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Honoring women in science

L’Oréal, UNESCO and collaborators have chosen to turn the spotlight on female researchers and encourage more young women to enter this profession. Nordic Life Science has chosen to highlight two 2019 life science winners from our region, Aishe A. Sarshad and Laura Elo.

Since 1998 the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Awards has identified and supported brilliant women in science throughout the world. Each year five laureates are recognized for their contributions to the advancement of science, in life sciences or physical sciences in alternating years. This year, the 21st year of the award, has for the first time recognized five researchers not only in the field of physical sciences, but also mathematics and computer science. The awards were presented on March 14th 2019 in Paris to five women from five different world regions (Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America) and each of the laureates received €100 000.

The glass ceiling is still a reality

Much remains to be done with regard to gender balance in science. According to the founders of the award, in the field of scientific research the glass ceiling is still a reality. And they emphasize that more women scientists should also be able to obtain positions of responsibility, just like their male counterparts, so that future generations will have role models to inspire them. For example, women account for only 28 percent of the world’s researchers and there are still great barriers that discourage women from entering the profession. Out of the 607 Nobel Laureates in medicine, physics and chemistry, 20 (just over three percent) have been women: twelve in medicine, three in physics and five in chemistry. Two of these have first received the international L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award, Ada E. Yonath and Elizabeth Blackburn.

For this reason, in addition to its annual awards, the L’Oréal-UNESCO partnership has established the International Rising Talents program, which is designed to accelerate the advancement of young women in science globally. The International Rising Talents are chosen from amon  g the doctoral and post-doctoral researchers who have received fellowships from L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science’s national and regional programs. These women, 15 promising young women scientists from around the world, were alongside the winners celebrated on March 14th at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris.

Openness and communication is key

One of these rising talents is Laura Elo from Turku, Finland. She is focusing her research on medical bioinformatics at the University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University, and is leading a multidisciplinary team of 30 scientists at the Turku Medical Bioinformatics Centre. Together, they develop computational data analysis tools and mathematical modelling methods to identify more reliable early indicators of complex diseases, such as type 1 diabetes or cancer, and to predict potential disease and treatment outcomes. Laura Elo and her team have developed several computational models to interpret molecular and clinical data in a robust way, working closely with experimental and clinical teams and unique sample biobanks.


Laura Elo

Laura Elo

“It’s a great honor. I’d particularly like to thank my enthusiastic and talented research group, our collaborators, and all our supporters,” said Laura upon receiving the award.

Her ultimate goal is to help improve disease diagnosis, prognosis and lead to new treatment strategies with high potential for breakthrough findings and wide impact on medical research. Challenges include the extensive competition for funding, which can be both unhealthy for the field of scientific research and create barriers to progress, she says. “Within my group I hope to encourage enthusiasm for making new discoveries through openness and communication.”

Elo also recognizes the benefits that diversity brings to any team, commenting, “A good mix of people with different backgrounds and ways of working ensures open-minded and innovative research.”

Proving her worth as a woman scientist has seen her work harder than her male counterparts, Laura believes. Yet she became Head of Turku University’s Medical Bioinformatics Centre, Research Director and Vice Director of her research institute before the age of 40. Empowering more women to follow in her footsteps will require helping women build confidence, enabling an effective work-life balance, and ensuring strong mentorship throughout their careers, she says.

A Swedish award and a stem cell laureate

In addition to the International award, the L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science in Sweden also honors outstanding Swedish women scientists. In 2017 around 60 percent of the students at Swedish higher education institutions were women. But only 19 and 16 percent of the professors in the natural and engineering sciences, respectively, were women (UKÄ, p. 127, Swedish); statistics that call for an increased focus on promoting female scientists.

The prize is awarded by L’Oréal Sweden, The Young Academy of Sweden, and the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO, to acknowledge women who have shown great potential in science and engineering. The prize aims to promote “the scientists of tomorrow” by supporting them at an important stage in their career and encouraging more women to pursue a career in research.

One of the two winners of the award was Aishe A. Sarshad at the Sahlgrenska Academy, the University of Gothenburg. She received the prize “for having identified a new mechanism for regulating gene expression in stem cells. Her groundbreaking research has shown a new role for non-coding RNA in the cell nucleus. In the future this can contribute to new methods for treating cancer and other diseases.”


Aishe Sarshad

Aishe A. Sarshad. Photo: Emma Burendahl


“I have followed the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Prize for a long time, in the United States where I used to work, it is huge! Being a researcher has been my dream since my childhood and therefore it is a great honor that I now get recognition for my research,” says Aishe Sarshad.

The Jury of the Swedish L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science includes members of the Young Academy of Sweden as well as Scientific & Regulatory Affairs Manager L’Oréal Sverige, led by Claes Gustafsson, who is also the Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. The prize amount is SEK 150 000 each. The awardees also receive a one-year mentor program under the auspices of The Young Academy of Sweden.

Photo of the International Rising Talents LÓréal-UNESCO For Women in Science: Thierry Bouet