Yearly prizes awarded to five female life scientists for their work in global public health.

lorealnews.jpg Pamela Bjorkman, L’Oréal -UNESCO Award For Women in Science, 2006 Laureate for North America.  Credit:Micheline Pelletier / GAMMA

Science hands out many prizes, but few are more glamorous, or more potentially life altering, than the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science. Tuesday, the honor was given out in Paris to five international science stars. The grants, each worth $100,000, went this year to researchers whose work impacts public health worldwide.

“The real reason for having the awards is to create role models in every continent, so that students and mothers and wives will realize that women can be scientists, that they can have families and lives and still be doing good science that’s changing the world,” said Jennifer Campbell, director of philanthropy at L’Oréal.

Since 1998, the For Women in Science prize has been given to five distinguished scientists, with the exception of 1999. Since 2003, the focus of the award has alternated yearly between the life sciences and the material sciences. The 2006 laureates are all life scientists.

A vital feature of the award is its international flavor: The five laureates represent all of the globe’s five main continents.  The L’Oréal-UNESCO partnership also awards fellowships to 15 young female researchers, three each from Africa, the Arab States, Asia and the Pacific; Europe and North America; and Latin America and the Caribbean.

“It is our responsibility to encourage women in all countries to go into science, and a program such as the L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowships is a wonderful way to do that because there are women from many different countries being recognized,” said Pamela Bjorkman. She’s the 2006 North American laureate and a biologist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Bjorkman’s immunology research involving the decoding of protein structures has provided a basis for HIV medications.

The 15 fellowship winners, who are all life scientists at the doctoral or post-doc level, will each receive a grant of up to $40,000, which can cover up to two years of research. Since many of the fellows, as well as many of the prize winners, hail from the developing world, L’Oréal-UNESCO honorees are frequently women who have faced formidable odds while attaining their level of success.

“You know, we have difficulties, or have had in the past, difficulties in what we call the first world, in terms of women going into the sciences,” said Myriam Sarachik, a 2005 laureate who is a distinguished professor of physics at City College of New York. “But these young women are starting from a background and a culture where the battle is really much, much more intense and requires a great deal of determination and good brains.”

The other four 2006 laureates are Esther Orozco, a tropical disease researcher from Mexico; Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni, a Tunisian geneticist who studies hereditary disorders; Christine van Broeckhoven, from Belgium, an authority on Alzheimer’s disease; and Jennifer Graves, an Australian molecular biologist whose work focuses on the evolution of the Y chromosome in humans.

In addition, L’Oréal-UNESCO gave a $100,000 donation to the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation, named after the 1995 German Nobelist in medicine, for the professor’s efforts in helping women with children balance family with achievement in the sciences.

Kevin Friedl contributed reporting for this article.

Originally published March 2, 2006


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