Professor Sarah Gilbert would be the first person to ask why she is being referred to as a female scientist and not just a scientist. In the UK’s Financial Times, Gilbert gave the scientific world a tongue lashing.
Prof Gilbert and five of her fellow STEM scientists had recently been honoured as COVID heroes and all of them agree that they had now unanimously proved that gender bias and discrimination in STEM is passé in the modern world.
Prof Gilbert, co-creator of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, had been granted the male equivalent of the British Sir by Queen Elizabeth II and this veteran vaccinologist is now a Dame, a rank in the Imperial and Royal Order of Saint George. She received this highest British award for her services to science and public health.
Not to be outdone with lavish praises, doll-maker, Mattel, had created dolls in the images of the six STEM scientists of which Prof Gilbert is one. The others are Dr Chika Stacy Oriuwa (27), a Canadian physician and Dr Kirby White (35) a doctor by day and a seamstress by night, who had sewn 7 000 hospital gowns as part of her Gowns for Doctors initiative, which developed personal protective equipment (PPE) which are recyclable and reusable.
Another receiver of a doll in her image to is the Emergency Room nurse who treated the first New York COVID-19 patient. Before it became a situation of life-and-death to wear masks and other protective clothing, Amy O’Sullivan (58) was aware of such a need. After contracting the virus, she was back at the hospital within two weeks, treating COVID patients wearing much-needed PPE.
Dr Jaoqueline Goés De Jesus (31) was honoured for leading the research into the sequencing of the genome of a COVID variant in her home country, Brazil. The efforts of this bio-medical scientist enabled people in other parts of the world to differentiate between the different variants. Finally, the 29-year old Dr Audrey Sue Cruz joined forces with other Asian-Americans to fight the rise of discrimination and racial bias which became rampant during the pandemic. When presented with her Mattel figurine, Cruz told international media that she would continue to represent women of colour in STEM.
For Prof Gilbert to continue her job as a senior post-doctoral researcher in the United Kingdom, took superhuman strength and many sacrifices. As women scientists are still considered a risk for taking time off to have children, Gilbert realised that she needed to return to her position as soon as possible after giving birth to triplets. With her income as lecturer too small to afford childcare, her partner had to sacrifice his career to care for their children.
Dame Sarah Gilbert had, albeit reluctantly, had not only become the face of the COVID-19 vaccine, but is also the co-founder of Vaccitech (https://www.vaccitech.co.uk) a company specialising in the development of vaccines against influenza and emerging viral pathogens.
According to Prof John Bell, a senior medical professor at Oxford University, Prof Gilbert is a “terrific scientist”. Within only 100 days after finding the genetic sequence of the latest COVID-19 variant, she and her team was able to start a clinical trial. To date, more than one billion of these vaccines had been administrated to 170 countries world-wide.
Dame Gilbert had made her point. She is a scientist, one of the best in the world and the fact that she is a woman should not detract from her intelligence, talents and hard work to save the lives of billions.