It will soon be a year since WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. By now, every corner of the world has felt the devastating impact of the pandemic, and women and girls in science are on the front lines of response. They are healthcare workers and innovators. They are researching vaccines and pioneering treatments. They are leading us toward a safer world, and inspiring the next generation of girls to be forces of good in science and tech.
This 11 February, we’re celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science by highlighting just some of the women and girls around the world who have made tremendous contributions during the ongoing crisis.
Doctors and nurses
Women make up 70 per cent of health and social care workers. This puts them at the heart of COVID-19 response, even though they are often underrepresented in decision-making and leadership.
“Treating patients with COVID-19 is very hard, each one with their own unique needs,” says Dr. Entela Kolovani a physician at the hospital of infectious diseases in Tirana, Albania who started treating patients diagnosed with COVID-19 at the very beginning of the pandemic. “We are dealing not only with the virus, but also with the psychological impact it has on patients. They are totally isolated from their families and we need to stay the closest possible to them.”
In Mexico, 79 per cent of nurses are women, like Brenda Abad. She was assigned to detect those with COVID-19 on her first day working at a public hospital.
“At the beginning I was very scared of catching the disease and being contagious, but in the end, you have to do your job and you’re trained for it,” she says.
Co-founder of the biotechnology company BioNTech, Özlem Türeci is not just a scientist but also a physician, an entrepreneur and a leader in the global health sector. In 2020, her company developed the first approved RNA-based vaccine against COVID-19, which came as a much-needed moment of hope in a year of unprecedented crisis.
More than 1,300 people from over 60 countries currently work at BioNTech, and more than half of them are women. Türeci says researchers should focus on the things they want to change and the problems the want to solve, thinking broader and dreaming big.
There are many discoveries that made the COVID-19 vaccine possible, and one of the most essential researches was that of Katalin Karikó, focused on the therapeutic possibilities of mRNA. Yet, her idea that mRNA could be used to fight disease was deemed too radical, too financially risky to fund at the time. She applied for grant after grant, but kept getting rejections. She was even demoted from her position. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Eventually, Karikó and her former colleague Drew Weissman developed a method of utilizing synthetic mRNA to fight disease. That discovery is now the basis of the Covid-19 vaccine.
As the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies took up the race for the COVID-19 vaccine, there was one discovery by a young woman scientist that had the potential to provide a therapy to novel coronavirus. Anika, a 14-year-old Indian American, had started her science project in her bedroom when she was in eighth grade, initially looking to find a treatment for the influenza virus. That meant studying and researching the pandemics that affected the world throughout history, until she started actually living through one.
As the COVID-19 outbreak spread around the world, Amika changed gears with the help of her mentor to target the virus that causes COVID-19. She identified a lead molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and potentially inhibit the novel corona virus. In October 2020, Anika won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge.
Megs Shah and Fairuz Ahmed
While COVID-19 containment measures led to long periods of isolation and stay-at-home orders, many found themselves trapped in unsafe relationships or violent environments. Megs Shah and Fairuz Ahmed recognized the need for new technology to best reach those in need, and to enable the service provider organizations to actually connect with domestic violence survivors and manage cases virtually.
The Parasol Cooperative, founded by Shah and Fairuz, is working to educate and connect survivors and those in need, and the service providers. Their innovative technology, inspired by their own experiences and informed by their work with survivors, aims to offer the comfort and education of support groups to the most vulnerable populations being affected by domestic violence.
Ramida “Jennie” Juengpaisal
In Thailand, Ramida Juengpaisal, 24, worked to create a national COVID-19 tracker that pulls together all available information about the virus and helps to stop the spread of misinformation as COVID-19 first began to spread. The “COVID Tracker by 5Lab”, that Jennie worked on shared information about outbreaks and cleaning procedures, as well as critical information about where testing is available and how much it costs.
“For too long, the STEM fields have been shaped by gender biases that exclude women and girls,” Jennie says. “There is a lot of women working in the tech industry, but they don’t have platforms to show their potential. Despite this, women and girls are pushing the boundaries every day.”
Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is one of the leading scientists behind the US Government’s vaccine research. Corbett is part of a team within the National Institutes of health that worked to develop one of the vaccines which is more than 90 per cent effective.
Recognizing Dr. Corbett’s contributions and leadership in vaccine research during the pandemic is especially important both because COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted black communities within the US, and because often black women in science have been left out of history books.
Dr. Corbett hopes that her critical work will help inspire future generations of girls of colour in science, who can see themselves in her success.
Do you know more women and girls in science making a difference during the COVID-19 crisis? Give them a shoutout on social media using #WomenInScience