The Women In Malaria Research Initiative

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As an Irish woman, I come from a very privileged position. Since my birth in 1990, and until I was 21 years old in 2011, Ireland’s Presidents were women: Mary Robinson from 1990–1997, and Mary McAleese from 1997–2011. Growing up, I was accustomed to seeing a woman as Head of State. In fact, when Michael D. Higgins became President at the end of 2011, many young people of my generation commented on how strange it felt to have a President who was not a woman. It never occurred to us that this feeling was unusual. And growing up with only brothers, I never felt that there was anything that the boys could do that I couldn’t do. I never felt discriminated against for being female.

Now as an adult, it has become clear to me that my experience was a privileged one. Since embarking on a scientific career, it is plain to see that many of the directors of research institutes worldwide, including the one in which I undertook my PhD, were men. The presidents and principals of the universities I attended were men. Many of the principal investigators (PIs) of well-funded laboratories in the field of parasitology were men. In my experience, working in biological sciences, there were many other women with whom I worked. Some labs were made up almost entirely by women researchers. But the PIs were men.

This distribution of women in science appears to be the norm. According to a recent editorial in Nature Cell Biology [1], only 33% of researchers at a post-doctoral level within the European Union (EU) were female, with only 20% of the total number of full professors in the EU being female. Depending upon the research area and the country in which the researcher works, the gender gap may be even greater.

Using computational methods to determine the numbers of male and female authors in over >10 million published academic papers since 2002, Holman et al. discovered that, even with current efforts to bolster the position of women in academia, some research specialties may not reach gender parity in the 21st century [2]. To give an example, this study found that from 2002–2016, out of 27,580 publications designated as “Parasitology”, 43.5% of all authors were female. In some specialties, such as Computer Science and Physics, only 16.3% and 16.7% of all authors were female respectively.

In the aforementioned article [2], and in others [3–5], a number of possible reasons for this gender disparity, alongside potential strategies to tackle the issue, were put forward. Contributing to the gender gap is the paucity of women invited to contribute to academic journals either as authors or reviewers [2,3]; fewer women selected as committee members for scientific symposia [4]; and the progressive decline of fellowships awarded to female scientific researchers as they advance in seniority [5]. Though personal and cultural differences regarding gender will, of course, have a role to play in determining the career trajectories of women in science worldwide, there are still things that can be done to tackle this issue.

And so a recent trend has emerged in the scientific community outside of traditional avenues by which science is advertised (such as in scientific journals): the creation of social media pages and websites tailored towards women in specific areas of scientific research. In my own case, as a molecular parasitologist, my initial introduction to such an initiative was when I discovered the “Women and Minorities in Parasitology” website [6], created by Dr Elise English, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania (PA, USA). Dr English had created the website as a resource with the aim of increasing the diversity of parasitology speakers at conferences and seminars. On this particular website, you can add your name and research specialty to the database where you can then be easily discovered and contacted by journal editors, conference committee members, etc. I added my name immediately.

Shortly after discovering this website, I was contacted by Dr Elena Gómez-Díaz, a malaria researcher from the Spanish National Research Council that I had met at a seminar in Glasgow, and with whom I shared many research interests. Dr Gómez-Díaz had noticed my proclivity for sharing malaria research papers and conference updates on Twitter and was interested in starting a database of women in malaria research, a large sub-group of the parasitology community. And from this conversation, the “Women In Malaria Research” initiative was launched [7].

Picture: A selection of the websites available online that promote women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

As of this Friday (January 11 2019), 245 names have been added to a list of women who work in malaria research in 28 different countries so far. While I maintain the website, Dr Gómez-Díaz has begun a campaign on Twitter by popularizing the “#WomenInMalaria” hashtag and creating featured profiles for women in malaria research each week (and often daily). In addition, we have added specific webpages to the site that provide links to free online Plasmodium resources; information about malaria conferences and advanced courses; and a webpage dedicated to background papers in the malaria field (all information I would have loved to have in one place when I started my PhD in malaria research!).  

Since beginning the website in August 2018, we have discovered even more resources of this type online: the “500 Women Scientists” website [8], the “Association for Women In Mathematics” [9], the “Women In Optics” chapter of the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) [10], “Steminist.com” [11], “Women@NASA” [12], and many more. Many websites of this type began life when a female scientist felt the need to normalize the image of a woman in their particular area of research. Hopefully, with time, the image of a female scientist in malaria research and other STEM fields such as Computer Science, Quantum Physics, and Mathematics, will become the norm.

Today, the “Women In Malaria” website provides a comprehensive list of women in different areas of malaria research that aims to: 1) make visible the scientific contributions of women and 2), to provide a resource for the community that can be used by scientific committees, conference organisers, editors, and PIs.

In future, Dr Elena Gómez-Díaz and I hope to expand the “Women In Malaria” initiative further by broaching the subject of a mentorship program for women in malaria research, facilitated either informally or formally, where female PIs can provide advice and encouragement to younger colleagues, and where early career researchers can find a supportive and empathic audience. We envision several possible activities such as interviews with women role models in malaria, workshops at malaria conferences, courses on unconscious bias, or courses directed towards the empowerment of women, such as leadership and oral communication training. Though it may require more work over time, we can only hope that in future, younger members of the malaria research community will not have to face the same challenges that face us at present, and like me, young women will grow up in a society where the image of a woman leader is the norm, and not an outlier.

Special thanks are owed to Dr Elena Gómez-Díaz for her careful reading and editing of this article. She can be followed on Twitter at:

 @elenagomezdiaz

Dr Elise English and the “Women and Minorities in Parasitology” Twitter pages can be followed at:

@EliseTweetsBio

@WiParasitology

And finally, I (Joanne Power), can be found at:

 @hanniepower


  1.  Celebrating women in science [Editorial]. Cell Biol. 20(9), 993 (2018).
  2. Holman L, Stuart-Fox D & Heuser CE. The gender gap in science: how long until women are equally represented? PLoS Biol., 16 (4), e2004956 (2018).
  3. Year of reckoning for women in science. [Editorial]. The doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30238-1 (2018).
  4. Smith KA, Arlotta P, Watt FM. The Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering Working Group, and Solomon SL. Seven actionable strategies for advancing women in science, engineering, and medicine. Cell Stem Cell, 16 (3), 221-224 (2015).  
  5. Watt FM. (More) Women in science. Rev. Mol. Cell Biol. 19(7), 413–414 (2018).
  6. WiPara: Women and Minorites in Parasitology. Available at: https://wipara.weebly.com (Accessed 11 January).
  7. Women In Malaria Research. Available at: https://womeninmalaria.weebly.com (Accessed 11 January).
  8. 500 Women Scientists. Available at: https://500womenscientists.org/who-we-are (Accessed 11 January).
  9. AWM: Association for Women In Mathematics. Available at: https://awm-math.org (Accessed 11 January).
  10. SPIE Women In Optics. Available at: https://spie.org/about-spie/advocacy/women-in-optics?SSO=1 (Accessed 11 January).
  11. com. Available at: http://steminist.com (Accessed 11 January).
  12. Women@NASA. Available at: https://women.nasa.gov (Accessed 11 January).

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2 Comments

  1. Antonio Toniolo, MD on

    What about Youyou Tu and the successful project leading to artmisin (though in 40 yrs due to burocratic interferences)?

    • Dear Dr Toniolo,

      My apologies for the delayed reply. I actually kept the article pretty short and just dealt with what we’re trying to do at the moment with the initiative and we do have a plan to include profiles for women in malaria research on the Women In Malaria website that we’ve started. I feel like Youyou Tu and her work probably warrants a full article on its own, either solely addressing Youyou Tu or an article regarding women who have shaped malaria research historically. I should really add it to my list of articles I wish to write. The next article I plan to write for the Infectious Disease Hub will be a summary of the 15th BioMalPar conference which I will be attending at the end of May (28-30th May, 2019). There is also another article in the works regarding resistance to anti-parasitic drugs (including resistance to antimalarials). So I will address Youyou Tu in future again. And thank you for your comment!

      Best wishes,

      B. Joanne Power

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