Young Women in Science

Young Women in Science

Two of the many highlights from my time at Cawthron Institute were the successes of a couple of young women scientists in the prestigious UNESCO-L’Oreal “Young Women in Science” programme.

Encouraged by her mentor, Dr Lesley Rhodes, Dr Alison Haywood was the first of these in 2001.  Much to everyone’s surprise and delight, she was one of only 10 women worldwide to be awarded the $US 10,000 international fellowship (and the first ever from the southern hemisphere!)  Alison was a research scientist in the Biosecurity Group, where she completed a Ph.D. programme from Auckland University in molecular systematics (supervised by Prof Pat Bergquist). Her project was to rapidly identify, using molecular probes, toxic algae which can cause serious food poisoning.

With the help of the fellowship, Alison was able to visit MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) in California. She then gained a post-doctoral appointment at the Florida Marine Institute, working on putting into practice the biosensors developed during her fellowship.

The following year,  Lesley persuaded another of our bright stars to apply for the award.  I’m told that there was some consternation amongst the judging panel when it became apparent that Dr Jenny Smith also hailed from the same small, obscure research institute at the end of the world. But they decided that her application should be decided solely upon its merits, so she won!

Jenny was also a research scientist at the biosecurity group at Cawthron.  She discovered a new enzyme in the intestine of 10 herbivorous fish. This type of enzyme, which breaks down algae, is of interest to industry for the development of gels and emulsifiers.  Jenny used her fellowship to spend time at the Station Biologique de Roscoff, CRNS, France.  Sometime after the arrangements had been finalised, she was advised that the award was no longer $US10,000. It had been doubled, to $US20,000.  A typical unselfish scientist far more interested in her research than personal gain, Jenny chose to use the money to bring a scientist from Roscoff to Nelson.

So in the first three years of this initiative by L’Oreal, amongst the 30 young women selected there were three from the southern hemisphere, two of those from Cawthron Institute!  At the time the awards had a high profile.  The winners had to travel to Paris to collect the cheque (at L’Oreal’s expense of course) and were profiled in popular magazines such as North and South and the Air New Zealand in flight magazine.  Great PR for Cawthron Institute too!

You can read more about the “Young Women in Science” program here (click on <International fellowships> and you will be able to track down the entries for Alison and Jenny. )

In 2007 there was another (slightly more remote) connection between Cawthron and L’Oreal’s efforts to promote women in science.  Prof Margaret Brimble, Chair of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry at Auckland University, became one of the five Laureates for that year.  Margaret relied upon Cawthron as the source of the biotoxins (spirolides and pectenotoxins) which were the focus for some of her synthesis work.  Cawthron’s contribution was far from trivial: it was the only laboratory in the world where some of these compounds have been isolated.

Finally, another connection provides a nice circularity.  The Hon Margaret Austin, UNESCO’s representative in New Zealand at the time, was understandably delighted with these successes.  Ten years earlier, as Minister for Research Science and Technology, Margaret had presided over the fundamental reform of the science system in New Zealand which had been a key factor in Cawthron’s success.  Without that reform, these two women would never have been employed by Cawthron.

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