L'Oreal-UNESCO awards honorees hope to raise the voice of the female scientific community an octave.

2006 L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Awards Laureates (left to right): Esther Orozco (Mexico, Laureate Latin America), Pamela Bjorkman (USA, Laureate North America), Jennifer Graves (Australia, Laureate Asia/Pacific), Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni (Tunisia, Laureate Africa), Christine Van Broeckhoven (Belgium, Laureate Europe).  Credit: GAMMA

In January of last year, Harvard president Larry Summers notoriously pondered aloud whether “intrinsic aptitude” might be the reason that women are poorly represented in the highest levels of scientific research. Twice since that fateful speech an annual event has made it clear that, whatever their innate abilities, there’s no shortage of talented women with more aptitude for science than the hapless, now-deposed president has for administration.

Last week, as Summers began his preparations to hand over the reigns of one of the country’s most prestigious academic institutions, women from around the world traveled to Paris to receive prestigious honors sponsored jointly by L’Oréal-UNESCO for their contributions to science. Five accomplished female biologists from five continents accepted the $100,000 Award For Women In Science, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of women in science.

“Many laureates of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science could be candidates for the Nobel Prize but on the selection committees, note that men predominate,” said Christian de Duve, Nobel Prize-winning biologist and founding president of the awards, in a press statement.

Women have won only 12 Nobel Prizes in the sciences in over 100 years, and on average receive less attention than their male counterparts, if only because men still dominate the field of research. The L’Oréal-UNESCO laureate program is intended not only to honor the accomplishments of top female scientists but also to hold them up as an example for a younger generation of women who may be hesitant to pursue a career in science.

“The award plays an important role in creating visibility for senior women to serve as role models for young women,” says Pamela Bjorkman, this year’s North American laureate, honored for her research at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Caltech on how the immune system recognizes pathogens. “It can be discouraging for a young person today who’s trying to enter science if she doesn’t see anyone who looks like her doing science.”

Jennifer Graves, the 2006 laureate from Australia recognized for her work on demystifying the mammalian genome, seemed to agree, when she remarked during her acceptance speech on the difficulty of encouraging women and emphasizing that that they too can excel in science.

“Like most of my senior women colleagues, I have spent countless hours on committees for recruiting women, nominating women, encouraging women to enter and stick with science,” Graves said, “and I have to say, I get very frustrated sometimes that all this effort seems to have made very little difference on the ground.”

The greater attention enjoyed by male researchers may not only be due to their numbers in the lab, but more importantly their continued preponderance in high-status leadership positions. Even in countries where women now make up a significant portion of the scientific community, they often play lesser roles in the laboratory than their male colleagues.

“Women are under-represented in science in general, and in the areas where women are working with men, they tend to have supporting roles; they’re rarely in leadership roles,” said Jennifer Campbell, L’Oreal’s director of philanthropy and partnership. “In the Academies of Science, if you look in the US, the numbers are appalling.”

“Now what’s needed is a shift in the minds of decision-makers, like department heads and presidents of academies,” Campbell continued. “We need them to start realizing it’s important to have women scientists as well as men.”

The L’Oréal-UNESCO awards program has only been active since 1998, but there’s already evidence that its recognition of outstanding scientists is helping advance the influence of female researchers worldwide. Consider the example of Mayana Zatz, a Brazilian geneticist who won the award in 2001. After becoming a laureate, Zatz was able to secure increased funding for her research on the use of stem cell therapies to treat muscular dystrophy and other genetic disorders. Her increased profile led her to become more politically active, and she successfully lobbied to liberalize her country’s laws governing the use of stem cells.

Whereas the For Women in Science Awards serve to create role models of successful and well-established female scientists, the L’Oréal-UNESCO program’s 15 fellowships—which provide up to $40,000 in funding—and can last up to two years, also give a boost to the next generation of researchers, actively supporting women in the lab by funding doctoral and postdoctoral work.

“Those fellowships are highly significant because they come at the time of life where women have to make the difficult transition from education to a career—a period in which the drop-out rate for women is very high,” said Johanna Levelt Sengers, an emeritus scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who received the award in 2003 for her research into fluids near their critical points.

Valerie Gbonon, a medical doctor in the Ivory Coast, earned a fellowship this year for her work on treating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria afflicting newborns. She believes the fellowships are particularly important for women in the developing world.

“The future is getting more and more promising because of these awards for young scientists from Africa and Latin America,” she said via e-mail.

With women in the US now earning as many science and engineering bachelor’s degrees as men, organizers and honorees of the L’Oréal-UNESCO program also hope they will trickle up from the labs and into the higher echelons of the scientific community.

“Over the coming years, an increasing number of women will be leaders in science, and that’s what’s already happening,” said Bjorkman, the newly minted laureate. “It would be a waste not to use the talents of 50% of the population.”

Britt Peterson contributed reporting for this article.

Originally published March 8, 2006


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