Five inspirational UK and Ireland scientists win prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science fellowship

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05 May 2017

A geneticist researching the biological causes of cerebral palsy and an immunologist studying how the power of the body clock could be harnessed to control inflammatory diseases were among five promising UK scientists who won prestigious fellowships at the 10th annual L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women In Science awards last night.

The annual Fellowships programme provides £15,000 of flexible financial support for outstanding female postdoctoral researchers to continue research in their fields, as part of a wider L’Oréal-UNESCO programme aimed at supporting and increasing the number of women working in STEM professions in the UK, where 85% of jobs are held by men.

The winning scientists, selected from nearly 300 applicants, were revealed at a special ceremony at the Royal Society in London last night. They are:

  • Dr Radha Boya, University of Manchester, Nanoscience

  • Dr Annie Curtis, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Immunology

  • Dr Manju Kurian, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, Neurology

  • Dr Bethan Psaila, University of Oxford, Haematology

  • Dr Priya Subramanian, University of Leeds, Mathematics

(L-R: Dr Manju Kurian; Dr Radha Boya; Dr Annie Curtis; Professor Dame Carol Robinson; Dr Bethan Psaila; Dr Priya Subramanian)

Importantly, winners will be able to spend their prize money on whatever they need in order to continue their research and take the next step in their careers, be that expensive lab equipment, field research or childcare costs.

This year, many of the winners, who have young families, said they intend to use the award to help balance the time demands of a career in academic research with raising a family. Others said it will help them to collaborate with other scientises or travel to international conferences.

The UK still has a significant gender gap in the sciences, with just 15% of STEM roles held by women. L’Oréal UK & Ireland has also partnered with Education & Employers’ Inspiring the Future programme to launch a scheme connecting primary school children with female role models working in a range of exciting science-based careers.

Dr Steve Shiel, Scientific Director at L’Oréal UK & Ireland, said: “Now in its tenth year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme remains as important as ever. Women still face significant barriers to STEM careers, from a shortage of female role models for young children to a lack of support once on their chosen career path. Science needs women, and as a company founded on science, we are committed to ensuring more women are able to enjoy long and successful careers in science.”

Professor Dame Carol Robinson, Head of the Judging Panel and a L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Laureate, said: “These awards are well known in the science community and are always fiercely contested because of the vital support they provide. Each of our finalists is working on innovative and ground-breaking research, so selecting the winners was a tough task for the judges, but we are delighted they can now benefit from this support at a crucial stage in their careers, and we look forward to seeing the fruits of their research in the future.”

At the ceremony, two PHD students were selected as winners of a poster competition in which they presented their research in life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, mathematics or computer science. The winners were Amanda Dalby from the University of Cambridge and Ellen Dorothea Moss from Newcastle University.

About the winning Fellows:
Dr Radha Boya, University of Manchester, is a nanoscientist aiming to produce atomically thin channels through layers of two-dimensional materials such as graphene. Such “sieves” which are ultimately narrow and smooth capillaries (i.e., tiny pipes which are 0.7 nanometre thin), have already been created and show that water molecules can go through them at an incredibly fast rate of one metre per second. Exploring these channels for desalination by sieving or filtering ions from the salt water is the way forward. Furthermore, study and utilization of exotic phenomena such as non-conventional transport of liquids now seems to be closer than ever.

Dr Annie Curtis, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, is an immunologist researching how the power of our internal body clock could be harnessed to control inflammation – a key target in a wide range of diseases. Our molecular clock or “body clock” regulates our sleep/wake patterns and our energy throughout the day, but new research suggests that the molecular clock in immune cells may also be able to control inflammation. A further study of 500,000 patients could help explain why we are more prone to inflammation at certain times of the day, and why disruptions to our body clock such as shift work, chronic jet lag and exposure to light at night could cause increased risk of inflammatory disease.

Dr Manju Kurian, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, is a geneticist researching the genetic causes of cerebral palsy, a common childhood condition associated with significant disability. Although traditionally associated with birth injury, many children with cerebral palsy actually have a faulty gene causing their problems. In a preliminary study of 95 patients, Dr Kurian found a genetic cause in half of the children, and in some cases was able to identify more targeted treatments leading to striking improvements. Some disabled children have even regained the ability to walk independently.

Dr Bethan Psaila, University of Oxford, is a haematologist examining the role of blood cells in the bone marrow, known as megakaryocytes, in a rare but fatal disease called Myelofibrosis which destroys the bone marrow. Most patients live for fewer than five years after diagnosis, and 20% develop blood cancer. Current treatments help symptoms but do not cure the condition or improve survival. The condition is triggered by a mutation in a key gene called JAK2, and better understanding how the disease develops at a genetic level could help in the design of new treatments.

Dr Priya Subramanian, University of Leeds, is a mathematician researching mathematical recipes for never-repeating quasicrystals. Repeating patterns of tiles and crystals occur throughout the natural world, but never-repeating patterns are special because they possess order without repeatability. So-called quasicrystals containing such arrangements of atoms and molecules are thought to require less energy to assemble, and could offer advantages in manufacturing, insulation and photonic devices.

Five runners up were awarded £1,000 prize money. They are:
Dr Eleanor Raffan, University of Cambridge, Genetics.
Obesity: Exploiting the Genomes of Domestic Dogs for Novel Insights

Dr Sarah Fiddyment, University of York, Biochemistry
Molecules, Microbes and Manuscripts: the unwritten biology of books

Dr Emma Chapman, Imperial College London, Astrophysics.
Preparing for the SKA: The Epoch of Reionization Pipeline

Dr Alyssa-Jennifer Avestro, Durham University, Organic Chemistry.
Three-Dimensionally Conjugated Nanoprisms as Organic Optoelectronic and Energy Storage Materials

Dr Sarah Rasmussen, University of Cambridge, Mathematics.
Toward an enumerative interpretation of Heegaard Floer homology

1 Women in Science and Engineering, UK STEM Workforce, 2015

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