2016 UK and Ireland Fellows

L'Oréal UNESCO FWIS 2016 winners L-R Louisa Messenger, Sam Giles, Tanya Hutter, Maria Bruna, Sophie Acton. Photo: L'Oreal UK & Ireland

The winners of the five 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland Fellowships For Women In Science were announced on 22 June 2016 at an awards ceremony held at the Royal Society in London.

The 2016 winners are:

Dr Sophie Acton, University College London

Dr Sophie Acton is a cell biologist researching the interactions between leukocytes and stromal cells within lymphoid organs as part of the body’s immune response.  Her research focuses on how dendritic cells help transmit danger messages to lymph nodes, what causes lymph nodes to swell and expand, and how these findings can be applied to a tumour microenvironment.

Sophie Acton 2016 Fellow L'Oreal UK & Ireland

Our immune system is our defence against the outside world. It is a complex mix of many cell types with specific tasks. These range from detection of foreign and harmful substances to killing infected cells. We know what each cell type is capable of, but the complex ways that different cells communicate and work together is more mysterious. For efficient protection, immune cells named dendritic cells patrol every inch of our body and migrate enormous distances to relay danger messages detected. Dendritic cells are guided towards lymph nodes, by nonimmune cells that form the structures of vessels and the architectural underpinnings of lymph nodes. It has only recently been discovered that the nonimmune cells, broadly termed stromal cells, play a vital role in immune responses. This is now one of the most exciting areas of immunology research. The dynamic swelling of lymph nodes is critical to all immune responses. I want to understand how lymph nodes swell. When and how do stromal numbers increase? In future work I address ‘how does the stromal architecture affect immune responses?’ and further to understand ‘how changes in stromal architecture and mechanical forces during lymph node swelling alter the behaviour of stromal cells?’

Dr Maria Bruna, University of Oxford

Dr Maria Bruna is a mathematician developing models which can improve the efficiency of particle separation technologies, which are critical to a wide range of sectors from the food and pharmaceutical industries to clinical research. In stem cell research, for example, individual stem cells must be identified and separated from many thousands of neighbouring cells before they can be used in therapies.

Maria Bruna 2016 L'Oreal UK & Ireland

Particle separation technologies find applications as diverse as the food and pharmaceutical industries to clinical research. As a typical example, cell sorting – the process to isolate stem cells effectively from a heterogeneous cell population – is of critical importance to stem cell therapies, yet it proves a formidable challenge as only about 1 in every 10,000 to 15,000 bone marrow cells is a stem cell. Despite their importance, a detailed theoretical understanding of separation processes is lacking, with many technologies relying almost entirely on experimental observations. Cell sorting, as many processes involving systems of interacting particles, can be modelled with nonlinear crossdiffusion systems of equations. In this fellowship I will provide a mathematical framework for the study of nonlinear crossdiffusion systems. I will integrate techniques from two areas of applied mathematics, namely asymptotic methods and gradient flows, to make them applicable to a wider class of models. Results from my research will help improve our understanding of mixing and separation process, making techniques such as cell sorting more efficient. Also, by generalising the concept of gradient flows to asymptotic equations, my work will bring effective and innovative mathematical tools to a wider range of applications across disciplines.

Dr Sam Giles, University of Oxford

Dr Sam Giles is a paleobiologist who is using x-ray tomography to study the evolution of the brain and its surrounding bone structure in ray-finned fishes, the largest living group of vertebrates, containing over 30,000 species. By comparing the brains of modern fish with 3D reconstructions of their ancestors, the research will help understand how the evolution of the brain contributed to the success of this group, with significant ramifications for understanding rates of gene mutation and evolutionary change.

L'Oréal UNESCO FWIS 2016 Sam Giles Photo: L'Oreal UK & Ireland

Animals with backbones (vertebrates) have an evolutionary history of half a billion years, with fossils proving instrumental in understanding how the group became so hugely successful. Many major innovations, as well as important anatomical features, are found within the braincase, a kind of bony box that sits within the head and houses the brain and sensory organs. By using xray tomography, it is possible to ‘virtually’ cut through the specimens and produce 3D reconstructions of the brain and braincase anatomy. Comparing these structures between key living and extinct animals allows for major evolutionary events to be put into context. Questions can be answered concerning the age of origin of the largest living group of vertebrates, the ray-finned fishes, a group containing over 30,000 species (including animals familiar from the aquarium and fishmonger), with major ramifications for understanding rates of gene mutation and evolutionary change. By studying how the brain evolved in early members of the group it is possible to evaluate whether ecological expansions and diversification events correspond with neurological change. Furthermore, new anatomical details will allow a better understanding of how different vertebrates lineages are related to each other, providing new insights and context to the evolution of vertebrates.

Dr Tanya Hutter, University of Cambridge

Dr Tanya Hutter is a chemist developing a real-time online sensor which can measure molecular changes in the brains of acute head injury patients. The technology will improve upon current labour- and time-sensitive medical techniques, saving time and money. It will also allow more patients to be monitored in critical care units – an intervention which can dramatically improve patient outcomes.

L'Oréal UNESCO FWIS 2016 Tanya Hutter Photo: L'Oreal UK & Ireland

Head injury is the largest single cause of death for those aged under 40 years in the developed world. Survivors experience varying disabilities that are often lifelong, with consequent demands on carers and resources. After injury, complex, dynamic changes occur in the brain’s physiology and chemistry. Monitoring and managing these dynamic events can vastly improve patient outcome. Currently, pressure and oxygen levels in the brain are monitored continuously with real time analyses, and the chemical analysis of several important molecules is performed using a technique called microdialysis. This technique is labour and time intensive for medical staff to use. It is also expensive to purchase and maintain. The aim of my research is to develop a real time brain chemistry online sensor for use in critical care of acute brain trauma patients. The method is based on optical measurement of molecules within nanostructures in a microfluidic channel. Development of such sensor will result in better clinical outcome and save time and money, as well as enable wider deployment in critical care units, in adult and paediatric patients. There are even wider applications for such a sensor technology in the chemical industry, oil and gas and environmental monitoring.

Dr Louisa Messenger, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Dr Louisa Messenger is a specialist in public health, who is conducting research into Chagas disease which, in the Bolivian Gran Chaco region, affects more than 97% of adults – approximately 30% of those will develop cardiomyopathy, for which there is no curative adult treatment available. Her research will help develop new diagnostic tests to identify which patients are at highest risk of complications, and refer children for treatment.

L'Oréal UNESCO FWIS 2016 Louisa Messenger Photo: L'Oreal UK & Ireland

Chagas disease, caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi and transmitted by triatomine bugs living in the walls of rural adobe houses, is the most important infectious cause of chronic heart disease in the world. In the Bolivian Chaco, vector control has still not been achieved and disease prevalence is extraordinarily high. More than 90% of adults over 30 years are infected, of whom 30% eventually develop debilitating, irreversible and ultimately fatal heart disease. There is no curative adult treatment available, only drugs and surgical interventions to alleviate advanced heart disease, which are often not available or prohibitively expensive for local indigenous populations. Why some infected individuals develop heart disease while others do not is poorly understood, but host and parasite genetics, and repeated exposure to the vector and the parasite are believed to be involved. This study will utilize a multidisciplinary approach to screen a high risk population, refer children for treatment and develop several new laboratory tests to aid in identification of persons at high risk of Chagas heart disease and in the evaluation of future vector control activities.