Stories behind the Women in Science

One of my favorite events of the year is the ceremony for the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards and International Fellowships. This program and the event itself celebrate exciting new scientific developments made by inspiring women, who are working to make the world a better place. At a recent IABC France event, Philipp Muller-Wirth of UNESCO evoked the For Women in Science partnership as one of UNESCO’s richest sources of organizational story-telling. 

Those personal stories — one of my favorite aspects of the For Women in Science program — are captured in beautiful video portraits that give us insights into the laureates’ work and their lives: the voices of friends, family members, co-workers and the laureates themselves reveal women with strong and delightful personalities, big dreams and massive amounts of dedication. Perhaps the most captivating story this year revolves around Marcia Roye, a Jamaican researcher who expanded her work from being a “plant doctor” to also researching anti-retroviral resistance in HIV patients. Her philosophy is “a virus is a virus”. A 2001 For Women in Science International Fellow, Dr. Roye this year was the first recipient of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Special Fellowship “In the Footsteps of Marie Curie”, created to mark the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize (which also happens to fall during the International Year of Chemistry).

“Not one of those alpha males”

The energy that Marcia Roye brings to her work clearly infuses her personal life as well. Recognizing the support provided by her husband, she laughing says, “He’s not one of those alpha males who has a problem with his wife doing well.” But the battle of the sexes is on in their household in a positive way: her son says he wants to “beat her” at science, and she encourages him to make good on the threat.

When I walked into the already packed auditorium for the ceremoney to present the 2011 International Fellowship winners (on March 2), I discovered another non-alpha male seated next to me. He was holding a newborn infant and glowing with pride. His wife, Triin Vahisalu (Estonia) received an International Fellowship to study how plants react to changing environmental conditions at the University of Helsinki, Finland. During the reception after the ceremony, Triin told me how supportive her husband has been and brushed off my admiration about finishing her PhD and embarking on post-graduate research in the latter months of her pregnancy. She claims it was perfect timing, with her thesis finished in September and the baby arriving in January. Now she is looking after one sprout at home and others in the lab where she is trying to figure out how to help crops adapt to climate change. Her work could potentially improve the lives of children all over the world.

Marcia’s and Triin’s examples show why I strongly support the motto of the For Women in Science program: “The world needs science…Science needs women”.

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