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L’Oréal, UNESCO Honor Women in Science

Rousing speeches were the centerpiece of an awards presentation in Paris.

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 17th annual edition of the event, held in the Grand Amphitheater of the Sorbonne on Wednesday night, saw five women scientist honored for their discoveries and contributions to science.

Representing North America, Molly S. Shoichet – recognized for her pioneering approach to biomaterial development to regenerate damaged nerve tissue and her development of a new method to deliver medication to the spinal cord and brain – delivered a rousing speech on the obstacles facing women in science. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité, these words define France and in fact the Western world, but what about sororité?” she said. “The pipeline is leaky after high school, with few women pursuing careers in engineering. The reasons are many — perhaps insufficient numbers of women role models; perhaps insufficient numbers of men valuing women in careers in science. There are certainly subtleties in language and behavior that carry an undertone of discrimination. This award has changed that landscape.”

Representing Africa and the Arab States, Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli, the initiative’s first-ever Moroccan laureate, was recognized for her role in the effort leading to the detection of the Higgs Boson particle.

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From the Asia-Pacific region was inorganic chemistry specialist, China’s Yi Xie, a former local fellow from the multi-pronged FWIS program which aims to encourage a new generation of women scientists and to accompany, promote and empower women scientists throughout their careers.

Also honored were Europe’s Carol Robinson, who created a revolutionary method for studying how proteins function, particularly in cell membranes that play a crucial role in many life processes, and Latin America’s Thaisa Storchi Bergmann, lauded for her research into how massive black holes form in the center of galaxies, evolve and shape them.

Since the program’s launch in 1998, a total of 87 awards laureates have been honored, including two who went on to win the Nobel Prize, with more than 2,250 women recognized and 2,170 research fellowships granted to young women scientists.

Speaking of the barriers still faced by women in science, with women accounting for 30 percent of the world’s researchers and only 10 percent of top academic positions, and the majority of science awards going to men, Jean-Paul Agon, chairman and chief executive officer of L’Oréal, chairman of the L’Oréal Foundation, said: “Through our partnership with UNESCO, we are pursuing the same dream, as we have continued to do from the first: that of liberating the creative force of half of humanity; That of seeing women fully represented in posts at the top level in universities and major scientific institutions.”

Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, which this year fetes its 70th anniversary, called 2015 a linchpin year. “This is 20 years after the Beijing Conference on Women. This is the year of the COP21 Climate Conference, in Paris this December — a decisive moment in the fight against climate change, with science on the front line. This is the year when states adopt a new global sustainable development agenda, with gender equality and science as core goals…science knows no sex, culture, or religion, because science brings us all together, around a shared sense of wonder, reason and curiosity, as well as beauty — these are our best weapons against intolerance, hated, and violence, and our best allies for equality, development and peace.”

The event also saw the launch 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 is to receive grants of 15,000 euros, or $15,881 at current exchange, as well as special mentorship and training from other top L’Oréal-UNESCO female scientists. The 15 Rising Talents earlier in the day presented 3-minute-long summaries of their work.

Taking to the stage at the main awards ceremony, South Africa’s Adriana Marais, a theoretical physicist working in the field of quantum biology — her research probing the ultimate question “What is Life?” — revealed she is one of 100 finalists selected for the Mars One mission to Mars, scheduled for 2024, where she will join the planet’s first human colony.

“The question I get asked a lot is why on Earth would you want to go to Mars?” she deadpanned. “The allure of the unknown to me has always been far more powerful than the comfort of the known. I look forward to being one of the first Earthlings and to continue doing my research on Mars.”