On the 22 June 2016, the L’Oréal-UNESCO ‘For Women in Science’ Awards 2016 took place at the Royal Society in London, celebrating and supporting some of the most driven and promising women in science. Thanks to the British Science Association, after succeeding in a competition reporting on British Science Week back in March, I, Rachel Kahn, was lucky enough to be invited along to this special occasion and ask the eight short-listed finalists a few questions.

Five of the eight shortlisted candidates were awarded £15,000 in support of their research and to help kick-start a new project undertaken by these women, whilst also providing support in other areas such as childcare.

Our first winner of the award is Dr Sophie Acton of the University College London. Dr Acton is an Immunologist studying how the immune system is involved in tumour progression. With cancer immunotherapy such a prevailing topic, it will be intriguing to see how her research progresses in the future. Dr Acton tells us that her research gives her the freedom to be ‘really creative’. With two young children, Dr Acton tells us a little more about her day; ‘I get up at 6am, get the kids dressed and fed, take my daughter to school and son to nursery and get to the lab at 8:45am. Then, I might get some time to myself to set-up an experiment!’ Putting a strong emphasis on the importance of making yourself known within your field, Dr Acton explains that with the prize money she will, ‘use a lot of it for travelling and going to conferences but I would also use it for some practical help at home’.

Dr Louisa Messenger of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, works on Chagas disease, a neglected tropical disease prevalent in South America. ‘Chagas disease is a parasitic infection transmitted by insects affecting over 97% of over 30’s. Once infected, you’re infected for life and around 30% go on to develop end stage heart failure.’ Dr Messenger is an active researcher in the field and tells us the particular positives of her career include, ‘travelling, experiencing different cultures and exploring different settings’. When asked what got her into science, she responded, ‘I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world. Science has always been my passion and I hope it continues to be’. Dr Messenger encourages young scientists to ‘follow your passion and follow your heart!’.


Dr Sam Giles is a Paleobiologist at the University of Oxford. ‘Dinosaurs!’. Yes, that was my first thought too, but Dr Giles tells us a little more about her niche of Paleobiology. ‘I try and work out how different groups of fish are related to one another. I use CT scanning to look at the internal structures of fossils meaning I can find out new things that no one has ever seen before.’ Dr Giles urges young people wanting to enter into science, ‘don’t let anyone tell you you’re not able, you can and you’re perfectly capable’. ‘One of the major challenges I have is that I have a young daughter and it’s often difficult to balance childcare and family life with the demands of research.’ ‘If you have barriers to your work such as childcare then definitely apply to these awards as they are so flexible and give you a really good way of supporting yourself.’

Dr Maria Bruna is an Applied Mathematician working at the University of Oxford. ‘What my research involves is developing methods allowing for particle separation which has a number of applications. For instance, separating out a single stem cell from a cluster’. Dr Bruna tells us that, ‘Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve been very curious, always asking ‘why?’’. She encourages other girls to, ‘Join in- we need you! Being a girl gives you an opportunity to contribute something different to your male colleagues’. Dr Bruna tell us how this award will benefit her, ‘I currently have a 5 month old and this award will undoubtedly help me get back to work as well as to travel and meet other research collaborators.’

Finally, Dr Tanya Hutter is a Physical Chemist at the University of Cambridge, developing new chemical sensors and biomedical devices. Currently she is working on a project looking at patients with brain injuries, identifying the most appropriate way of monitoring. Dr Hutter explains, ‘Science is a great career for women. It’s really challenging and stimulating.’ ‘Seeing the final goal and seeing how your research can make life better for a person is what keeps you motivated’. With a wide lens camera shot, we asked Dr Hutter what she would do with the award as a scientist who is 9 months pregnant, due to give birth imminently (!). She said, ‘This award will allow me to get back to work quite quickly after maternity leave as childcare is difficult and expensive. I would also like to take some further courses for my self-development’.

Our three highly commended short-listed candidates, each receiving £1,000 toward their research, were Dr Tatiana Habruseva of the University College Cork, Dr Tzany Kokalova Wheldon of the University of Birmingham and Dr Nathalie Vriend of the University of Cambridge.

Dr Nathalie Vriend, a Physical scientist, says it was chance that she fell into science. ‘I got the opportunity to go to the U.S. for my PHD and it was there I discovered Earth Science. I’ve always been motivated by my love for discovery and I think this is one of the main reasons I’m still interested’. For young people wanting to enter into science, Dr Vriend gives some sincere advice, ‘I think it’s important that you believe in yourself. Look inside yourself and discover what it is you are enthusiastic about. Have confidence’.

Dr Tzany Kokalova Wheldon, a Nuclear Physicist, told us truthfully that, ‘As a child I used to ask a lot of very difficult questions that my parents struggled to answer! This was crucial for me as at that early age I decided that one day I would like to find the answers to my questions’. ‘What I would love to tell girls entering into science is, go for it!  Don’t be afraid to dream, and dream big. You will be the next leaders and the people pushing the field of knowledge and understanding forward. By doing so, you will create a better future for everyone coming after you’.

Dr Tatiana Habruseva, an Optical Physicist explains, ‘I believe science can change society and it’s incredible to think that you’ve contributed even in a small way.’ ‘Science teaches you numerous lessons in terms of self-improvement and it really makes you a better person’. For girls wanting to enter into science, Dr Habruseva says, ‘Go for it! It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s absolutely fantastic! You will have a remarkable career and will be very rewarded.’

This year, for the first time, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme also hosted ten PHD students chosen from 500 applicants, to present a poster relating to their work. Our two winners were Reham Badaway from Aston University, investigating and designing an app that could be used in the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and Rebecca Arnold from the University of Sheffield, studying binary clusters of stars. Congratulations to you both and the other eight finalists.

The awards ceremony was hugely successful, celebrating the achievements of all eight of these fantastic women. With these ladies describing their experience of applying for these awards as ‘extremely positive’ and as the L’Oréal-UNESCO ‘For Women in Science’ Awards approaches its 10-year anniversary; we encourage further inspiring women to apply. You never know, one day it could quite well be you!

By Rachel Kahn