International Rising Talents
Since 2000, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme has highlighted the achievements of younger women who are in the early stages of their scientific careers.
Each year, the International Rising Talents programme selects the 15 most promising women scientists among the 275 national and regional fellows of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science programme. These young women are the very future of science and recognizing their excellence will help ensure that they reach their full potential.
Africa and the Arab States
Dr. Lina Dahabiyeh
The University of Jordan, Jordan
Dr. Ndeye Maty Ndiaye
Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal
Dr. Waad Saftly, PHYSICS, Al-Baath University, Syria
Asia and the Pacific
Dr. So Young Choi
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Republic of Korea
Dr. Van Thi Thanh Ho
Hochiminh City University of Natural Resources and Environment, Viet Nam
Dr. Daphné Lemasquerier
The Institute for Non-Equilibrium Phenonema Research (IRPHE), CNRS, Aix-Marseille University, Ecole Centrale de Marseille; University of Texas at Austin, United States
Dr. Natalia Bruno
National Institute of Optics of the National Research Council, Italy
Dr. Karolina Mikulska-Ruminska
Nicolaus Copernicus University, Poland
Dr. Ieva Plikusiene
Vilnius University, Lithuania
Dr. Beatriz Villarroel
Stockholm University, Sweden
Dr. Daria Smirnova
Institute of Applied Physics of the Russian Academy
of Sciences, Russia
Latin America and the Caribbean
Dr. Maria Florencia Cayrol
Institute of Biomedical Research - UCA - CONICET, Argentina
Dr. Irene del Real
Earth & related environmental sciences
Austral University, Chile
Dr. Alison McAfee
University of British Columbia and North Carolina State University, Canada
Africa and the Arab States
Dr. Laura-Joy Boulos
Institut des NeuroSciences Appliquées et humaines (INSAN), Saint-Joseph University, Beirut, Lebanon.
The brain in a post-war context: from neuroscience to artificial intelligence
Dr. Nowsheen Goonoo
Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research at University of Mauritius
Assessment of the in vivo (mice model) performance of electro-spun PHBV copolymer or PHBV-natural polymer blends for skin tissue engineering and bone tissue engineering
Dr. Nouf Mahmoud
Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Technology Laboratory, Al-Zaytoonah University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan
Toward development of novel nano therapy for diabetic wounds
Dr. Georgina Nyawo
Molecular Biology, Medical Microbiology
Clinical Mycobacteriology & Epidemiology (CLIME), Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa
The microbiome, transcriptome, and inferred functional metagenome in tuberculosis
Asia and the Pacific
Dr. Rui Bai
Structural Laboratory, Westlake University, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China
Structures of the Spliceosome and Mechanistic Investigations of RNA Splicing
Dr. Huanqian Loh
Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore, Singapore
Single-Molecule Quantum Control
Dr. Mikyung Shin
Nature-inspired Biomaterial Engineering Laboratory, Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, Republic of Korea
Development of nature-inspired adhesive micro-formulations for 3D/4D bioprinting
Dr. Vida Engmann
SDU NanoSYD, Mads Clausen Institute, University of Southern Denmark, Sønderborg, Denmark
Mechanical stabilization of organic solar cells
Dr. Serap Erkek
Molecular Biology / Epigenetics
Cancer Epigenomics Laboratory, Biomedicine and Genome Center, Izmir, Turkey
Identification of the molecular mechanisms linked with the function of epigenetic factors frequently mutated in bladder cancer
Dr. Jennifer Garden
School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Catalytic Conversion of CO2 to Oxygenated Polymers
Dr. Cristina Romera Castillo
Marine Biogeochemistry Laboratory, Instituto de Ciencias del Mar, Barcelona, Spain
New ways of biodegradation of marine plastic through leaching and its interaction with microbes
Dr. Olena Vaneeva
Department of Mathematical Physics, Institute of Mathematics of NAS of Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine
Equivalence groupoids in symmetry classifications of differential equations
Latin America and the Caribbean
Dr. Paula Giraldo-Gallo
Quantum Materials Laboratory, Universidad de Los Andes, Bogota, Colombia
Quantum Criticality and optimization of Material Engineering properties in quasi 1D compounds
Dr. Patrícia Medeiros
Laboratory of Biocultural Ecology, Conservation and Evolution Institution: Federal University of Alagoas, Maceió, Brazil
Unconventional food plants: theoretical challenges for biocultural conservation
Dr. Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert
Earth Science / Environmental Science
School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University, Tempe, United States of America
Make it or take it: Microbial carbon cycling in the rocky subseafloor of Earth’s largest aquifer
These promising scientists were honoured during the 21st edition of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Awards, on 14 March 2019.
Africa and the Arab States
Dr. Saba Al Heialy
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship United Arab Emirates
Mohammed bin Rashid University for Medicine and Health Sciences
Asthma and obesity are increasing worldwide, as poor air quality and convenience lifestyles, characterised by unhealthy diets and physical inactivity, take their toll. Now, obesity is prompting a rise in the prevalence of asthma, with patients of this responding poorly to conventional therapy, such as steroid treatment. Dr. Saba Al Heilaly is researching the still relatively unknown mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, in order to help identify new therapies for patients
Recently, adipocytes (fat cells) are emerging as pro-inflammatory cells capable of secreting cytokines and hormones. Moreover, adipose tissue is infiltrated with large amounts of T cells. This potential immunomodulatory role of adipocytes has led her to explore the implications of the crosstalk between T cells- an essential part of the immune system - and adipocytes (fat cells) in producing steroid hyporesponsiveness in obese asthmatics. “Ultimately, the objective of my research is to contribute to the advancement in asthma research”, she says.
Dr. Saba Al Heialy’s father, an accomplished researcher, was an important inspiration and mentor in her childhood, instilling in the young Saba “the core values and selfconfidence that have allowed me to become the researcher I am today”. At university, she gained valuable laboratory experience by taking ownership of an asthma and allergy project in the summer holidays, enjoying the sense of independence and deepening her curiosity in scientific research.
Despite her proven ability and enthusiasm, Dr. Saba al Heialy has had to work doubly hard to overcome gender and age prejudice throughout her career. “For women to advance in science, we must challenge the perception that their work is in some way inferior to that of equally qualified male scientists”, she believes.
“Women could easily thrive in senior scientific roles – but they must be judged on merit and given equal opportunities in the workplace,” she says. To create change, young girls must be offered the opportunity to participate in practical, interactive science programmes, and be shown examples of successful women in the workplace. “I hope my story will inspire many girls and young women in the Middle East to pursue their scientific dreams and reach their full potential,” she concludes.
Dr. Zohra Dhouafli
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Tunisia
Center of Biotechnology of Borj-Cédria
Neurosciences / Biochemistry
Alzheimer’s disease is considered to be the most common form of dementia globally, yet there is currently no cure for this devastating neurodegenerative disorder. Dr. Zohra Dhouafli is researching the theory that the misfolding, aggregation and brain deposition of the amyloid-beta protein triggers the disease.
Through her upcoming research project, she will use one of the most promising approaches - a natural antioxidant extracted from henna tree leaves (discovered through her previous research) to inhibit, interfere and counteract the aggregation process. Among the innovative aspects of the project, the team will seek to preserve the molecule’s stability and bioactivity, and optimise its passage through the blood brain barrier. In this way, Dr. Zohra Dhouafli aims to catalyse the development of more potent compounds for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s.
“My dream is to find an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and improve quality of life for patients and their families,” she says.
Dr. Zohra Dhouafli has always had an interest in biological sciences. Her longstanding focus on neurodegenerative diseases began during her first research experience in biochemistry at Sherbrooke University in Canada. Since then, she has participated in multiple international collaborations exploring the biochemical and molecular mechanisms involved in such diseases.
“Women should have just as much responsibility in promoting human development as men,” she says. “Their actions must go hand in hand,” she adds, pointing to the famous collaboration of Pierre and Marie Curie. She believes that women scientists have a complementary approach to that of their male counterparts, driven more by empathy, patience and a sense of social responsibility.
Having benefitted significantly from mentorship, Dr. Zohra Dhouafli agrees that talented mentors stand to inspire many more young women scientists, reinforced by far greater public recognition women scientists’ achievements. “An equal gender balance would greatly enhance the quality of scientific research,” she concludes.
Dr. Menattallah Elserafy
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Egypt
Zewail City of Science and Technology
Molecular Biology / Genetics
DNA is the blueprint for life. The valuable information it carries decides the fate of all organisms. Dr. Menattallah Elserafy is researching DNA repair mechanisms to advance understanding of the fundamental processes in mammalian cells.
She could identify new players that protect the cells from DNA damage. She also discovered that a protein in yeast cells is involved in preventing a specific type of DNA damage. Thereby, mutations in the human protein could be associated with diseases, neurological disorders and cancers. Her findings could help identify new disease-causing mutations, aid diagnosis and pave the way for personalised therapies according to the patient’s genetic background.
Dr. Menattallah Elserafy early became passionate about molecular biology and genetics. “I wanted to create a positive impact in society,” she recalls. Today, she is convinced that raising research standards in Egypt could put her country “back on the map of scientific research”, and importantly, play a major role in solving pressing water, environmental and energy challenges.
According to her, gender equality should be a key focus for children’s education, with girls encouraged to “dream big and aim high”. Dr. Menattallah Elserafy is inspired by many women scientists, including the first ever female doctor, an Egyptian woman living in 2700 BC, and Rosalind Franklin, the woman scientist who first presented an X-ray structure of the DNA molecule.
She herself is contributing to educating future generations of women scientists by supporting younger researchers in the laboratory. “I believe the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Rising Talents fellowship will give me even more opportunities to talk to young women scientists and inspire them to make a difference,” she says.
Dr. Priscilla Kolibea Mante
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Ghana
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology
Expanding access to affordable, high quality medical care in Africa is a major focus for sustainable development. Specialising in neuropharmacology and neuroscience, Dr. Priscilla Kolibea Mante is researching alternative, plant-based therapeutic options to manage drug-resistant epilepsy and the neglected tropical disease, neurocysticercosis. She is currently exploring the anticonvulsant activity of the plant alkaloid cryptolepine and its solid-lipid nanoparticles in the management of neurocysticercosis-induced epilepsy.
By identifying a way to help cryptolepine permeate more efficiently into the central nervous system, the risk of convulsion should be reduced, helping the patient to manage their condition as effectively as possible. “It’s very rewarding to know that my research could significantly alter complicated structures like the brain and positively affect people’s lives”, she says.
Dr. Priscilla Kolibea Mante believes the biggest challenge for women in science is managing negative perceptions of ambition in women and overcoming gender stereotypes. Having faith in the future, she is convinced that her generation has been fortunate to receive strong support, and believe women can tap into that and spearhead our careers to higher levels. “The world will make room for us”, she says. “The more women push for senior roles, the harder it will be to ignore them.”
The expert guidance of both men and women throughout her career has been so important that Dr. Priscilla Kolibea Mante now considers herself a “champion” of mentorship, regularly supporting younger scientists in pursuing their dreams. She concludes: “Sometimes it’s important to hold your mentee’s hand and guide them towards opportunities they never knew existed.”
Asia and the Pacific
Dr. Sherry Aw
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Singapore
Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology
Neurodegeneration is a growing issue for an ageing global population. Dr. Sherry Aw is conducting genetic experiments in fruit flies to understand the causes behind neurodegenerative diseases, and support the development of novel treatments.
In particular, by exploring how certain cells become affected and the functional results of their degeneration, she and her team have been able to pinpoint movement dysfunctions that resemble the effects of Parkinson’s disease and Spinocerebellar ataxia 3 in humans. Her current goal is to understand how the tremor and other movement disorders experienced by sufferers of these diseases are generated at the physiological, cellular and molecular levels. “So that we can start to develop rational treatments for these debilitating symptoms, and eventually cure these diseases,” she says.
Her passion for scientific research was sparked when one of her university tutors suggested that she gain some practical research experience. Since then, she has always had strong – male – mentors who encouraged her to recognise and believe in her abilities.
As a woman in science, Dr. Sherry Aw says: “Society generally judges women more harshly than men, and I believe this is a major barrier to women achieving our maximum potential. Women face a lot of pressure from everyone, including from ourselves.”
To create the next generation of women scientists, girls must see women in science as a mainstream trend, Dr. Sherry Aw believes. This starts with strong mentors and role models, and more exposure to women scientists in the media, including through initiatives such as the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme. “Only then will we be attracting the best and brightest minds, of both genders, to solve the world’s most important scientific problems,” she concludes.
Dr. Mika Nomoto
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Japan
Molecular Biology / Plant Pathology
When plants become infected with biotrophic pathogens (fungi that feed on the living cells of their hosts), host resistance proteins trigger an acute immune response, including the eventual death of the affected cell. The infected tissues also produce signals that spark the accumulation of immune hormone salicyclic acid and mobilise antimicrobial pathogenesis-related genes within the uninfected distal leaves. This plant-specific immunity is known as systemic acquired resistance (SAR).
While it is effective in resisting biotrophs, it suppresses the plant’s resistance response to herbivores, thereby exposing it to damage from pests. Dr. Mika Nomoto is researching how SAR is regulated at a molecular level in order to better understand its antagonistic interaction with herbivore resistance and help promote sustainable pest management.
“I realised that by elucidating the molecular mechanism of plant immunity, I would be able to contribute towards ensuring food security for the world’s population,” she recalls. “That’s why I decided to pursue a career in science.”
Growing up in southern Japan, Dr. Mika Nomoto was surrounded by a rich and diverse natural environment. She loved to study plants, flowers and insects, and became intrigued by different plants’ reaction to mould and microbes. When she began her biology studies at Kagawa University, she was surprised to learn that plants possess sophisticated immune systems, like humans.
While she has not experienced the “glass ceiling” in her career, Dr. Mika Nomoto agrees there is a pressing need for more women scientists. “I believe that science needs diversity and women are the key to advancing science,” she says. “It’s vital that we persuasively transform perceptions of women’s role in society through media and politics.”
Finally, mentorship is invaluable, Dr. Mika Nomoto believes. She herself has gained a great deal of knowledge from her mentors, including how to establish a venture company and apply for patents, as well as conduct world-leading scientific research. “In the future, I’d be happy to mentor young researchers – both women and men,” she concludes.
Dr. Jacquiline Romero
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Australia
University of Queensland
Dr. Jacquiline Romero is a physicist working in the field of quantum physics, which explains the nature and behaviour of matter and energy at the atomic and subatomic level. In particular, she is exploring how an infinite number of possible shapes of photos - particles of light - can be used to encode information.
Ultimately, this could lead to reliably secure communication, help conserve data privacy and guard against the growing risk of cyberattacks, and deliver more powerful computation.
Her journey to pushing the boundaries of quantum information began in the Philippines, where she was encouraged by her school teachers to pursue science, even participating in national physics competitions. “It was just beautiful to me, how the rules of physics can describe the natural world so powerfully,” she recalls. “I enjoy the creative and problem solving process. The fun I have is really the reward!” At university, Dr. Jacquiline Romero joined an established optics research group, before identifying an opportunity to pursue an experimental quantum physics PhD at the University of Glasgow.
As part of a minority of women in quantum science, she believes improving the representation of women in science requires a fundamental cultural change, starting at school, where girls’ and boys’ sense of wonder and curiosity should be equally nurtured. In addition to mentorship, strong female role models at every stage of the scientific career path would send positive signals to aspiring women scientists, she suggests. Importantly, inclusivity and gender diversity should be framed in the context of productivity, with leaders creating the supportive environment that would help women scientists return to peak professional performance after having a child.
“Winning a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship has given me a national platform to show that women, particularly mothers, can succeed in science,” she concludes. “People are inspired by stories and I think my journey is a story that could do so much to inspire young girls and young women scientists.”
If science could achieve anything, Dr. Jacquiline Romero would like to scientific research to help solve the major social inequalities that exist in our world.
Dr. Laura Elo
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Finland
University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University
Dr. Laura Elo leads a multidisciplinary team of 30 scientists at the Turku Medical Bioinformatics Centre in Finland. Together, they develop computational data analysis tools and mathematical modelling methods to identify more reliable early indicators of complex diseases such as type 1 diabetes or cancer, and predict potential disease and treatment outcomes. She and her team have developed several powerful computational models to interpret molecular and clinical data in a robust way, working closely with experimental and clinical teams and unique sample biobanks.
Her ultimate goal is to help improve disease diagnosis, prognosis and lead to new treatment strategies with high potential for breakthrough findings and wide impact on medical research. “I hope our research helps future patients to get the best possible treatments,” she says. “If we can improve the life of even a single patient, it is worth the effort.”
Among the challenges faced by researchers, she believes the extensive competition for funding can be both unhealthy for the field of scientific research and create barriers to progress. “Within my group, I hope to encourage enthusiasm for making new discoveries through openness and communication,” she explains.
As Research Director, Dr. Laura Elo recognises the distinct benefits that diversity brings to any team, commenting that “a good mix of people with different backgrounds and ways of working ensures open-minded and innovative research”. Proving her worth as a woman scientist has seen her work harder than her male counterparts, she believes. Yet her achievements are undeniable: Dr. Laura Elo became Head of Turku University’s Medical Bioinformatics Centre, Research Director and Vice Director of her research institute below the age of 40. Empowering more women to follow in her footsteps will require helping women build confidence, enabling an effective work-life balance, and ensuring strong mentorship throughout their careers.
On receiving a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Regional Fellowship Finland, she says: “It’s a great honour. I’d particularly like to thank my enthusiastic and talented research group, our collaborators, and all our supporters.”
Dr. Biola María Javierre Martínez
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Spain
Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute
The majority of interactions between the regulatory elements of a genome and the corresponding regulated gene are uncharted, a major missing link in understanding genome control. Dr. Biola María Javierre Martínez is researching chromatin interactions (crucial to cellular health), to help improve knowledge of tumour processes and provide new opportunities for diagnosis and treatment...
Additionally, she is exploring the physical interactions between gene and regulatory elements to connect blood cancer genetic alterations to putative target genes. This could help prioritising new diseasecandidate genes and pathways, reveal insights into the genomic regulatory mechanisms underlying cancer. It will also help to better predict patient outcomes and design improved and more personalised treatments.
Today, her dream is to help uncover more effective, gentler treatments for cancer, particularly for children.
As a scientist and mother, Dr. Biola María Javierre Martínez often feels that she has insufficient time to give of her best in either capacity. Addressing this common challenge among women scientists and empowering more women to participate in science would mean re-educating the whole of society, she believes. Women must also develop greater self-belief and learn to present their work more confidently.
Dr. Biola María Javierre Martínez sees mentors as essential on this journey, and is involved in a European Union project, the LIBRA Career Developmental Compass, to enable female postdoctoral fellows to become leaders through training and mentorship.
Commenting on the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme, she says: “It’s vital to encourage women who dream of being scientists to succeed and not to clip their wings. We are women, mothers and scientists, and all this must be compatible.”
Dr. Kirsten Jensen
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Denmark
University of Copenhagen
Material Chemistry, Structural Analysis
Material chemistry has played a significant role in advancing technologies used to convert or store energy, such as batteries, solar cells and catalysts. Its strength is in forging an understanding of the relationship between material synthesis and the structure and properties of materials.
Dr. Kirsten Jensen is exploring the potential of tailoring nanomaterials to optimise the efficiency of energy technologies. This starts with determining their atomic structure on the nanoscale. She and her research group at the University of Copenhagen are achieving this by using the latest high energy x-ray and neutron scattering tools, helping to both advance sustainable energy and the field of nanoscience itself.
“Chemistry is everywhere,” she says. “I find it fascinating that by considering matter on an atomic level, we can understand the properties of everything around us and design molecules or crystal structures for new applications.”
Progressing from roles as PhD student and postdoc to assistant professor in 2015 brought huge responsibilities, but Dr. Kirsten Jensen remained undeterred, adopting a positive attitude that enabled her to succeed. She acknowledges that she is fortunate to work in Scandinavia, where equal opportunities for men and women are fairly well established. However, the majority of her senior colleagues are still men, which she believes may be due to the challenges in balancing e.g. family life with the highly demanding nature of senior research roles, making more women seek careers outside of academia. Creating a better gender balance will mean re-imagining the system, promoting inclusive networking and cultivating strong mentors (male or female) who inspire and encourage young, talented female scientists.
As a women scientist who has never considered her opportunities as anything less than equal to her male counterparts’, Dr. Kirsten Jensen concludes: “I don’t want to be seen as a female scientist, just as a scientist.”
Dr. Urte Neniskyte
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Lithuania
The complexity of the human brain has yet to be fully understood. Dr. Urte Neniskyte is researching how our brains develop in early childhood (6 months to 6 years), with particular reference to anomalies that can lead to serious mental illness. She is currently exploring why excessive synapses sometimes remain, rather than being removed or “pruned” for optimum efficiency.
Aberrations in this “synaptic pruning” process can result in neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. Dr. Urte Neniskyte’s aims to uncover what determines which synapses should be maintained and which should be removed, and how the process could be modified to correct any errors, before a disease can develop.
“There is a philosophical question over whether a system, like the human brain, can understand itself,” she says. “We might not be able to capture everything, but I want to get as close as we can and I’m happy to be contributing to this endeavour.”
Born into a family of chemists, Dr. Urte Neniskyte has viewed life through the prism of science from an early age. “The first images I saw of bacterial plates sparked my passion to be a researcher of living things,” she says.
As a mother of a young daughter and a neuroscientist, Dr. Urte Neniskyte is acutely aware of the importance of early childhood development. “We must raise our sons and daughters to take equal responsibilities in the home and value both women’s and men’s careers,” she says. This includes educating children on gender equality from an early age.
To increase the number of women in science, she believes women scientists must gain the public recognition they deserve for their discoveries. She is unequivocal: “We must stop living in “pink and blue” world and acknowledge that gender-based divisions arise from the traditions of the society rather than how the brain works.”
Dr. Nurcan Tuncbag
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Turkey
Middle East Technical University
Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization, and its prevalence is rising sharply. To address the inherent complexity and heterogeneity of cancer, developing personalised therapeutic strategies is crucial.
Dr. Nurcan Tuncbag is leading an interdisciplinary research project to deliver a “precision medicine” approach by leveraging sophisticated computational analysis to interpret the increasing volumes of data obtained with high-throughput technologies. Analysing this “big data” could help to identify potential synergies, and reveal how biological pathways are organised and altered at molecular level in cancer, as well as how these networks can be targetted to disrupt the abnormal signals for treatment.
The field of bioinformatics has allowed Dr. Nurcan Tuncbag to combine her biological interest in diseases with her mathematical prowess and passion for engineering.
“I was lucky that all my mentors were supportive of gender equity in science,” she recalls. However, as a woman, she still comes across barriers within the scientific community, when she sometimes feels obliged to prove her expertise or knowledge to male attendees, despite being equally qualified.
To empower women scientists and help achieve the necessary diversity to advance engineering sciences, Dr. Nurcan Tuncbag believes that far greater emphasis should be placed on science, technology, engineering and mathematics at schools, starting from an early age.
“Throughout history, women have influenced society and changed the world through their scientific discoveries,” she concludes. “By enhancing the visibility of women scientists, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme will enable more women to contribute valuable discoveries to our world.”
Dr. Maria Molina
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Argentina
National University of Rio Cuarto
Chemistry / Molecular Biology
Antibiotics revolutionised medicine and have since saved many human lives, significantly slowing mortality rates associated with common infectious diseases. Yet the widespread overuse of these once powerful drugs has led to increasing bacterial resistance, creating a serious risk that people could once again lose their lives to common infections and minor injuries.
In the race against time to uncover a solution, scientists including Dr. Maria Molina are developing antimicrobial therapies as a potential alternative treatment for bacterial infections. Her work focuses on developing multifunctional nanogels capable of releasing antibiotics to bacteria (notably P. Aeruginosa) in synergy with a thermal effect created via electromagnetic radiation.
As a child, Dr. Maria Molina dreamt of making a famous discovery that could solve a great human challenge, propelling her into the school text books. Committed to conducting research that improves people’s quality of life, she still dreams of scientists uncovering solutions to other pressing issues, including expanding access to safe water and life-saving medicines in developing countries.
Dr. Maria Molina perceives that women scientists face an inherent inequality: to succeed at work while undertaking a disproportionate share of household responsibilities, they must be more efficient than men and naturally adept at multi-tasking. This becomes more problematic at the higher echelons of science, where heavy time commitments and inflexibility are the norm.
Empowering more women to undertake excellent scientific careers is vital. “The contribution of women scientists creates a diverse vision that is invaluable in addressing the great challenges facing humanity,” she says. Overturning social stereotypes and entrenched perceptions must begin at school, Dr. Maria Molina believes. “Girls should be encouraged to follow their interests rather than conforming to what people expect,” she says. Strong female role models are important, as are programmes that promote women in science, such as the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme.
Dr. Ana Sofia Varela
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Mexico
Institute of chemistry, National Autonomous University of Mexico
Chemistry / Electrocatalysis
Carbon capture stands to play an important role in fighting climate change. Dr. Ana Sofia Varela is using electrocatalysis to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into useful products, in a process known as CO2 electroreduction.
In generating this type of reaction, she uses electricity as a driving force and is exploring diverse catalysts, with a particular focus on new types of inexpensive catalysts comprised of abundant elements (carbon, nitrogen and transition metals). Affordability is central to the economic and technological viability of the process. Ultimately, CO2 electroreduction will allow the use of renewable electricity and waste CO2 to produce carbon-based chemicals (carbon and hydrocarbons).
“My dream is to help avert climate change and its negative impacts,” she says. “I hope that CO2 capture and utilisation will prove to be a key solution, alongside the development of clean energies and energy efficient technologies.”
Both Dr. Ana Sofia Varela’s parents are chemists, and encouraged her childhood curiosity in the world, providing science-based answers to her questions. Years later, as a fully fledged scientist, Dr. Ana Sofia Varela returned to Mexico, after completing her PhD and postdoctoral studies in Europe, to face the harsh reality of doing more with less funding. Nevertheless, she began her own research group and equipped her laboratory, an effort that has been significantly advanced by her L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Regional Fellowship.
While more women are undertaking scientific careers, Dr. Ana Sofia Varela believes they still risk not being taken seriously in a male-dominated field. “Women have to prove their value, while men’s is taken for granted, and take care not to overstep the boundary between assertive and aggressive, particularly in seeking senior roles,” she says. “This must change, as greater diversity in science will allow us to develop multiple approaches to the challenges facing humanity.”
Dr. Jacquelyn Cragg
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Canada
University of British Columbia
The global burden of neurological diseases has grown substantially over the past 25 years*, as the world population expands and ages. Dr. Jacquelyn Cragg is using statistical algorithms to better understand the progression of such diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and spinal cord injury.
She is leveraging “big data” sources and machine-based learning to identify novel, reliable predictors of disease progression, and understand how diverse factors interact to predict long-term outcomes. She aims be a leader in neuro-analytics, helping to uncover innovative treatment strategies and therapies for people suffering with neurological diseases.
“Growing up, I had great teachers whose dedication and willingness to answer my questions allowed me to pursue my passion for mathematics and biology,” she says. Encouraged by teachers to enter mathematics competitions, explore lateral thinking at “Challenge Camps” and attend science fairs, Dr. Jacquelyn Cragg developed a strong knowledge of maths, statistics and science, creating a robust foundation for her future career. She continued to benefit from supportive mentors at the International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries in Vancouver, Harvard University and Balgrist University Hospital in Zurich.
Dr. Jacquelyn Cragg perceives major challenges for women in science. Despite the evidence that men and women have the same inherent scientific ability, she believes there are clear differences in the way that raw ability is nurtured over time, with distinct gender biases creeping in. “Overcoming gender stereotypes and encouraging girls to grow their interest in science should start from an early age,” she concludes. “Girls and boys must know that everyone can do the same things.”
These scientists were recognized during a ceremony at the close of a Scientific Conference marking the 20th anniversary of the UNESCO-L'Oréal For Women in Science programme, on 21 March 2018. It was followed by the L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Awards ceremony on 22 March 2018.
Africa and the Arab States
Dr. Areej Abuhammad
L’Oréal-UNESCO Regional Fellowship Levant & Egypt
School of Pharmacy, University of Jordan
A crystal for a cure
Chronic venous disease (CVD) affects 57% of men and 77% of women1. It is caused by dysfunction in the superficial or deep venous systems of the legs and can lead to varicose veins, skin changes and venous ulcers. Surgical treatment of superficial varicose veins is effective but also expensive, and can involve complications such as infection. Dr. Areej Abuhammad’s objective is to develop drug therapies against CVD. “The treatment of many diseases is based on targeting and inhibiting specific active proteins called enzymes,” she explains. “We do this by designing small chemical molecules that are structurally compatible with the enzymes. However, we first need to understand the structure of the enzyme we are trying to target.”
She is working to design a selective inhibitor of the matrix metalloprotease-9 (MMP9), which is implicated in the tissue degradation that leads to varicose veins. The first step is to establish the structure of the MMP9 in complex with small chemical fragments using crystallography, a technique to determine the molecular structure of crystalline materials. She describes her introduction to protein crystallography as a defining moment in her own career. “The novel field of protein crystallography has helped to elucidate the shapes and structures of important proteins. Prior to the advancement of this field, very little was known about the physical structure of such small components of the cell.” Dr. Abuhammad started the first protein crystallography laboratory for drug discovery in Jordan. Her aim is to establish novel therapies for CVD and other noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, obesity, as well as infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, avian influenza and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
1 - Onida, S., and Davies, A. H. (2016), Phlebology 31, 74-79.
Biological Sciences, medicinal plant sciences
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship South Africa
Plant Science Complex Cell Culture Laboratory, University of Pretori
Targeting angiogenesis for the treatment of melanoma
Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in South Africa. Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer with approximately 86% of melanoma cases attributed to sun exposure.1 “Melanoma, explains Danielle Twilley, spreads by giving off signals that stimulate the growth of new blood vessels, called “angiogenesis”, feeding the cancer with oxygen, nutrients and a pathway to various parts of the body.” Angiogenesis is becoming an attractive target for cancer therapies, however, according to the NCI there are currently no angiogenesis inhibitors available for the treatment of melanoma.2 Danielle Twilley is seeking to find out whether a compound isolated from a South African plant, which she found in previous research to have significant cytotoxicity (the quality of being toxic to cells) towards melanoma cells, is able to inhibit both angiogenesis and tumour growth.
To minimize damage to healthy cells while delivering powerful doses to the tumour environment, she is developing the antiangiogenic agent into gold nanoparticles to target the delivery to the tumour and its vascular network. Ms. Twilley explores indigenous knowledge of plant-based medicines for application in skin cancer, finding one traditionally used plant with high antioxidant content that boosts the SPF of a sunscreen. She is highly engaged in product development, undertaking patenting processes that assure benefits to indigenous communities, planning clinical trials and dealing with manufacturers.
1 - Parkin DM, Mesher D, and Sasieni P. 2011. Cancers attributed to solar (ultraviolet) radiation exposure in the UK in 2010. British Journal of Cancer 105, S66-S69.
2 - NCI. 2011. Online. Angiogenesis inhibitors. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/immunoth...(link is external) angiogenesis-inhibitors-fact-sheet (29/07/2017).
Dr. Hanifa Taher Al Blooshi
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship United Arab Emirates
Department of Chemical Engineering, Khalifa University
Sustainable products for major oil spills clean-up
Spills are a regular occurrence in oil exploration and transport, and pose environmental threats. More than 45 significant spills have been reported since 2010; the four that occurred in 2016 released some 6,000 tons of oil into the oceans.1 Chemical dispersants are used to accelerate oil dispersion and biodegradation in water, and have been found to clean up to 90% of the spill, however, there are concerns about the toxicity of these agents. Work is underway to find environmentally benign and biodegradable-based dispersants. Ionic liquids, also known as designer agents, made from waste may serve this purpose, while making good use of waste products.
Dr. Taher Al Blooshi is developing a new oil dispersant compound from sustainable materials, notably waste, which is available in abundance in the United Arab Emirates. She will formulate, produce and test different products against currently used agents with different types of oil and in different water conditions. The findings of this study could provide a new formulation with the potential to replace traditional dispersants used in oil spill remediation. The positive outputs would benefit both the environmental and marine sectors. Dr. Al Blooshi is pursuing this research alongside her research into automotive grade biodiesel produced from oils extracted from oil-rich compounds. “Both biodiesel production and ecologically sound technologies are hot research topics in chemical engineering generally, and in the United Arab Emirates in particular,” she says. Her research will provide sustainable solutions for cleaning up oil spills and help to protect biodiversity.
1 - Oil tanker spill statistics 2016. 2017, The International Tankers Owners Pollution Federation Limited London.
Dr. Ibtissem Guefrachi
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Tunisia
Biodiversity and Valorization of Bioresources in Arid Zones, Faculty of Sciences of Gabes in collaboration with the Institute of Integrative Biology of the Cell
Plants point to ways of overcoming antibiotic resistance
Multi-drug resistant bacteria risk undoing the tremendous progress antibiotics have brought to the fight against infections. An international search for new antimicrobial agents is underway and some scientists are zeroing in on plants. Antimicrobial peptides, found in certain varieties of legume, appear, in laboratory tests, to have potent antibacterial activity. Nodules on the roots of legume plants are symbiotic organs that house within their cells thousands of nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria, called “bacteroids”. Cohabitation with bacteria has led these plants to evolve adaptations that prevent cells from succumbing to bacteria and bacteria from succumbing to the cell’s immune response.
Dr. Ibtissem Guefrachi found that some species of legume, such as alfalfa, Arachis and Aeschynomenes (tropical plants), produce nodule specific cysteine-rich peptides (NCR) that house the bacteroids, and has revealed mechanisms that make bacteria sensitive or resistant to them. She is now investigating the potential activity of chemically synthesized NCR-like peptides against fungal and bacterial pathogens that are common in humans, such as Candida albicans, which causes yeast infections or thrush, and Chlamydia trachomatis, a common sexually transmitted infection. She also sees potential applications in the food processing industry and agriculture. Dr. Guefrachi is motivated by both scientific curiosity about the symbiotic development of plants and bacteria, as well as a desire to help solve current problems. “I hope this research will lead to new solutions in health care and agronomy.” The mechanisms of symbiotic nitrogen fixation seen in legumes may also enable the development of ways to improve nitrogen fixation in non-legume crops, thereby reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers that contribute to climate change and surface water pollution.
Asia and the Pacific
Dr. Weang Kee Ho
Heath sciences, epidemiological statistician
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Malaysia
Department of Applied Mathematics, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus /Cancer Research Malaysia
Targeted screening for breast cancer
In Asia, the incidence of breast cancer is expected to increase by up to 50% between 2012 and 2025. Women are often diagnosed with advanced disease, and the five-year survival in some Asian countries is just 49%, compared to 89% in Western countries.1 A major challenge in the coming years is to increase mammography screening and early detection in underprivileged communities. Dr. Weang Kee Ho is developing a tool that can be used to identify the women at greatest risk and focus screening programmes on this population. There is a pressing need for a risk calculator based on Asian genetic analysis, as existing risk assessments were designed from studies in European people. Dr. Ho is working with combined genetic data sets from a number of major breast cancer studies conducted in Asian countries to identify candidate common genetic markers that are useful for Asian breast cancer risk prediction.
She is setting the bar high: “Risk prediction models that include only common genetic mutations, but do not take into account rare mutations and other known breast cancer risk factors, would not be comprehensive,” she emphasizes. However, she believes that with mammoth collaborative efforts with other experts in the team, this ambitious goal is achievable. An epidemiological statistician, Dr. Ho’s first love was mathematics. “It was during my doctoral studies,” she recounts, “that I realized that the mathematical skills I had gained could be a powerful tool to answer many important scientific questions.” She has been working on the epidemiology and genetics of stroke, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and is continuing to participate in international collaborations on her most recent work on breast cancer.
Dr. Hiep Nguyen
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Viet Nam
Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Orientation, Biomedical Engineering Department, International University of Vietnam National Universities - Ho Chi Minh City
A 21st century first-aid kit
Better access to health care for people living in remote and rural areas would help to improve quality of life, potentially prevent some degree of migration to cities, and avoid much disruptive travel into cities to treat injuries. “My current work,” Dr. Hiep Nguyen tells us, “focuses on biomaterials such as bio-glue, bio-tape and needleless suturing for wound repair that can be used directly by patients at home.” Her most recent project involves the development of a smart gel that is mainly formed by cross-linking hyaluronic acid (which contributes significantly to cell proliferation and migration) and chitosan (useful in tissue regeneration). It can carry other ingredients such as silver and curcumin nanoparticles for different specific applications. Her team is currently testing the gel to maximize safety and performance. The ultimate goal is a product that can be applied promptly on different types of wounds, helps eliminate bacteria and promotes rapid tissue regeneration. When applied, the gel will form a membrane to stop bleeding, absorb liquid from the wound and prevent infection from microorganisms.
“My research goal,” she says, “is to study and bring new technologies from developed countries back to Vietnam, while also launching biomaterials and medicines originating in Vietnam on world markets.” She has just launched a start-up company to develop commercially viable biomaterials and is committed to developing research capacities in her country. Within the Biomedical Engineering Department, along with the Chair and colleagues, she strengthened the orientation in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine (TERM) by designing new courses, teaching, mentoring, building laboratories and helping to organize international conferences. The success of the TERM orientation contributed to the reputation of the Biomedical Engineering programme, which was ranked first in Vietnam and second among all programmes in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) network of leading universities.
Dr. Yukiko Ogawa
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Japan
Lightweight Metallic Materials Group, Research Center for Structural Materials, National Institute for Materials Science
Lightening the load: next-generation structural materials
Lightweight materials are increasingly in demand to improve fuel efficiency in vehicles, make electronic devices more portable and open up new possibilities for medical devices. Magnesium alloys are an appealing material precisely due to their light weight, however their use has been limited as they are difficult to shape into particular forms. Dr. Yukiko Ogawa succeeded in controlling the microstructure and mechanical properties of magnesium by heat treatment, which had previously been considered impossible. She further experimented with adding another element, scandium, to the alloy to arrive at an optimal combination of strength and ductility (the extent to which it can be deformed without breaking). In the process, she discovered that the material exhibited shape memory — it can be bent and deformed but reverts back to its original shape when exposed to heat or electricity.
Her research group is now investigating other properties that the alloy may have: biodegradable and well accepted in the human body, promising to overcome some of the difficulties currently seen with implantable devices such as stents. As a child, Dr. Ogawa wanted to become a scientist so she could develop novel things to help people. “Material science is the foundation of our modern society,” she says. “Improvements in the properties of materials and the development of new materials enables radical innovation.” Her research team is now working to adjust the composition of the alloy and the process employed to induce shape-memory behaviour, in order to enable affordable and scalable production. Her experiments also open new directions for the study of other lightweight alloys for use in more environmentally friendly transportation systems.
Dr. Radha Boya
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship United Kingdom
Condensed Matter Physics Group, University of Manchester
Making tiny pipes for transport and filtration
Nanostructures are ever present in nature, assuring the passage of substances to where they are needed and filtering out impurities. “Sub-nanometric channels are crucial for the essential functions of life that rely on transport of small ions across cellular membranes,” highlights Dr. Radha Boya who trained in physics in India and is currently conducting research in the UK. “It is only over the past two decades that we have started discovering the importance of the nanodimensions and the rich science hidden behind them.” Replicating these natural structures has potential uses in areas as diverse as water filtration, bioanalytics and drug delivery. Dr. Boya has found a way to make channels, or pipes, as she calls them, that are 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. Using graphene enabled her to overcome limitations caused by the roughness of other molecules.
Her pipes are made by the imprint in the graphene, which can either create a cavity useful for confining a substance, or a tunnel for transporting matter. These can be employed to sieve molecules and ions by size. The technique of making pipes by nanolithography developed by Dr. Boya is reproducible and flexible, providing an important tool for further development of artificial nanochannels with specific properties suited to different requirements. “I dream that my work could lead to better understanding of the natural protein water channels found in cellular membranes,” she says. This work provides the building blocks to new ways of desalinating and filtering water, and new techniques for fuel-gas separation from refineries.
Dr. Agnieszka Gajewicz
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Poland
Faculty of Chemistry, University of Gdansk
Safety first in developing new materials
Nanomaterials are rapidly changing the landscape of industrial and consumer products, from memory storage in our computers to solar cells to generate electricity and drug delivery systems. However, there are still major gaps in our knowledge on how these tiny particles affect the environment and human health. A proactive approach is needed, given lessons learned from the serious health risks posed by chemicals once considered harmless, such as the impact of asbestos (a mineral often used in insulation) on the lungs, or the insecticide DDT on birthweight. As a specialist in chemical informatics and marathon runner, Dr. Agnieszka Gajewicz is intent on anticipating hazards before they are released into our environment and our bodies.
With a great number of new nanoparticles introduced into commercial use every day, it is unrealistic to expect that each one will be subject to comprehensive risk assessment. Dr. Gajewicz is therefore developing efficient computational methods to establish the properties and toxicity of nanomaterials and accelerate pre-clinical assessment. For regulators, these methods provide a means of evaluating safety at early stages of new nanomaterial development, taking the whole product life cycle into account. “Compared with traditional laboratory work,” she explains, “computational methods enable the development of products that are safe by design, sifting through thousands of candidate chemicals.” Dr. Gajewicz’s work has caught the attention of regulators in Europe looking for ways to ensure effective hazard assessment of manufactured nanomaterials. Dr. Gajewicz sees many commonalities between her scientific passion for cheminformatics and her passion for running: “Running a marathon takes a lot of planning and organization, determination, perseverance and discipline — much like a career in science.”
Dr. Anna Kudryavtseva
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Russian Federation
Laboratory of Postgenomic Studies, Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology, Russian Academy of Sciences
The mysteries behind tumour malignancy
In Europe, 22% of all cancer diagnoses involve rare cancers, where treatments are less available and five-year survival rates are 47% compared to 65% for common cancers.1 Dr. Anna Kudryavtseva is attracted to scientific problems where knowledge is sparse, and was inspired to shift from surgical aspirations to biology following a lecture on single-cell organisms. “The most interesting part is doing something completely new, working on something that has never been properly researched before,” she says. In rare cancers called “paragangliomas”, especially the cancers of the head and neck on which she is working, she has striven to find a goal to reflect her aspirations. In these rare tumours, driver mutations that would permit targeted therapies are still largely unknown. While most are slow-growing and benign, for between 10% and 15% of patients, tumours become malignant and can metastasize.2 They are particularly dangerous as they occur very close to vital structures such as the carotid artery, and respond poorly to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
These cancers have another distinction, in that the disruption of cells’ ability to extract and use energy is a primary cause of malignancy, while in most cancers it is a secondary phenomenon. It therefore provides an ideal focus for Dr. Kudryavtseva, whose prior work has examined energy metabolism in the progression of tumours. She is conducting genetic and epigenetic analysis of tumour samples, along with blood and lymph node samples, in order to identify differences between the three most common forms of head and neck paragangliomas. These genetic alterations will help to define prognostic markers for disease that will become malignant, so that treatment can be initiated and new drugs developed. An important component of the research lies in correlating genetic alterations with clinical characteristics to take into account the interaction between genetic characteristics and external and internal factors.
1 - Gemma Gatta, Jan Maarten van der Zwan, Paolo G. Casali, Sabine Siesling, Angelo Paolo Dei Tos, Ian Kunkler, Renée Otter, Lisa Licitra, Sandra Mallone, Andrea Tavilla, Annalisa Trama, Riccardo Capocaccia, Rare cancers are not so rare: The rare cancer burden in Europe, European Journal of Cancer, 2011; 47(17):2493-2511.
2 - Zhikrivetskaya S.O., Snezhkina A.V., Zaretsky A.R., Alekseev B.Y., Pokrovsky A.V., Golovyuk A.V., Melnikova N.V., Stepanov O.A., Kalinin D.V., Moskalev A.A., Krasnov G.S., Dmitriev A.A., Kudryavtseva A.V., Molecular markers of paragangliomas and Pheochromocytomas. Oncotarget, 2017;8(15):25756-25782.
Associate Prof. Duygu Sag
Biological sciences, immunology
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Turkey
Izmir Biomedicine and Genome Center, Dokuz Eylul University
Triggering the immune system to fight cancer
While our immune system defends us against many diseases, it is less effective against cancer. Recent breakthroughs have found ways to increase the immune system’s ability to find and eliminate cancer cells, however, one critical immune cell type within the tumour environment, known as “macrophages”, has not yet been targeted successfully for immunotherapy. Macrophages can be either anti-inflammatory and promote tumour cell proliferation, or pro-inflammatory and fight the tumour. The tumour environment is usually dominated by tumour-promoting macrophages.
The mechanisms that govern the switch between these two types of macrophage are poorly understood. “We have recently made the exciting discovery,” says Prof. Duygu Sag, “that macrophages that lack the cholesterol transporter ABCG1 become potent tumour-fighting macrophages and inhibit the progression of bladder cancer in preclinical studies.” Her team is now working to discover the molecular mechanisms that trigger this switch from tumour-promoting to tumour-fighting macrophages. “This may lead to the development of novel immunotherapeutic approaches for the treatment of cancer,” she suggests. Prof. Sag’s commitment to science began in high school: “While other girls had posters of celebrities on their walls,” she says, “I had photos of famous biologists and scientific posters hanging all over my room.” She is hopeful that science can help overcome the unprecedented problems facing the world: “Our arsenal of scientific knowledge to tackle those problems is now also unprecedented.”
Dr. Ai Ing Lim
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship France
Mucosal Immunology Section, Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, United States
The origins of immune system intelligence
Our body has a beautiful design with a very precise system. Our immune system can create specific responses to target different pathogens to protect our body. However, today, there are more people suffering from asthma, dermatitis, food allergy and obesity, all of which link to our immune system. This suggests that we are experiencing a certain level of immune dysfunction. While the causes remain a mystery, laboratory studies have shown that a single infection can cause long-term damage to immune system balance. The babies born with microcephaly after their mothers were exposed to the Zika virus represent an alarming reminder of the long-term impact of maternal infection.
Pregnancy involves substantial changes in hormone, metabolism, microbiota and immunity. Moreover, pregnant women are more susceptible to a number of infectious diseases, including the influenza virus, listeria and toxoplasma, for example. All of this suggests that the foetal environment may be related to the immune disorders that we are facing, especially in high-income countries. Dr. Ai Ing Lim believes that maternal-foetal interaction in the uterine environment may hold the key to understanding the complexity of immune disorders. She is exploring how maternal exposure to infections during pregnancy impacts on the baby’s immune system. Her research involves laboratory studies on the impact of infections that commonly occur during pregnancy, such as the influenza virus, on immune system development and the baby’s susceptibility to inflammatory disease. She is building on previous discoveries on a new type of immune cell known as innate lymphoid cells, which play a crucial role in early immune responses to fight against various diseases. “Ultimately,” she says, “I hope that understanding how our immune systems work, especially in the maternal-foetal context, will lead us to resolve many infectious and inflammatory diseases.”
Latin America and the Caribbean
Dr. Selene Lizbeth Fernandez Valverde
Biological sciences and genomics
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Mexico
Advanced Genomics Unit, National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity (UGA-LANGEBIO), Cinvestav
The secrets of genomic “dark matter”
Proteins are considered to be the fundamental building blocks of life and are receiving much scientific attention. Yet they are contained in less than 3% of our DNA. The vast number of RNAs, polymeric molecules essential in various biological roles such as coding, decoding, regulation, and expression of genes, that do not make proteins (known as “long non-coding RNAs” or lncRNAs) remain the relatively unexplored “dark matter” of the genome. Dr. Fernandez Valverde is intent on understanding the function and evolution of the thousands of lncRNAs that are present in most life forms, some of which are known to control gene expression and have been linked to human diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
“This is one of the most exciting times to be involved in biological research” she enthuses. Technological advances enable scientists to obtain a full sequencing of DNA and RNA of an organism and “this wealth of information is allowing us to use evolutionary theory to identify which molecules are important in different organisms and contexts.” Dr. Fernandez Valverde is developing a framework that will permit studies of individual IncRNAs to identify structural motifs, groups of IncRNAs with shared characteristics, and associate these with functions. She uses computational methods to identify RNA sequences that are under evolutionary election. “For example,” she says, “we can identify RNAs whose expression increases in particular environments such as high altitude or high sun exposure, and identify how these changes are associated with the appearance and response to disease in humans, animals and crops.” She hopes the tools developed in her laboratory will enable scientists to interpret the impacts of the environment on genetic change by rapidly assigning functions to novel, uncharacterized RNA molecules.
Dr. Rafaela Salgado Ferreira
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship Brazil
Laboratory of Molecular Modeling and Drug Design, Computational Biology Group Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte
Computing power in the service of neglected diseases
Diseases that largely affect poorer countries do not always receive sufficient investment from pharmaceutical companies, leaving it to public universities to fill this important gap. Dr. Rafaela Salgado Ferreira leads the Laboratory of Molecular Modeling and Drug Design in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with a mission to develop new drugs for neglected diseases. “We employ a strategy called rational drug design” she explains. “First, a protein which is essential to the pathogen is chosen as a target, then the structures of this protein are experimentally determined and computational techniques are used to select molecules that are most likely to work against the protein.”
Computational selection allows her team to consider millions of potential inhibitors and select only a few dozen to be experimentally evaluated in the laboratory, in order to verify their activity against the pathogen. These procedures constitute the initial steps in the drug development pipeline. Her current focus is on the parasitic disease, Chagas, which is endemic in Brazil, with as many as three million people affected. Existing treatments are not very effective and have serious side effects. Dr. Salgado Ferreira is targeting the cruzain enzyme, the pathogen responsible for the disease, and is testing a number of cruzain inhibitors identified through rational drug design. Her work on the Zika virus, which struck Brazil very hard two years ago, focuses on a protease inhibitor that prevents viral replication. “Developing drugs is highly challenging” she emphasizes. “The greatest achievement for me, which is a big dream, would be to contribute to bringing a drug to market.”
Dr. Anela Choy
Biological sciences, oceanography
L’Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship United States
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego
Ocean food webs and human societies
Through the burning of fossil fuels and consumption of seafood, humans worldwide have impacted ocean ecosystems. Understanding how all of the creatures in the open ocean interact and feed on one another is the focus of Dr. Anela Choy’s research. Additionally, pinpointing how multiple human impacts influence ocean food webs is critical to ensuring their sustained and healthy existence. For example, more than ten million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year.1 When ingested by marine animals, these plastics pose physical and chemical risks that are poorly known.
In addition to disentangling food web structure and function, Dr. Anela Choy’s work contributes crucial knowledge about the ecosystem impacts of marine plastic pollution and will aid in developing strategies to manage and conserve ocean ecosystems. She discovered that giant larvaceans, which are primitive marine animals, play a vital role in transporting plastics from the surface to the depths of the ocean. She is investigating the distribution patterns of contaminants like methylmercury and plastics in marine animals from the bottom of the food chain right up to the fish consumed by humans. Dr. Choy works on stateof- the-art undersea vehicles from which she can directly observe and sample animals from deep-sea ecosystems, which represent the largest living spaces on Earth. Having just accepted a position at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the premier oceanographic institutes in the world, Dr. Choy is preparing to set up her laboratory at the University of California, San Diego in Fall 2018. One of her first projects is to examine the chemical extent of plastic pollution in the deep sea: the small fish, squid and crustaceans she will study are the pillars of ocean food webs and primary food sources for commercially important fish. “I hope my work will raise awareness about the intimate links between human societies and the seemingly disconnected deep ocean environment, which we all ultimately depend on.”
1 - Jambeck et al. 2015, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.