Meet the women on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Feb 11, 2021

Meet the women on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus

Do you know these scientists and the work they’re doing to stop coronavirus?

Whether you’ve had the vaccine yet or not, the very fact that we have multiple vaccines against coronavirus already is incredible. But do you know who has been working to make this happen? I’ll be honest - I didn’t until today.

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an awareness day established by the UN General Assembly in 2015. Celebrating women’s excellence in science and reminding us that gender equality and science must advance hand-in-hand, the day shouldn’t go by unnoticed.

“To be truly transformative, gender equality policies and programmes need to eliminate gender stereotypes through education, change social norms, promote positive role models of women scientists and build awareness at the highest levels of decision-making.  

“We need to ensure that women and girls are not only participating in STEM fields, but are empowered to lead and innovate, and that they are supported by workplace policies and organisational cultures that ensure their safety, consider their needs as parents, and incentivise them to advance and thrive in these careers.”

Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO and Ms Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women on this year’s awareness day.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, it is fitting that this year the awareness day is exploring the theme: “Women scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19”. So who are these women?

Professor Sarah Gilbert

Prof Sarah Gilbert is the lead professor behind the Oxford coronavirus vaccine. Working with a team of scientists, she has created a vaccine that is 82.4% effective after two standard doses.

She may only now be getting the attention of those outside the industry, but she’s been well-known in science for a long time. Following an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014 Prof Gilbert led the first trial of a vaccine. She’s also helped develop medicine for Mers, a different type of coronavirus and it was this research that helped her and her team develop a vaccine so quickly for the current pandemic.

On top of this, Prof Gilbert is the co-founder of an Oxford University spin-out company called Vaccitech. Here they are conducting clinical studies of viral vectored vaccines which use modified versions of different viruses to deliver instructions to a cell.

Professor Catherine Green

Starting work on the Oxford vaccine in January 2020, Prof Green is an associate professor in Chromosome Dynamics at Oxford University. She also heads up the Nuffield Department of Medicine's Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility (CBF), where she specialises in creating vaccines for clinical trials.

Since completing her degree in biochemistry at the University of Cambridge Prof Green has done some incredible things. She has been awarded an Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK) scholarship for her doctoral research. After earning her doctorate, Prof Green moved to the Curie Institute to study DNA damage in human cells. She then undertook a role at the University of Cambridge as a Cancer Research UK Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology, before moving to Oxford University in 2012 where she joined the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics.

Dr Kizzmekia Corbett

Dr Corbett is a viral immunologist and research fellow in the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). As a Black female scientist, Dr Corbett made waves on social media after it was announced she would be leading a team of researchers to work on a coronavirus vaccine at the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Dr Corbett’s love of science began during a summer break from high school where she worked in a chemistry lab at the University of North Carolina. After earning her bachelor’s degree she became a biological sciences trainer at the NIH working alongside Dr Barney Graham.

In 2014, Dr Corbett became a research fellow, working as a viral immunologist, at the NIH. When the coronavirus pandemic broke, Corbett started work on the vaccine leading a team of researchers and developed a vaccine.

"The vaccine teaches the body how to fend off a virus, because it teaches the body how to look for the virus by basically just showing the body the spike protein of the virus" she explained. "The body then says 'Oh, we've seen this protein before. Let's go fight against it.' That's how it works." Dr Corbett tells CBS news.

Dr Nita Patel

Dr Patel is the director for vaccine development and antibody discovery at Novavax, leading an all-female team to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. At Novavax since 2015, she worked as a Scientist and Research Manager at AstraZeneca before that for 25 years.

Her passion for science came from a desire to cure tuberculosis, a disease that affected her father and indeed her career in the US started with her working on a TB vaccination project.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Patel has said she often works 18 hour-days, “People ask me if I’m tired, I don’t feel tired, my day just doesn’t end. And it’s the same with everyone else here. To me, nothing is impossible. So, having that mindset, nothing stresses me out, being honest."

This is of course just the tip of the iceberg, there are lots of women making incredible things happen in the science world. Today we celebrate and thank them for their tireless work.

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