International Day of Women & Girls in Science 2020
To rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we need to harness our full potential. That requires dismantling gender stereotypes. On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let’s pledge to end the gender imbalance in science.
- UN Secretary-General António Guterres
On 11th February the World marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science to highlight the gender disparity that exists in science and the stereotypying and discouragement (in some cases active discrimination) many women around the world face when wanting to pursue a career in science. "At present, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women... only around 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3%), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5%) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8%)" (WHO 2020).
At VALIDATE we have amazing researchers, many of whom also happen to be female. We are proud that they can act as excellent role-models for women and girls around the world who are interested in a career in science - science is for girls and women as much as it is for boys and men! We chatted to some of our researchers to find out more about their research.
Sam is a Professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Tell us about your research
I am a tuberculosis (TB) researcher at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa. Here I have the privilege of leading a team of 13 scientists of Masters and PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, all conducting TB research. Our key interest is in how the bacterium that causes TB disease interacts with the host. We have a special interest in so-called “persister” populations of the TB bacteria. These “sleeper cells” can evade antibiotic treatment, potentially driving the need for very lengthy TB treatment regimens. Apart from guiding my team’s research and obtaining funding to support that, I fulfil other academic roles, for example mentoring up-and-coming junior researchers and serving on various Faculty and Institutional Committees. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is seeing my team develop and succeed, and getting to share in the “wow” moments when something works – either exactly as planned, or not at all as you’d imagined!
Who or what inspired you into a career in science research?
Probably my earliest scientific inspiration was my dad; although he never had the opportunity to go to University, he really inspired my curiosity and imagination – two qualities which I think are essential for a scientist. He helped with many of my school projects, often with a fair amount of “healthy debate” involved! He and my mom always believed in me and supported my choices, and it never for a moment crossed my mind that girls couldn’t or shouldn’t do science.
What advice or tips would you give to girls wanting to have a career in science research?
Firstly, find a mentor or mentors who will challenge and support you – this could be different people at different stages. Secondly, be absolutely sure that a scientific career is what you want – while it is incredibly rewarding, and I wouldn’t want to do any other job, academia is very demanding, and you do need a thick skin at times! Finally, remember that there is life beyond the lab – don’t neglect spending time with friends, family and on yourself. Sometimes you need to switch off to be able to return to the science with fresh eyes, inspiration and enthusiasm.
Ann is a VALIDATE Network Management Board member and Scientific Leader at Public Health England, UK.
Tell us about your research
My research involves working with teams of people in the UK and internationally who are looking for new ways to treat or prevent tuberculosis (TB). This disease kills more people globally than any other infectious disease and it is a great privilege to be a part of the efforts to find ways to prevent these deaths and reduce the suffering that TB causes in many communities world-wide. Most of my research is aimed towards developing new and improved vaccines for TB.
What inspired you into a career in science?
I did not specifically plan a career in science research but just found that I enjoyed doing lab-based research and various opportunities to develop my career came along after that. I've been doing this for 34 years and there have been many role models, both male and female and too many to name, but the most inspiring have been those who achieve success with integrity and respect for others. The most uninspiring people have been scientists who feel the need to demonstrate their superiority at the expense of the achievements of others, failing to recognise that all contributions are useful, no matter how small.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell my younger self not to waste energy worrying about things you can't control or wishing that something hadn't happened, but I'm not sure my younger self would have taken much notice! There should be no need for specific advice for girls in 2020 except perhaps with regards to balancing career with family where there are sadly still some out-dated attitudes. My advice is to do what you think is best for your situation, guilt is inevitable but you'll get over it and it's likely that your children will eventually respect and admire the choices you made!
Tufária is a researcher at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique.
Tell us about your research
My research is driven by an interest in respiratory infectious pathogens and diseases, particularly Tuberculosis, Influenza and Respiratory Syncytial viruses. All are vaccine preventable diseases, but the challenges in the development of novel vaccines and treatments makes this field thirsty for research. That’s why in recent years I am trying to engage myself in research studies and activities linked to vaccines (for example the RMI-TB consortium, the VALIDATE Network and the ReSViNET). In parallel, as a professor at the faculty of Medicine of the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, the academic environment where student questions feed our mind to search for answers, helps keep me updated.
Who or what inspired you into a scientific career?
What inspired me in science research was a documentary about laboratory diagnosis, from Transtel (a Deutsche Welle production) shown on the national TV. I was about 12-13 years of age. A lady in a blue lab coat was manipulating culture flasks and plates inside a safety cabinet, in a special room. And I asked myself: how do they know that there is a virus? What is a virus? What does it look like? Why is that liquid red? So many questions and, from then, I started watching more and more science documentaries about blood composition, the circulating system, nervous system etc, etc. I think that on that day I started my journey to become a research scientist and it is what I enjoy most.
What advice would you give to girls wanting to go into a career in science?
My advice to girls is go for it. You can do/have it. Your idea/question/curiosity can lead to the discovery of a novel solution that can change the World. Thus, Girls Can Change the World.
Suwarti is a post-doctoral researcher at the Eijkman Oxford Clinical Research Unit in Indonesia.
Tell us about your research
Currently I am doing a research of infectious diseases diagnostic mainly in Tuberculosis and Leptospirosis as a postdoc in Eijkman Oxford Clinical Research Unit in Jakarta, Indonesia. Indonesia is the third country globally infected with TB. Yet, several cases are still unnotified due to several reasons. One of these is dependencies on sputum for the diagnostic itself. This encouraged me to develop TB diagnosis using urine instead of sputum. In addition I am developing the detection of leptospirosis disease from suspected patients in Jakarta. Jakarta is one of the big cities in Indonesia, with classic environmental problems such as a dense population, annual floods, and high rodent populations, all of which would make it a source for leptospirosis infection. However, the number of leptospirosis in Indonesia studies has very rarely been reported, which brings into question whether this disease is really under control or under-reported.
Who are your role models and what inspired you into a career in science research?
I have been mostly inspired by the people who are infected with TB, while the environmental conditions triggered me to study leptospirosis. People I know got infected with TB and I have seen how this disease struck them hard, in many aspects of their life, including their economic and social status, and their personal development. It enforced me to think that I should contribute to combat this infectious disease. Back when I was doing my PhD and I had no idea about TB research, I read a phase 2 clinical trial paper about TB vaccines and was fascinated. I wondered how big the impact would be if something other than the BCG vaccine could protect people from TB infection. Luckily, I had a chance to get involved in studying TB vaccines back I was doing my postdoc. Since then, I gained the awareness and confidence to say that TB research would be my speciality.
Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Maybe I would deeply encourage my younger self to never stop dreaming big and believe that there will be always be a way. Obstacles and limitations teach us hard lessons, but without them we would never feel any success.
Mirvat is a post-doctoral researcher, working as the VALIDATE computational biologist at the University of Oxford, UK.
Tell us about your research and your job
I recently joined the VALIDATE team. My role is to support the advance of vaccine research and development for complex intracellular neglected pathogens by ensuring that we maximise the output and lessons learned from the immunology and vaccine-related data across the VALIDATE Network. Prior to this, I was a cancer research scientist. I worked on the genetics, transcriptomic and the biology of adrenocortical carcinoma and colorectal cancer. Working on different projects, I was able to acquire different skills in bioinformatics, cell and molecular biology.
Who and what inspired you into a career in scientific research?
I was inspired by some of my great supervisors whom I was lucky enough to meet during my MSc. They travelled the world to peruse state-of-the-art education to fill the need of our people. Although this was not an easy step for a mother of four children, I followed their example and was determined to persue a PhD which was a huge step of my life. I was one of the very few lucky people to receive a scholarship for a DPhil at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Studying at Oxford offered a great opportunity to meet amazing scientists from all over the world, some of them even Nobel prize winners. Those scientists inspired me and will keep inspiring me. With scientific research, we understand disease mechanisms, and this is important in informing decisions about patient management and treatment.
What advice or tips would you give to girls wanting to aim for a career in scientific research?
It is never late to start your scientific career. Scientific research is interesting although it is a hard job. It requires commitment, organization, and self-motivation. Enjoy what you are doing, don’t be frustrated if you fail once or twice. As Thomas A Edison said: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work”. Grasp opportunities as they arise and do your best. Work with people who support and trust you. Finally, always believe in yourself.
Published: 11 February 2020