International Women's Day

This International Women’s Day, we catch up with four female researchers making extraordinary contributions towards investigating and treating childhood disease at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). Here, they offer advice to young women with an interest in science and the medical profession.

Meet Dr Lola Solebo

As National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Academic Clinical Lecturer and specialist in Paediatric Ophthalmology Epidemiology (the study of diseases relating to the eye), Dr Solebo (Lola) is passionate about research.

“The best thing about research is that we're all here to make these often tiny differences, but even the tiny differences when taken together can make a great impact to the lives of our patients."

Recently, Lola won an NIHR-funded clinician scientist award, a prestigious award that only one other eye doctor has won before.

"My specialty is examining data and understanding how we can use that data to answer important clinical questions. One of those questions is: how do we measure the disease? One of the clinical areas that I moved into is called uveitis (inflammation of the eye). If we can improve how we measure disease, we can classify what type of uveitis children have, how it will affect their lives and what treatment is available to them.

"But what are the metrics to use? I’m approaching this from two angles - using cameras, to take in-depth pictures, and using that to figure out what disease looks like, and then also using patient metrics, so what patients tell you about their disease. The award is a personal fellowship to develop these ‘rulers’ and start a national network of doctors and patients that will use and test them.

"The lovely thing is, by designing a ruler that can be applied to different disorders and patient groups, you can be helping and treating hundreds of patients at once."

And what does International Women’s Day mean to Dr Solebo?

"We've made lots of progress in the UK but there's still a way to go. For example, childcare is still very much gendered. Career progression is gendered. When buying toys or clothes for my girls, it's all pink and ponies. This is lovely but it's just pink and ponies. Why can't my daughter have a t-shirt with a dinosaur on?

"It’s important that we keep ourselves visible. We must keep recognising the distance we've come whilst acknowledging how much work there is left to do."

Meet Giulia Selmin

Giulia works with human amniotic fluid stem cells (hAFSCs). They are a subpopulation of cells that can be isolated from the amniotic fluid during pregnancy. As stem cells, they can become (with the correct stimuli), the cell type typical of some tissues (bone, cartilage and adipous, a process called "differentiation"). Giulia’s research investigates the differentiation potential of hAFSCs toward the muscle lineage, to use them for regenerative medicine purposes.

"I’ve been really passionate about science since I was a kid. When I was 11, I asked my parents for a microscope for Christmas. I remember spending my days catching fruit flies and examining hairs under the lens.”

Giulia is also passionate about encouraging girls to get into science at an earlier age. She believes that communication is key.

“I’d like to get involved with science communications and public engagement. I enjoy communicating science in easy words to friends who claim that they don’t have a “science brain” to understand. I would like to break down these same barriers for children who need more confidence with science – especially girls. If you explain science clearly to a kid, she or he might enjoy it as much as I did. They might even go on to find a deeper interest in science in their future.”

Meet Alice Piapi and Eva Bugallo 

Alice and Eva are both researchers in Dr Karin Straathof’s lab at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (ICH).

“We’re working on the development of new CAR-T cell therapies for neuroblastoma, the second most common solid childhood cancer. This immunotherapy consists on taking the white blood cells from patients, engineering them to express a new receptor and injecting them back into the patients. This redirects the patients’ white blood cells to recognise and attack the cancerous cells more efficiently. These white blood cells will also have the potential to recognise and attack new cancer cells that may develop later on in life - even more strongly than the first time,” says Alice.

“GOSH is at the forefront of research into childhood diseases. From researcher to clinician, there’s a multitude of expertise at GOSH, and these teams work closely together. Everything we do is aimed to treat and cure seriously ill children. They need our help and our research can make a difference in their lives. A living example is Kymriah, a CAR-T cell therapy developed to treat leukaemia patients, which was recently used to treat a patient here at GOSH,” says Eva.

“I hope one day, something I’ve worked on or helped developed as part of a team, will make it in to the clinic, in to patients, and help their lives. That’s what motivates me every day and keeps me pushing forwards,” says Alice.

And what has inspired a career in science?

"The Italian scientist Rita Levi Montalcini,” begins Alice. “Her Jewish identity meant that she was greatly persecuted during World War II. She experimented on chicken eggs, in a laboratory she set up in her bedroom. Despite these difficulties, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. I always thought ‘I want to be like her when I grow up.’ I’ve always been fascinated, and I’ve always had her in my mind.”

A message to girls who have an interest in science:

“Just go for it. Work hard, be determined. Not only in science but in life,” says Eva.

“Things have already changed and are still changing. I had a lot of female teachers at a young age who were supportive. In sport, my family encouraged me to follow my passion for kick boxing and boxing and despite being the only girl in the team I never felt left out. The other boys didn’t care that I was a girl and I had a lot of support from my coach. So if you are interested in science, study, work hard and join the scientific community.”