The world needs science and science needs women," went the tagline for the event. 'Where does a man come in?' I wondered, when the assignment to report on the UNESCO - L'Oreal Women in Science Fellowship awards in Paris came my way.
Having met brilliant scientists from countries as widely spread as Iran and India, Estonia and Panama, women who've helped change the world by pushing the frontiers of knowledge, I returned home wiser and impressed.
In 2011, as the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, a few good scientists are trying to evolve solutions for challenges that threaten our planet.
Consider Ladan Teimoori-Toolabi from Iran. The 34-year-old mother of two stands out at the conference with her headgear and refusal to shake hands with male colleagues. But when it comes to gene therapy, the PhD in medical biotechnology from Tehran's Pasteur Institute can hold her own against the best of the West. As one of the winners of the fellowship awards for 2011, Ladan has got US$40,000 to pursue a topic of research, at an institute of her choice. "Colorectal cancer, the second most common form of cancer in women, is often detected at a late stage in Iranian patients. The fellowship will help me investigate whether it can be detected early using blood samples," says Ladan. "I'll get to do it at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at the Johns Hopkins University, the best in the world in the discipline."
Ladan secured first rank among 350,000 applicants who were studying medicine in Iran. Why did she choose cancer for her research? "I lost my grandma, aunt and uncle to cancers. It was my childhood dream to find a cure."
In another part of the world, growing up in a remote Orissa village, Jiban Jyoti Panda never imagined she would be part of a global women-in-science programme one day. "My parents were conservative. I was forbidden from attending college outside the state. Even at 24, I wasn't allowed to join a PhD at IIT Mumbai," recalls the doctoral student of biotechnology at Delhi's International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
Panda has come a long way. She was feted at UNESCO last week, for her project that focuses on designing new drug-delivery methods for cancer patients using nano-technology. Her host institution will be the School of Pharmacy in the University of Colorado.
Panda designs peptides, the chemical building blocks that make up protein molecules. "Given large doses of chemotherapy drugs, cancer patients get side-effects such as kidney failure and damage to the heart," she says. "Chemo drugs can't differentiate between malignant cells and normal ones. In tumours of the eye or the brain, for instance, just one per cent of the drug reaches the site. I will design peptides that can cross the blood-brain barrier and reach the target without damaging other cells," she explains.
Not every young woman scientist at the conference had to battle orthodoxy. Daughter of doctor parents, Tatiana Lopatina, 28, from the Moscow State University, plans to divide her fellowship between Italy and Japan.
The biological scientist's research shows that stem cells derived from body fat are effective in stimulating blood vessel growth. "In adults, every tissue has its own resident stem cell. If we can isolate it, we can use it for many applications. For instance, diabetes patients face the problem of blood supply to the legs. Using stem cells, we can stimulate vessel growth in the legs through transplants. We can also use it for nerve regeneration after road accidents."
Young, successful and single, Lopatina dreams of "becoming a famous scientist and travelling the world on work". But she would also like to strike a good work-life balance. "In all countries, women end up having to choose between career and family. For me, too, family and children are important. But if you are intelligent and creative, you can manage both beautifully."
The author visited Paris last week on L'Oréal's invitation