Jean-Paul Agon, Irina Bokova and the laureates of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards laureates

PARIS — The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards served as a powerful platform for women in science to defend gender equality in their respective professional domains.

The 18th annual edition of the event, held at the Maison de la Mutualité on Thursday night, saw five women scientists honored for their discoveries and contributions to the field. The jury was presided over by Nobel Prize winner in medicine Elizabeth Blackburn, and a L’Oréal-UNESCO laureate in 2008.

Representing North America, Jennifer Doudna was recognized for the gene-editing technology she developed that has the power to “rewrite” DNA. Doudna, who was on the Time magazine’s list of 100 of the most influential people in the world in 2015, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, Europe’s laureate this year, collaborated on both sides of the Atlantic on the genome editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9. They discovered a way to alter any organism’s DNA, enabling to correct genetic disorders and saving the lives of people with incurable conditions caused by single genetic defects.”We had the feeling it was going to be powerful. I remember having chills going down my back, thinking this is so cool,” said Doudna. “The technology works as a Swiss Army knife, cutting genes, pasting new fragments of DNA, correcting some mutations, changing the expression of genes,” Charpentier explained.

Representing Africa and the Arab States, Quarraisha Abdool Karim from South Africa persisted in the quest for an antiHIV gel for use before, during and after sex. She succeeded in 2010 with a study showing that gel reduced the risk of infection in women by 39 percent. The discovery was named one of the 10 scientific breakthroughs of 2010 by Science.

From the Asia-Pacific region was China’s Chen Hualan, whose research has helped protecting lives from deadly flu viruses through innovative vaccines. Also honored was Latin America’s Andrea Gamarnik, lauded for her research that has the potential to control the spread of the dengue virus, while 390 million people suffer from the infection every year.

Since the program’s launch in 1998, a total of 92 awards laureates have been honored, including two who went on to win the Nobel Prize, with more than 2,530 women recognized and 2,438 research fellowships granted to young women scientists.

“I am feminist for science,” said Jean-Paul Agon, chairman and chief executive officer of L’Oréal and chairman of the L’Oréal Foundation, speaking of the barriers still faced by women in science, with women accounting for 30 percent of the world’s researchers. He noted that to be “feminist for science” means to be willing “to break the glass ceiling and believe that women in science have the power to change the world.” Giving visibility to women in science especially through digital is key, the executive noted. “The video profiles of the laureates have already been viewed by over one million people. It’s just a start,” he noted, also adding that by the end of the year, 30,000 high schools students will have met the program’s scholarship women and discovered the appeal of a scientific career.

“Today, violent extremists in the Middle East and Europe have declared the war to culture, knowledge and heritage. Our answer must be to celebrate culture even more, share knowledge and spread the word on women who make it possible,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO. Speaking of the L’Oréal-UNESCO program, she said: “I call you to spread the word beyond this room, please tweet, tweet, tweet,” she said.

The event marked the second edition of the International Rising Talents program, offering additional grant support and international exposure to 15 top doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows selected from L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science’s national and regional programs. Each of the 15 international rising talents is to receive grants of 15,000 euros, or $16,755 at current exchange, as well as special mentorship and training from other top L’Oréal-UNESCO female scientists.

The event also saw the launch of the For Women in Science Manifesto and the kickoff of a digital campaign to engage the scientific community, the institutional and the general public to sign in the manifesto. On stage, Agon, Bokova and Blackburn were the first to sign in and hostesses equipped with iPad circulated in the room at a cocktail following the ceremony to have guests sign in the manifesto. The results of the campaign will be shared at the 9th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education and Research from Sept. 12 to 14 in Paris.

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