Awards Honor Five Early-Career Women Chemists Studying Medicinal Properties of Natural Compounds in Developing Regions

An award ceremony at the AAAS Annual Meeting celebrated the accomplishments of early-career women scientists in the developing world, but a symposium the next day highlighted the challenges they are likely to face in advancing to leadership positions.
From left, Eqbal Mohammed Abdu Dauqan, Simone Ann Marie Badal McCreath, Taiwo Olayemi Elufioye, Ritmaleni, Nilufar Mamadalieva | Alison Bert/Elsevier Connect

Traditional medical practitioners and herbalists in Nigeria often use local plants in their medicines for managing malaria, enhancing memory, and treating other conditions. These prescriptions form the starting point for studies by Dr. Taiwo Olayemi Elufioye of Nigeria's University of Ibadan, who investigates the plants' compounds to see which ones show promise for pharmaceutical treatments.

The research could someday have global payoffs. For example, Elufioye and her colleagues have screened over 65 plants used in traditional prescriptions for memory enhancement and identified 12 compounds that are good candidates for further drug development.

Elufioye and four other chemists who study medicinal plants and other natural products were honored with the Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World, presented on 15 February at the AAAS Annual Meeting. The prize includes $5,000 and all-expenses-paid attendance at the Annual Meeting. A donor in the audience of the awards ceremony also pledged an additional $2,500 for each winner's laboratory.

The following day, a related event on women's participation in science in the developing world offered a more sobering reminder of how much remains to be done to increase women's participation in science, innovation, technology and engineering (SITE), especially at the highest levels of administration and policy, and to enhance the role of SITE in women's lives.

"We were thrilled to be able to host the awards" that honored the five chemists, said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. "It is critical that we make them and their accomplishments more visible within their own institutions and countries and to the rest of the world. They are role models to us all, perhaps most importantly to young women in their regions who aspire to pursue study and careers in science. We wanted to honor them, but we also wanted to provide opportunities for them to enlarge their networks and contacts to further support their work."

The prize is awarded by the Elsevier Foundation, the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries ( TWAS). The winning researchers, representing five regions of the developing world, are as follows.

Dr. Eqbal Mohammed Abdu Dauqan, Department of Medical Laboratories Sciences, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Al-Saeed University, Taizz, Yemen: Dr. Dauqan is currently Head of the Medical Laboratory Sciences Department at Al-Saeed University in Taizz, Yemen where her research focuses on the antioxidant properties of vegetable oils.

Dr. Taiwo Olayemi Elufioye, Dept of Pharmacognosy, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria: Dr. Elufioye is currently acting head of the Department of Pharmacognosy at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Her research focuses on the medicinal properties of native Nigerian plants. In particular she has looked at the effectiveness of different species in treating malaria, wounds, memory loss, leprosy and cancer. 

Dr. Nilufar Mamadalieva, Institute of the Chemistry of Plant Substances, Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Dr. Mamadalieva is currently Senior Scientific Researcher at the Institute of the Chemistry of Plant Substances in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Her work focuses on the phytochemical and biological investigation of active compounds derived from medicinal plants growing in Central Asia.

Dr. Simone Ann Marie Badal McCreath, Natural Products Institute, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, West Indies: Dr. Simone Badal McCreath currently manages the Biochemistry lab at the Natural Products Institute at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Jamaica and is overseeing and designing a new cell culture lab at the same Institute. McCreath is an accomplished early-career researcher who has been investigating the cancer-fighting properties of Jamaican natural compounds.

Dr. Ritmaleni, Faculty of Pharmacy, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Dr. Ritmaleni is currently a researcher and lecturer at the Laboratory of Medicinal Chemistry at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Ritmaleni's research covers the field of organic synthesis, focusing on the development of tropical medicines. She has worked on sulfoxides, including improved methods for their synthesis and application in the preparation of biologically active targets.

Science Needs Women and Women Need Science

 

From left, Gloria Bonder, Samira Omar, Peggy Oti-Boateng | Atlantic Photography

The atmosphere at the awards ceremony was celebratory, but at a 16 February symposium, a panel of seasoned women scientists representing an emerging global initiative called GenderInSITE offered a more subdued picture of women scientists' success in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Although women are entering the SITE workforce in greater numbers than ever before, this progress is patchy across disciplines and women are virtually absent from leadership positions.

"The stories of the [Elsevier Foundation Award] winners are important for showing why there needs to be a focusing on gender impact, what difference it makes on who might be doing the work, and the differential impact it has on men and women," said Malcom, who is a GenderInSITE co-chair and moderated the related symposium.

Advancing women's participation in SITE globally as well as promoting awareness of how SITE serves women's and men's livelihoods - often in different ways - is GenderInSITE's dual purpose. The project currently has focal points, with regionally tailored initiatives, in Latin America and Africa, and its organizers plan to establish additional focal points in the Middle East and Asia.

Panelist Gloria Bonder of FLACSO Argentina, who is Gender InSITE's regional focus group director for Latin America and the Caribbean, described a region where innovation has boomed but inequality is a major problem.

Despite a strong period of economic growth from 2003 to 2008, the 20 percent of households with the lowest incomes receive just 5 percent of the national income, while the 20 percent of households with the highest incomes receive 47 percent of the national income, according to Bonder.

"We need a structural change in development policies, placing equality in the center of development," she said.

Brazil, Argentina and Mexico account for 90 percent of the region's total investment in research and development. And, women make up roughly half of the researchers in Brazil and Argentina, as well as in several other Latin American and Caribbean countries, according to UNESCO. But, women aren't as well represented in the technical economy. And, although the portion of women researchers "far exceeds that in other regions, that is not reflected in their access to decision-making positions," Bonder said.

In Africa, the overall representation of women in science, technology and engineering is lower, according to Peggy Oti-Boateng, senior program director for science at the regional office of UNESCO in Nairobi, who is one of GenderInSITE's focal point directors for Africa. The region's ability to compete on the global market will depend on its ability to innovate and to educate and train a critical mass of experts in science, technology and innovation, providing equal access for both men and women, she said.

However, currently "we have few women scientists, and even fewer women engineers and women in leadership positions in the management of science and technology institutions," she said. For example, over the last 20 years, only 7 percent of the alumni of the prominent ANSTI/DAAD graduate and post-graduate fellowship program have been women.

Oti-Boateng described how UNESCO will collaborate with GenderInSITE and will use African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI) and UNESO platforms to enhance the capacity of African women scientists, engineers, policy makers and planners, development partners, and the private sector.

Women are better represented, overall, in the scientific communities of some Arab-region countries, but here, too, they lag far behind men in seniority. In Egypt, for example, women represent more than one-third of the scientific community and hold 35 to 50 percent of postgraduate positions in Egyptian universities. But, they occupy just 2 percent of high-level positions in science, according to Samira Omar of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. Likewise, at Omar's institution, women make up 39 percent of the employees in research units but just 14 percent of the managers.

Meeting environmental challenges is top priority for research and innovation as the Arab region deals with water scarcity, extreme weather, climate change and population growth, as well as war and instability. The full participation of women in SITE will be important for identifying solutions to these issues, and will need clear government backing, Omar said.

Policy makers, funders and university leaders shouldn't just support the recruitment and retention of women in SITE; they should also make decisions with an appreciation of how science, innovation technology and engineering affect women, said Sophia Huyer, director of GenderInSITE. For example, increasing women farmers' access to fertilizers and other agricultural technology could increase their productivity by an estimated 2.5 to 4 percent, she said. And, in homes with biomass-burning stoves, girls age 5 to 14 are twice as likely as boys to have respiratory problems. Applying a "gender lens" is therefore critical for making development policy and programs more effective, equitable and sustainable, she said.