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UNESCO honours five women scientists for role in male-dominated field

UNESCO honours five women scientists for role in male-dominated field

Five outstanding women scientists received major awards today from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the cosmetics company L’Oréal for their efforts in a field dominated by men.

This year’s L’Oréal-UNESCO awards recipients, who each received $100,000, represent all five continents and the Paris-based agency voiced hope that they will be role models to encourage young women from around the world to follow in their footsteps.

The winners were selected by a jury led by the 1991 Nobel laureate for physics, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. A founder of the awards, Christian de Duve, who received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1974, also participated in the deliberations.

The awards, presented in Paris, reflect a “vision of science” which aims to “safeguard the future of the planet,” the agency’s Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura declared.

“The world needs science and science needs women, but women also need support, encouragement and recognition to lead successful scientific careers,” said Lindsay Owen-Jones, Chairman and CEO of L’Oréal.

Worldwide, women make up only 27 per cent of all researchers, and glaring disparities can be seen on different continents, with women scientists comprising, of the total, 46 per cent in South America, 29 per cent in Africa and 15 per cent in Asia, according to a 2006 UNESCO study. The European Commission reports that in Europe, 32 per cent of state laboratories and 18 per cent of private ones are staffed by women.

Figures for the next generation are also not promising for women scientists. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has noted a steep drop in the number of girls studying science and technology, particularly in the Untied States, Canada and France.

This year’s recipients, who join more than 40 other women scientists from over 20 countries who have received the honour, are:

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim of Mauritius for her exploration and analysis of plants from her country in paving the way for their use as safe and effective alternatives to existing commercial medicines;

Ligia Gargallo of Chile for her work helping drug designers envisage how new compounds will interact with the body’s enzymes;

Mildred Dresselhaus of the United States for her research on solid state materials, including carbon nanotubes;

Margaret Brimble of New Zealand for her contribution to synthesizing complex natural products, especially shellfish toxins; and

Tatiana Birshtein of Russia for her efforts to understanding the shapes, sizes and motions of large molecules.

In a related development, 15 UNESCO-L’Oréal International Fellowships were given out yesterday in Paris to post-doctoral students. Awarded annually, these fellowships are intended to support women’s efforts in science, encourage progress in the field and promote societies’ development globally.