Because They're Worth It | March 12, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 11 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 11 | pp. 45-46 | Awards
Issue Date: March 12, 2007

Because They're Worth It

L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards honor five international senior researchers
Department: ACS News | Collection: Women in Chemistry
Birshtein (from left), Dresselhaus, Gurib-Fakim, Gargallo, and Brimble.
Credit: Séverine Vasselin/Gamma
Birshtein (from left), Dresselhaus, Gurib-Fakim, Gargallo, and Brimble.
Credit: Séverine Vasselin/Gamma

It might not have had quite as much glitter or hoopla as the Oscars ceremony three nights later, but the L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards were "far more important," according to Baroness Susan Greenberg, director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Greenberg was the keynote speaker at the gala awards ceremony, which more than 1,200 people attended on Feb. 22 at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization.

"Science, with its wide spectrum, sooner or later will have an application to one's life. And it is great to recognize the next generation, too," she said. The senior women being honored, she predicted, are serving as "fantastic role models." But the laureate awards, and the fellowships that the L'Oréal-UNESCO partnership also sponsors, recognize the rising stars of the world of science too, she said. For them, she added, "the adventure is just beginning."

This year's laureates are all physicists or chemists. Their fields are wildly different, but all are in materials science, one of the two focus areas of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards. The awards alternate every year between life sciences, with a jury presided over by Günter Blobel, 1999 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, and materials science, whose jury is presided over by Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, 1991 Nobel Prize winner in physics.

Each winner receives $100,000, and each is invited to give a lecture before the French Academy of Sciences during "Awards Week."

Tatiana Birshtein, Laureate for Europe, is professor at the Institute of Macromolecular Compounds, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Russia. She was honored, the award citation said, "for her contribution to the understanding of the shapes, sizes, and motions of large molecules." Birshtein's work has shed new light on the self-organizing properties of many remarkable polymeric systems essential to plastics used in soft-drink bottles, plastic bags, and other familiar materials such as nylon, rayon, expandable polystyrene foam, methacrylate polymers, and poly-(tetrafluoroethylene).

Margaret Brimble, Laureate for Asia-Pacific, is chair of the department of organic and medicinal chemistry, University of Auckland, in New Zealand. She was recognized "for her contribution to the synthesis of complex natural products, especially shellfish toxins." Brimble, an American Chemical Society member, has focused on the synthesis of shellfish toxins that are useful for the design and development of drugs for clinical conditions including Alzheimer's, epilepsy, hypertension, stroke, and cancer. She also is actively involved in the burgeoning New Zealand biotechnology industry (C&EN, Jan. 22, page 20).

Mildred Dresselhaus, Laureate for North America, is Institute Professor of Electrical Engineering & Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was honored "for her research on solid-state materials, including conceptualizing the creation of carbon nanotubes," ideal new materials for use in objects such as lightweight bicycles and flat-panel screens.

Ligia Gargallo, Laureate for Latin America, is a professor in the department of physical chemistry at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, in Santiago. She was recognized "for her contributions to understanding the solution properties of polymers." Data published as a result of her studies help drug designers visualize how new compounds will interact with enzymes in the body and open the door to the rational design of synthetic enzymes, the citation said.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Laureate for Africa, is professor of organic chemistry and pro-vice-chancellor, University of Mauritius. She was recognized "for her exploration and analysis of plants from Mauritius and their biomedical applications." Analysis of the antibacterial and antifungal properties of plants from Mauritius is paving the way for their use as safe and effective alternatives to commercial medicines, including potential diabetes therapies. Gurib-Fakim created the first-ever full inventory of the medicinal and aromatic plants on Mauritius and neighboring island Rodrigues. She is honorary secretary for the Association for African Medicinal Plants Standards, a collaboration of scientists from 14 countries that is working to compile an African herbal pharmacopoeia to internationally acceptable standards (C&EN, Feb. 26, page 27). This year, the association moved to Mauritius; it will be administered by her group.

Fifteen younger women doing postdoc study also received fellowships, the amount and duration of which were doubled in 2006. Each is now worth a maximum of $40,000 over two years to encourage even more ambitious projects than before. One of the provisos for the fellowship winners is that they must initiate or pursue the research project in a laboratory located outside her country of origin.

Additionally, L'Oréal's national subsidiaries offer fellowships to young women scientists in their home countries. This year, for example, the L'Oréal USA Fellowships for Women in Science program will award five women scientists $40,000 each in a ceremony in New York City in May.

L'Oréal and UNESCO established their partnership in 1998, giving the first science awards that year. The main aim of the awards is to honor the winners, of course. But a side aim is to spotlight what the partnership sees as "a type of science emerging on all the continents that is rooted in real life and whose goal is to find practical solutions to problems in the scientists' environments." To date, including the 2007 winners, 47 women from 24 countries have received L'Oréal-UNESCO awards.

According to the chairman of L'Oréal, Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, "Our partnership grows from day to day because it is based on strong convictions: The world needs science, and science needs women, but women also need support, encouragement, and recognition to lead successful scientific careers."

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