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L’Oréal, UNESCO Honor Women in Science

The 19th edition of the annual event showcased five female researchers from around the world.

PARIS — The laureates of the 19th For Women in Science awards were celebrated on Thursday night at the Maison de la Mutualité here.

The L’Oréal Foundation in partnership with UNESCO annually recognizes the achievements of five female scientists, each from a different continent and winning a prize of 100,000 euros, or $108,000.

“For us, science, intelligence and creativity don’t have a gender,” said Jean-Paul Agon, chairman and chief executive officer of L’Oréal.

He added that every year the scientists’ work shows they seem to have the ability to change the world. “New frontiers are surpassed, boundaries explode, impossible becomes possible,” explained Agon, adding that the quest for parity between men and women in the field of science is not finished.

“We are on the right track,” he said. “And especially, we are full of optimism, willpower and determination to never give up.”

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Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s outgoing general director, praised the scientists, as well. “Each is a role model to young women in schools, in universities, in laboratories — far beyond the walls of this ceremony hall,” she said. “Each shows us that humanity as a whole cannot prosper with only 50 percent of its creative genius. This is not right, and it’s not smart either.”

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Bokova thanked the women for their courage and determination, for pushing boundaries of science and gender equality, and reminded that the ceremony is not just about bestowing prizes. “This is really a call to action, for every girl and every woman,” she said. “The world needs science, science needs women.”

Representing Latin America was María Teresa Ruiz, who has discovered a new type of celestial body — between a star and a planet — called a “brown dwarf.”

“My mind is still full of questions; if anything, they have multiplied,” she said. “I’m waiting for my curious grandchildren to come one day and ask me: ‘Is there life somewhere else in the universe?’ And maybe, just maybe, I will be able to answer that. But perhaps, if their curiosity is kept alive, it will be up to them to find out.”

Michelle Simmons, who hails from the Asia-Pacific region, aims to help create ultrafast computers with atomic-scale transistors. “Any industry that has information or huge amounts of data is going to be impacted by this technology,” she said. “And it’s just around the corner.

“As things go forward, we are going to open up worlds that we can’t even begin to think of now,” continued Simmons. “Sometimes, in order to think bigger, it means you actually have to go much, much smaller.”

Niveen M. Khashab, chosen to represent Africa and the Arab States, has a similar vision. She has been focusing on designing nanoparticles to improve the early detection of disease, and to target and personalize medical treatment.

“The future is the rise of the nanomachines that can actually change the face of medicine that we know today,” she said.

Khashab also shared a message about her birthplace. “There is innovation in the Middle East. There is new culture, new science rising up,” said the scientist. “So please, don’t reduce the Middle East to the tragedies — look at it as a place of new hope.”

From North America was Zhenan Bao, who is researching flexible, stretchable and conducive materials to improve the quality of life for patients with prostheses or skin grafts.

“I truly believe in order for science to make progress, we need to have diversity in our field,” she said. “We need to have people with all different backgrounds — human or scientific, men and women. Division is not going to make progress, [nor] is short-sightedness.

“It’s our responsibility to welcome everyone into our field,” she continued. “And only then will we be able to truly tackle the most challenging problems that mankind faces.”

Nicola A. Spaldin, hailing from Europe, was recognized for reinventing magnetic materials for next-generation electronic devices. She had a similar outlook to share.

The scientist explained that in order to find solutions to difficult problems, it is necessary to have “perspectives from all backgrounds — both scientific and cultural — teams of researchers, teams of young people who think in different ways and approach problems from different angles.

“So if we exclude scientists who come from countries that some of our governments find distasteful, if we build walls along our borders in order to keep them out, if we discourage an entire gender by letting them believe that they don’t belong in science and engineering, if we don’t collaborate with researchers that have different ethnicities or different nationalities than ourselves, then in my research team at least, there is nobody left. Nobody left to develop the materials that will make the world of tomorrow a better place,” said Spaldin.

The five laureates join 92 women who have been honored by the program since its inception in 1998. The list includes Elizabeth Blackburn and Ada E. Yonath, who went on to win Nobel Prizes.

Also at the event on Thursday, 15 international rising talents, young science students, were recognized and each awarded 15,000 euros, or $16,200. Since 2001, L’Oréal and UNESCO have supported more than 2,600 young women from 115 countries via grants given on a national level.