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It’s refreshing to see so many women in type 1 diabetes research

Josie Clarkson, JDRF’s Research Communication Lead discusses opportunities, success and barriers for women in science

JDRF UK Research Communications Lead Josie Clarkson (left) with type 1 diabetes researcher Dr Alice Carr (right).

Saturday 11 February 2024 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day to celebrate and promote gender equality in science. Over the past year as Research Communications Lead at JDRF, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several women researching type 1 diabetes, who are making huge strides in the field. It’s so refreshing to see more gender balanced labs and conference halls because it goes against the stereotype that scientists are all Einstein lookalikes.

Female researchers and large grants

Large grants are awarded to researchers with an impressive CV built up over years of experience. Although some inspiring women have secured these grants, the vast majority are awarded to men.

Why aren’t women awarded more of the bigger grants?

There are hundreds of reasons why funding at the top of the research career ladder is still unbalanced. Some barriers still exist within academia and many more extend beyond the lab bench. Barriers within the world of research include a poor work-life balance and negative viewpoints about people having career breaks (such as taking time out to look after dependents). While more general issues include disparities between maternity and paternity leave, old-fashioned expectations and stereotypes for women, and lack of adequate or affordable childcare.

Moving towards greater gender equality

Many organisations that fund research are now implementing small measures to make themselves more inclusive for all genders when assessing potential applicants. They are now more open-minded about people having career breaks and have introduced narrative CVs, which allow applicants to be more flexible about what they can offer rather than sticking to a strict chronological structure. While these are positive steps towards greater equality, there is still a long way to go.

Hope for the near future

Having seen lots of young women currently working as type 1 diabetes researchers, I believe that times are changing. I am optimistic that we will soon see an equal split of male and female type 1 diabetes researchers from early career stages right through to the chairs of advisory panels. But this will only come with a shared initiative to tackle issues both within and beyond the world of research.

World-leading female scientists

In the meantime, there are some incredible pioneering female researchers leading research projects and winning awards. So, let’s celebrate them. Here are a few trail-blazing type 1 diabetes researchers I have met over the past year.

Professor Francesca Spagnoli

Francesca runs an international association of researchers, healthcare professionals and industry representatives funded by the EU called Pan3DP. The group focuses on how to grow organs in the lab – like growing new pancreas cells to treat type 1. In 2022, with the help of some other group members, Francesca organised and delivered a research conference in London. The conference about lab-grown organs attracted researchers from as far away as the US and Israel and led to some exciting updates about lab-grown pancreas cells for type 1 diabetes.

Professor Maike Sander

Maike, one of our JDRF-funded researchers, won the 2022 Albert Renold prize for her outstanding achievements in research on the clusters of cells where the insulin-producing beta cells are, called pancreatic islets. This is one of the most prestigious awards that the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD), who run the largest diabetes conference in Europe provide. Read more about Maike and her type 1 diabetes research.

Dr Rocio Sancho

Rocio is one of the powerhouse researchers currently funded by a large JDRF International grant. Her and her team at Kings College London – which includes several female early career researchers – are growing beta cells from cells that can develop into many other cell types, called stem cells. Meet Rocio and her team in this video we filmed when we visited their lab.

Dr Alice Carr

Alice recently achieved her PhD at the University of Exeter and was quickly snapped up by a prestigious JDRF-funded research centre in Canada. She demonstrates the wonderful opportunities that are now available to talented, driven early career researchers that just happen to also be women. Read more about Dr Alice Carr’s research and her own diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.

Research setting an example for society

It’s refreshing to see so many women thriving in type 1 diabetes research. As a society, we are far from enjoying equality for all genders, but the landscape of type 1 diabetes research reflects a shift in the gender imbalance historically seen in academia.

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