Meet the women making headway in science in Australia

Meet the women making headway in science in Australia

Four women have been recognised for their contributions to science in Australia as part of a program that aims to encourage more females to enter the field.

Dr Deborah Williamson, Dr Jaclyn Pearson, Dr Jacq Romero and Dr Stephanie Simonds have been announced as the 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australian Fellows.

Each winner has been granted a $25,000 fellowship in recognition of their achievements in science which will allow them to continue important research in their respective fields.

Currently, women only account for 28 per cent of the world’s researchers, but the fellowship program aims to change that statistic and ensure that women are fairly represented at all levels in science.

Read on to learn more about how the 2017 fellowship winners are making headway in science in Australia.

Dr Deborah Williamson – Tackling the threat of antibiotic resistance

Dr Deborah Williamson has been tackling the threat of antibiotic resistance and, in turn, informing both the community and clinicians for the safer use of antibiotics and antiseptics.

She currently works at The University of Melbourne/Doherty Institute and her research focuses on using cutting-edge genomic technology to understand how (and how quickly) bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.

She has been focusing on a particular bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus (‘golden staph’) which causes a large burden of disease in Australia, and globally. She hopes that her research will ultimately inform evidence-based practice for the rational use of antibiotics, and help to maintain these precious resources.

The most surprising thing Dr Williamson has discovered during her research has been the readiness in which bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics – each time a new antibiotic is used for treatment, resistant bacteria emerge.

“This highlights the need to use antibiotics sensibly, and only when necessary. I am also surprised how often people think they need an antibiotic, when most times, they will get better without one,” she said.

Dr Williamson said the fellowship will provide valuable support in advancing her research program, in addition to the invaluable wider recognition it will bring to women in science.

“Some of the major scientific challenges that humanity faces today, such as antimicrobial resistance and climate change, are problems that all of society faces – not just one gender. As such, we need 100 per cent of the population to be involved in meeting those challenges,” she said.

“Although women have high rates of representation at undergraduate levels in academia, at senior level, there is much more gender inequality. Awards such as these fellowships are pivotal in bringing wider recognition to female scientists.”

Dr Jaclyn Pearson

Dr Jaclyn Pearson – Understanding how gut microorganisms contribute to inflammatory bowel disease

Dr Jaclyn Pearson, of The University of Melbourne/Doherty Institute, has been researching how gut microorganisms contribute to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

She said it was challenging researching this area because gut biology is incredibly complex.

“The gut is the biggest inflammatory organ in the body and the immune system is complex, so that alone is a challenge. Also, the billions of bacteria and our genetic make-up all heavily influence gut health so we have to be very multi-disciplinary scientists,” she said.

Dr Pearson said gut-related problems seemed to be more prevalent today because we have become more aware of the issues and factors that contribute to IBD, and more people were seeking medical attention to get a diagnosis.

“The sharp increase in numbers and the projected increase in cases suggest that there are important factors that are contributing to the increase in prevalence,” she said.

Dr Pearson’s research focuses on the underlying genetic mutations in individuals that may contribute to making the symptoms worse and also the make-up of the bacterial communities in our bodies and how they contribute to (or protect against) disease.

She hopes her research can provide the basis for the development of new and more effective treatments, or even better, ways to prevent or predict the onset of IBD in individuals who are more likely to develop the disease.

“Knowing that you have potentially made the lives of tens of thousands of people a little more comfortable on a daily basis would be extremely satisfying for me.”

Dr Jacq Romero

Dr Jacq Romero – Understanding the world in quantum

Dr Jacq Romero is focusing on understanding the world in quantum and unlocking a new type of physics not yet fully understood.

The mother-of-three, who is currently researching at the University of Queensland, has always been fascinated by science and her research lies within the intriguing theory of entanglement – that information is shared between particles regardless of how far apart they are.

“Quantum refers to discrete amounts, for example, the quantum of light is called a photon. My research investigates a relatively unexplored property of light (or specifically photons) called the orbital angular momentum (OAM), which is the rotation of a light beam,” Dr Romero said.

“By investigating high-dimensional quantum information encoded in OAM, I hope to unlock some of the mysterious properties of higher dimensional quantum information.”

The quantum world is relatively unknown, but already physicists are predicting that it has a lot of potential for increased capacity to transmit data, increase security and, more importantly, unlock a new science not yet fully understood.

Dr Romero said the amount of data that is being transmitted and processed in society today is unprecedented.

“We need more efficient information carriers; we need to start thinking about the economics of information. How do we extract the most information from the fewest possible number of information carriers? Because of the larger alphabet afforded by high-dimensional properties, going to higher dimensions is a natural solution to packing more information, at the same time promising security guaranteed by the laws of quantum physics.”

Dr Stephanie Simonds – Discovering the link between cardiovascular disease and obesity

Dr Simonds currently leads her own independent research project at Monash University, investigating cardiovascular diseases (CVD) in obesity.

She recently identified the fat-derived hormone, leptin, is responsible for acting on the brain to increase blood pressure. She discovered a population of cells within the brain containing leptin receptors that bind leptin and respond by signalling for an increase in blood pressure.

Through her research, Dr Simonds hopes to identify targets of cells in the brain that specifically control cardiovascular function in obesity.

“Once we understand the properties of these cells we will be able to specifically target these and the hope is we could reduce the cardiovascular burden in obesity suffered by so many men and women,” she said.

As a fellow, Dr Simonds hopes the award will help to better represent and recognise women in science

“Hopefully it will help inspire and guide other women that they too can have a positive contribution to the field of science.”

Sharon Green, editor

Sharon Green

Sharon Green is the founding editor of SHE DEFINED.

An experienced journalist and editor, Sharon has worked in mainstream media in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Forever in search of a publication that confronted the real issues faced by modern women, Sharon decided to create her own.