Female scientists win top RS honours

May 20, 2005

Cancer researcher Frances Balkwill almost didn't open the unassuming letter that came in the post last week telling her that she was to be honoured alongside Richard Dawkins, Sir David Attenborough and Sir Martin Rees, writes Caroline Davis.

When she did open it, she was surprised to read that she had won the Royal Society's Michael Faraday prize, which is awarded annually for achievement in communicating science to UK audiences.

"I'm honoured and really excited," Professor Balkwill said.

She is the head of a 20-strong laboratory at Barts and The London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine, and author of 13 children's books.

She is also in the process of setting up a science centre - Centre of the Cell - aimed at socially deprived children in the East End of London. The centre still needs £1.8 million. It will be based in the new medical school building and will be free to visit.

"It's not about telling kids it is cool to be a scientist," Professor Balkwill said. "It's about improving scientific literacy so they can make decisions and understand the world.

"It's a scandal that people don't know the difference between bacteria and viruses."

Professor Balkwill said the most useful aspect of the award was that it would boost her fundraising. She described how, at a recent presentation to a City company, she was introduced as the winner of the Royal Society award. "I was embarrassed," she said. "But it brought in the money."

The prize consists of a silver gilt medal and £2,500. Professor Balkwill will also deliver the Michael Faraday prize lecture in January.

Christine Davies, this year's winner of the society's Rosalind Franklin award, puts her successful scientific career down to single-mindedness and being rather stubborn.

She was the UK's first female professor in theoretical physics. She said:

"I am not easily deflected from what I want to do."

The £30,000 award was set up three years ago to help promote women in science.

Professor Davies, who has been at Glasgow University's department of physics and astronomy for 20 years, pioneered explorations of particles made up of quarks.

She also worked closely with the Institute of Physics to help physics departments embrace a more female-friendly culture.

She said that the award offered her the opportunity to interest schoolchildren in the work of physicists.

Professor Davies will use the prize money to invite female physicists from all over the world to speak about their work around the UK.

"I hope that that I can convey my enthusiasm to a new generation of women scientists," she explained. "And give them confidence in what they can achieve."

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