focuses in trying to understand how brain cells talk to each other and communicate with muscle. These studies will contribute to enhancing our comprehension on the mechanisms leading to neuromuscular and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and depression among others.

Professor Kayo Inaba, from Japan also focused her research on the immune system. However, differently from Laurie Glimcher, her aim was first to understand and then stimulate the immune response against abnormal cells such as cancer. As a result of her work a new anti-cancer treatment was discovered. She confessed that being a female scientist in a male-dominated environment was a great challenge and she had to work very hard to be recognized.

Professor Brigitte Kieffer, from France, was awarded for her contributions to the understanding of the brain mechanisms of pain relief. She discovered the receptor protein in the brain that enables drugs such as morphine, heroin and other compounds to kill pain but also to create addiction. Her work opened new research avenues for developing novel drugs to treat pain and other emotional disorders.

What do these outstanding women scientists have in common?

They are all passionate and eager to spread this passion to young students aiming to attract them to this wonderful world of science, where questioning, curiosity and the pursuit of answers make our lives so exciting. By exposing these enthusiastic women scientists, L’Oréal-UNESCO opens new channels of communication motivating more young females to enter in the awesome world of science. The seeds that have been planted during these 16 last years are starting to flourish now. I am positive that the impact of this award will grow each time more, in particular in developing or male-oriented countries where women scientists are still discriminated.

More about Prof Mayana Zatz :

For Women in Science

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