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Gems Among Jewels
October 1, 2010   
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Malwina Strenkowska, a student of mathematics and natural sciences at the University of Warsaw, won a competition held by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and Elle monthly for young women researchers aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Maria Skłodowska-Curie, a Polish physicist and chemist who won two Nobel Prizes in the early 20th century.

At an awards ceremony in Warsaw June 11, Strenkowska walked away with a prize of zl.15,000 for her research in bioorganic chemistry and molecular biology that aims to contribute to the development of gene therapy.

The competition was held to support and promote young ambitious women who pursue their research interests and to grant awards to those Polish women who may become world-famous scientists in the future. The competition is targeted at female students of engineering, mathematics and natural sciences who conduct independent scientific research or are involved in major research projects.

The competition aims to show that women can achieve spectacular successes in areas previously dominated by men and to prove that no branch of knowledge is inaccessible to women.

Hunting for diamonds

“The project is aimed at finding genuine diamonds among all the precious stones and discovering the greatest talents which will determine the future of Polish science,” said Science Minister Barbara Kudrycka.

A total of 131 research projects from across the country were entered for the competition. A panel of judges selected the best 10 projects and granted prizes to the young researchers. The judges took into account criteria such as innovativeness, contribution of new knowledge to a given field of research or technology, and the student’s involvement in the project.

Strenkowska, 22, a third-year student, won on all counts. The judges decided that her project, being conducted with a team led by Jacek Jemielita, Ph.D., at the University of Warsaw’s Institute of Experimental Physics, deserved the highest prize. The project aims to produce new chemical compounds for use in medicine. In the future, these compounds could be used in gene therapy to repair damaged proteins, for example.

Strenkowska’s research findings have attracted the interest of a German pharmaceutical company. They also met with a wide response at scientific conferences in Prague and Paris, and were described by the New Journal of Chemistry, a scientific journal devoted to the latest discoveries in chemistry.

Promising and praised

Those singled out for praise also included Agata Szade of the Faculty of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Biotechnology at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and Joanna Oracz of the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw.

Other finalists in the competition were Beata Kociucka of the Poznań University of Life Sciences; Izabela Mikuła of the University of Warsaw; Justyna Kurzawa of the Wrocław University of Technology; Wiktoria Szydło of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań; Wiktoria Janik of the Warsaw University of Technology; Ilona Zielińska of the Warsaw University of Technology; and Iwona Skrzypczak of the University of Warsaw.

All these young researchers will be given an opportunity to take part in a European scientific conference of their choice.

Young talent

The award-winning projects focus on a wide range of issues from cytogenetics to aeronautics, optics, mathematics and pest control.

One of the researchers, who studies selected pig genes, has helped expand knowledge about the causes and mechanisms of obesity, a disorder that is increasingly referred to as a 21st-century epidemic. Another young researcher is taking part in a project whose objective is to build a modern propeller for small aircraft. Yet another one is conducting research into plant parasites called eriophyidae which cause damage especially to wheat crops. Among the 10 projects is also one involving a search for epileptic foci in the brain by means of magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography. The research is useful in diagnosing children with epilepsy. The objective of two other projects is to develop a mathematical model describing tumor growth and computer simulations that may find application in cancer treatment.

Two of the three students who won the highest prizes, Strenkowska and Szade, deal with problems associated with cancer treatment. Strenkowska produces new chemical compounds—analogues of the 5’-end of mRNA—which may be helpful in developing an effective cancer vaccine in the future. Szade is conducting research into innovative treatment methods for oral and esophagus cancer.

The third highest award winner, Joanna Oracz, conducts research into the properties of light. In her research, she uses a device of her own design. The device generates very short laser pulses that make it possible to observe quick chemical reactions which are impossible to register in any other way. The researcher’s goal is to build a microscope to observe reactions taking place in living cells in real time and very high resolution.

Equal status

According to Kudrycka, the competition has shown that there are many talented young women in Poland pursuing fields of study that were until recently reserved for men.

“Their work has aroused heated debate at international scientific conferences,” Kudrycka said. “Their projects discover the unknown and go beyond the limits of imagination. And this means that, following in the footsteps of Maria Skłodowska-Curie, these young women may claim a Nobel Prize one day.”

The competition, held for the first time this year, will continue in the future, according to the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. It is not the only initiative of this kind aimed at supporting young researchers. Under a new law on higher education that is expected to take effect next year, a special program will be launched to support university students pursuing scientific research. “In the future, we will be looking for diamonds among all the students, not just women,” Kudrycka said.
Julia Pawłowska
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