2011 marks the fifth year that L’Oréal Australia will award its For Women in Science Fellowships to Australian early-career female scientists.
Since its inception in 2007, the Fellowships, worth $20,000 each, have been awarded to 14 outstanding female scientists who have used the award to increase their impact in their chosen field of science, provide support to managing both families and lab work, and jumpstart their independent careers in science.
Diabetes researcher Jenny Gunton juggles life with two young boys with her work at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. Her research has focused on the link between type 2 diabetes and vitamin D deficiency, with a recent paper in the Medical Journal of Australia pointing to a strong correlation between vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women and gestational diabetes.
Jenny says the L’Oréal Fellowship has definitely assisted her career. “I’m sure it has contributed to my various grants and my most recent Fellowship,” she says. “Some of the preliminary data from my L’Oréal-funded research was used specifically to support a Diabetes Australia Research Trust Type 2 Diabetes Millennium grant that I was awarded at the end of last year.”
CSIRO astrophysicist Ilana Feain is project scientist for the Australian SKA Pathfinder—a prototype radio telescope being built in remote WA to demonstrate Australia as the best location to ultimately build the multi-billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It’s a role that allows her to use her skills as an astronomer to ensure that the most up-to-date technology is implemented in the new telescope, which will ultimately be used to study fundamental questions about the universe, including her own research mapping the supermassive black holes found at the centre of some galaxies. In addition, Ilana is still involved with the Global Jet Watch program which has set up telescopes in schools around the world—including at Sydney’s Tara Anglican School for Girls—to conduct round the clock observations of the quasar SS433.
Ilana says that in addition to the monetary support from the L’Oréal Fellowships, the high profile of the awards has a flow-on effect for the recipient.
“I have no doubt that the profile of the Fellowship enabled me to receive awards and funding, and it certainly helped secure my promotion from postdoctoral fellow to project scientist in my field,” she says. “Additionally, I have been approached often to mentor younger females in my field, as well as invited to schools to talk to children about careers in science. I believe that in some ways the award set me up for benefit from other awards and funding and gave me that extra degree of confidence in myself that was needed.”
Macquarie University evolutionary and ecological biologist Sarah Pryke spends a large part of her year in remote parts of the Kimberleys investigating the secret lives of tiny endangered Gouldian finches. Thanks to the kick start provided by her L’Oréal Fellowship, Sarah says she has obtained support through valuable Fellowships and grants, received some prestigious awards for her research, and published around 10 scientific papers including two in Science.
“From my personal perspective, this award provided valuable support at a crucial time in my career and allowed me to successfully bridge the gap between postgraduate study and postdoctoral research. At a time when many women leave academia, I was able to build on and expand my research,” Sarah says.
Physician-researcher Catriona Bradshaw balances her research into sexually transmitted diseases at the Melbourne Sexual Health Clinic with the needs of her young family. Two years ago, Catriona published the first paper resulting from her L’Oréal Fellowship-supported project investigating the link between the onset of sexual activity in young women and a common genital bacterial infection known as bacterial vaginosis, and another paper will be published later this year. And recently she was appointed Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne.
Catriona says the Fellowships have been a valuable addition to the options for research support in Australia.
“The Fellowship scheme has received considerable attention in the scientific community and has been a very positive step towards acknowledging the barriers to women in science,” she says.
University of New South Wales biologist Angela Moles calls her lab “The Big Ecology Lab” to reflect the big-picture questions of plant ecology she is trying to answer on both a local and global scale. Her work on mimicry of the host species by mistletoes and variegation in leaves as a defence against predation is continuing and she is heading in new directions to look at introduced plant species in Australia, and how much they have changed from their original form since introduction.
Angela says the Fellowship has had many positive impacts on her career, including the ability to attract top students, promotions, grants and prizes.
“Receiving this prize and the positive feedback associated with it improved my self-esteem as a scientist. I think this has made me more willing to apply for promotions and other prizes too, so there are all sorts of positive feedback loops that this prize contributes to,” says Angela.
As leader of the Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory for CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering, Amanda Barnard uses computer modelling and simulations to look at nanoparticles and their interactions with different environments. Last year her L’Oréal Fellowship-supported research investigating the properties of titanium dioxide nanoparticles in sunscreens won her the 2010 Eureka Prize for Scientific Research. The results of this research have also recently been published in Nature Nanotechnology and other journals. And in 2009 she received the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, one of the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes.
Amanda says the L’Oréal Fellowships encourage diversity in Australian science and help to champion female scientists and their return to research after career breaks.
“I think the Fellowships are a very valuable platform for highlighting the work done by female scientists, who are often more shy than male colleagues in promoting their results,” she says.
Monash University biochemist Natalie Borg used her L’Oréal Fellowship to launch her independent research career, using a variety of molecular biology and biochemistry approaches to understand the structure and function of proteins that trigger anti-viral immune responses. Earlier this year, she got her first Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant to continue her research.
“The L’Oréal Fellowship funding was instrumental in enabling me to establish solid preliminary data that led to the awarding of the grant,” Natalie says. “We’re now getting new and exciting results in the field of anti-viral immunity— in particular we’re trying to understand how anti-viral immunity is activated by specific innate immune receptors and also to understand how this signalling cascade is regulated.”
Erika Cretney can count a trip to China with the Governor-General of Australia as a spin-off from her L’Oréal Fellowship. Erika, an immunologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne, attended the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai with the Governor General and then earlier this year was invited to be keynote speaker at the Australian Consulate General’s International Women’s Day luncheon. Erika has also recently published a paper based in part on the research she funded with her L’Oréal Fellowship in Nature Immunology and a recent National Health and Medical Research Council project grant has meant that she can add a research assistant to her team.
Erika says it’s not always easy balancing the demands of a research career with a young family, but support from her research institute has made a big difference.
“The L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowships have had a huge impact here at my Institute (we had winners three years running). I was the first Fellowship winner to use funds to pay for childcare and our Director here at WEHI has now recognised the importance and benefits of assisting female postdoc researchers with the cost of childcare. WEHI now pays out of pocket childcare costs for the top female postdocs and laboratory heads at our Institute and I am a fortunate recipient of these funds!” she says.
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) molecular biologist Marnie Blewitt is investigating the mechanisms that control how specific genes are turned on and off within a cell. The research has grown from the first experiments started during her Fellowship to become the main interest of her lab, she says.
And despite being on maternity leave for the first part of her Fellowship year, Marnie not only got her research program off the ground, but was also awarded an Australian Research Council Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship and a Dyson Fellowship, both providing substantial support over five years, and was appointed laboratory head—the youngest female ever so appointed at WEHI.
“The Fellowship came at the perfect time for me, and I was able to use the money for childcare and additional help while I was on maternity leave. The Fellowship made this difficult time easier, both professionally and personally— I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like without it!” Marnie says.
Marnie says that the L’Oréal Fellowship program is highly respected within the Australian scientific community and it played a significant role in inspiring WEHI to start its own program to support female researchers with the costs of childcare.
“The hope is that other Institutes around Australia will adopt similar schemes, so that we can encourage women to stay in science through this tricky transition in their career. We certainly hope this will make a lasting impression on the Australian science community, just as the L’Oréal Fellowships have,” says Marnie.
Astronomer Tamara Davis used her L’Oréal Fellowship to organise and run a workshop on using measurements of the motion of galaxies in the far reaches of the universe to find dark energy, inviting some of the biggest international names in the field. Since then, the topic has been developed into a fully-fledged research project within the newly established Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in All Sky Astrophysics, with Tamara joining as an associate investigator. She’s also received other fellowships and grants to pursue the research including a Future Fellowship and a Discovery Project Grant, both from the Australian Research Council, and has been promoted to a permanent faculty position at the University of Queensland.
Tamara says the L’Oréal Fellowship was a great boon to her career, with direct and indirect impacts.
“The direct impact included not only the conference I was able to run with the funds from the Fellowship, but also the contacts I made through the networking opportunities that came out of the Fellowship. Indirectly it gave me a great confidence boost that spills over into everything I do” Tamara says.
She also notes that the L’Oréal Fellowship program provides significant encouragement and acknowledgement to female scientists in Australia.
“With the publicity and financial element of the prizes they give a significant advantage to promising young female scientists at a crucial point in their career. I think the award will have a lasting impact on the prominence of females in Australian science,” Tamara says.
Wollongong-based archaeologist Zenobia Jacobs is fundamentally interested in how and when early humans evolved the behavioural traits that are unique to our species, and how those early humans moved from Africa to the rest of the world. She uses a dating technique known as optically stimulated luminescence to investigate these questions. Her L’Oréal Fellowship used this technique to start looking at when the Aboriginal peoples first moved into Australia, and this work is continuing in collaboration with University of Queensland scientists. In fact, Zenobia says, the collaboration has come about through contacts she made while working on her initial L’Oréal-supported project.
In 2010 she was awarded an Australian Research Council Queen Elizabeth II Research Fellowship to investigate the behavioural traits of Neanderthals in Europe and Homo sapiens in Africa over a time period (300,000 to 50,000 years ago) when these two groups had no interaction.
Zenobia says in addition to raising her profile in Australian archaeology, the Fellowship has also given her the confidence that her research is competitive. And she says:
“Being acknowledged for the hard work you put into your research motivates you to work through the rough patches of which there are many in academia. I think the L’Oréal Fellowships play an important part in Australian science in helping to foster female researchers in many different branches of science.”
In the 12 months that Deanna D’Alessandro has been a L’Oréal Fellow, she has found the doors to a successful career in science opening wide. Soon after the award was announced she was offered two university lectureships, including the one she ultimately took at the University of Sydney’s School of Chemistry, followed by an Australian Research Council Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship to support her new role as an independent researcher. Earlier this year she was made deputy director of a $6 million multi-institute collaboration looking at the capture of carbon emissions. And she has two honours students and a PhD student working with her to develop materials for capturing carbon dioxide and other compounds.
Deanna says that, to her, the Fellowship was the difference between an uncertain future as a postdoc and having a serious academic position. “Hopefully, with this foot-hold, more women can start to move up the ladder. This visibility is key to encouraging more young females to remain in science after a PhD and helping them to traverse that difficult PhD-postdoc period,” she says.
“The Fellowships raise the profile of women scientists by focusing on the science first and foremost, rather than the fact that we are simply women doing science. I think this means that the Fellowships are more highly regarded by the scientific community as a whole.”
Within weeks of being awarded a L’Oréal Fellowship last year, Rowena Martin also received both an Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Early Career Research and an ACT Young Tall Poppy Science Award. The Australian National University researcher also received a National Health and Medical Research Council grant worth more than $450,000 over 3 years to continue her investigations into the role of the malarial protein underpinning resistance to chloroquine and to use that information to develop new and better anti-malarial drugs.
WEHI immunologist Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat has spent the last 6 months establishing a new laboratory focused on lung stem cells and their role in cancer, complementing and expanding on her earlier work on breast cancer stem cells and their role in metastasis. And a paper on her L’Oréal-supported research into genes and proteins underlying metastasis is in preparation.
Marie-Liesse credits the confidence boost she received from being awarded a L’Oréal Fellowship with giving her the push she needed to apply for her new role as a group leader in the Stem Cells and Cancer division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.
“Starting a new research program in an institute where there is no-one doing lung cancer research is pretty daunting. I needed to get a better understanding of this disease, to acquire new technical skills to study this tissue, to meet the key players in the field and to identify the cutting edge questions in the field,” Marie-Liesse says. To get the running start she needed, Marie-Liesse spent two weeks at the Netherlands Cancer Institute with a lung cancer research team and attended a conference on lung development and repair in the US.
“These two trips overseas would not have been possible without the support of the L’Oréal Fellowship which covered the extra expenses for a qualified babysitter to look after my two boys while I was overseas,” she says.