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Four female scientists leading the way for women

Four female scientists leading the way for women
10 May
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There may still be a gender imbalance in the science world, but these women are determined to inspire a new generation.

Women have come a long way on many fronts during the past century. In the age of innovation, however, they remain significantly underrepresented in science.

In fact, women account for around 30 percent of the world’s researchers, according to the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Initiative. The joint program, backed by the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), was established 20 years ago to encourage more young women to enter science fields, support their careers and recognise accomplished female researchers.

Yet much work still needs to be done to correct the gender imbalance. “There are still great barriers that discourage women from entering the profession and obstacles continue to block progress for those already in the field,” declares a L’Oréal-UNESCO initiative report. “Science is crucial in tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues and we need every talented mind available, be they men or women.”

We also need to instil confidence in girls from an early age to show them their own potential, according to Australia’s Office of the Chief Scientist, in a paper titled Busting Myths About Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). “Girls and women represent untapped talent,” write the paper’s authors. But girls typically suffer from the impacts of low self-confidence in their STEM abilities. “Overall, a mismatch between girls’ STEM abilities and their confidence reduces female representation in STEM.”

Early intervention is key, and we need to dismiss outdated notions that girls are bad at maths or not interested in STEM subjects. We also need to overcome lingering perceptions that STEM is a male domain that deters women from careers in science and perpetuates an absence of female role models. Here, we introduce such role models: four female scientists who were recently awarded L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science 2017 Australian fellowships.

Dr Jacqui Romero
A quantum physicist and mother of three boys (aged between 20 months and almost eight), Dr Jacqui Romero fell in love with science at the age of eight, when her uncle gave her a book of algebra problems. By the age of 15 she had decided to become a physicist. “We should definitely be encouraging children young, as in toddler young or younger,” she says, only half-joking. “I have three young children and I am amazed at how much they figure out in those early years: it really reminds you that we all started out as scientists. It is important for us to encourage them to ‘keep the wonder’, and also to inculcate the fact that there are so many things left to explore or problems to solve.”

The University of Queensland-based researcher manages to make the complicated field of quantum physics sound like child’s play as she explains her experiments with photons or particles of light. “Photons have many different properties,” Romero says. “I am most interested in their shape; think doughnut-shaped or petal-shaped, etc. These different shapes can be used to encode information.” Thus she uses photons to create “higher-dimensional” alphabets to encode and transmit data more securely. “It is really interesting, because it can lead to infallibly secure communication and more powerful computation,” she says.

Romero says her L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship will fund extra childcare while she is away at conferences or meetings. “It will make it easier for me to say yes to invitations to give talks or collaborate, because I will be assured my husband will not be left alone with the kids.” She says juggling motherhood with a full-time career in science is not easy, but worth it. “To have happy children, we need to have happy parents,” she says. “Doing science makes me happy, so me being a scientist must be good for my kids.”

Dr Deborah Williamson
Clinical microbiologist and researcher Dr Deborah Williamson was 10 when her dad bought a microscope. “I recall being amazed at the world we couldn’t see with our eyes,” says Williamson, whose mum was a nurse and dad a research scientist. “I really wanted to learn about how things that were so small could cause such damage to us.”

Fast-forward a few decades and Williamson is tackling the threat of antibiotic resistance, one of the biggest man-made health threats of the modern age, through her work at the Doherty Institute, a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

The ability of bacteria to resist the effects of antibiotic treatments is leaving healthcare professionals with limited or no available treatment options. “Antibiotics have made major advances in modern medicine possible,” says Williamson. “Without them we would return to the pre-antibiotic era, where common infections like skin infections or urinary tract infections might result in serious disease, even death.”

Williamson’s research into the cause of antibiotic resistance will also enable her to advise clinicians and the public on safer use of antibiotics and antiseptics. “Safe use of antibiotics is not just a medical issue: it is a societal issue that may affect all of us, and so as global citizens we must all act,” she says. “A key part of this is helping the public understand that antibiotics should only be used when necessary.”

Williamson says her L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship will help fast-trackher research, enable her to employ a research technician and assist with childcare costs. “I feel passionate about letting my daughter see that women can work, raise a family and have time for themselves, too,” she says. “Apart from the financial assistance, I hope the profile that comes from receiving this award will inspire young females to undertake a science or medical degree.”

Dr Stephanie Simonds
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in Australia, and 70 per cent of cases can be attributed to excess body fat. “It’s very gratifying to think that my research could help combat a set of diseases that affect millions of people across the globe,” says Monash University researcher Dr Stephanie Simonds, whose research investigates the links between CVD and obesity. Research led by Simonds recently identified that the fat-derived hormone leptin is responsible for acting on the brain to increase blood pressure. “Many scientists, including myself, have shown that leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells, acts in the brain and stimulates the body to burn more energy,” Simonds says.

“From an evolutionary perspective this sort of makes sense. The amount of leptin in the blood is proportional to the amount of body fat carried. So the fatter the individual is, the greater the energy-burning signal that is sent to the brain … It remains unclear why leptin does this, but we are working on it.”

Simonds’s research has also identified that the hormone oestrogen acts as a natural protector against the development of CVD in pre-menopausal obese females. “As we go through menopause, our risk of cardiovascular disease increases,” she says. “My work indicates that the post-menopausal drop in oestrogen levels may contribute to this increased risk … it’s just one more reason to stay in shape as we get older.”

Simonds is adamant that science is no longer a man’s world. “Increasing the visibility of women in science – and indeed women in other professions – is a positive move that reinforces the belief in young women that they can do whatever they want in life. The great thing about being a scientist is that you get out what you put in. Hard work doesn’t always get you to the top, but it will get you pretty damn close.”

Dr Jacyln Pearson
Microbiologist and drummer Dr Jacyln Pearson temporarily abandoned her research career in the early 2000s to go on tour with her all-girl rock band Lash. Pearson still drums in a band for fun, but she has now made microbiology, specifically microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, her main gig at Monash University’s Hudson Institute of Medical Research. And her enthusiasm is infectious.

“There are more bacteria in your gut than there are stars in the entire universe, and more bacterial genes in our bodies than our own genes, which draws some to the conclusion that we are more bacterial than human,” Pearson says. While the reason is still unknown, Australia has one of the highest prevalences of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in the world. Pearson is currently researching how gut microorganisms contribute to IBD, and their role in disease severity.

Her research thus far has proven some gut pathogens use their own proteins to make chemical changes within parts of our immune system. “My discovery has never been shown before, so it was very exciting and has led to a lot of research on working out which parts of our immune system are most important for controlling serious bacterial gut infections and for keeping our guts healthy and free of inflammatory disease,” she says.

Pearson will next investigate how a mutation in some of the genes in cells that make up our immune system dampen important early immune responses during bacterial gut infection, making infections far worse and less likely to clear up. “We are really just at the beginning of understanding exactly how it (our gut microbiome) affects our immune functions and overall health and disease,” she says.

This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Vogue Australia.

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