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y work ex­plores fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about who we are and where we came from,” says Pro­fes­sor Mee­mann Chang who, in a long ca­reer ex­am­in­ing fish fos­sils, has dis­cov­ered some of our ear­li­est an­ces­tors.

“To be able to fig­ure out what a new fos­sil is, how it is re­lated to other or­gan­isms, how it lived, and what it can tell us about the an­cient en­vi­ron­ment” is truly en­light­en­ing, she says.

On March 22, Chang — an aca­demic at the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences — was hon­ored with a L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science award for the in­sights she has pro­vided, one of which showed that lung­fish were not, as pre­vi­ously thought, the evo­lu­tion­ary link be­tween marine life and mam­mals — in­clud­ing hu­mans — and that the dis­tinc­tion ac­tu­ally be­longs to the sar­coptery­gian lobefinned fish, a marine life form dat­ing back 400 mil­lion years.

“On this oc­ca­sion it is im­pos­si­ble for me not to re­flect on my ca­reer in ver­te­brate pa­le­on­tol­ogy,” Chang said at the awards cer­e­mony, held at the UNESCO head­quar­ters in Paris. “I started to study pa­le­on­tol­ogy some 60 years ago when I was a stu­dent at Moscow State Univer­sity.”

But the choice of ca­reer was not her own. “At that time it was ar­ranged much like an ar­ranged mar­riage,” she said.

Her speech also re­vealed some of the sac­ri­fices she was forced to make over the years. When she thanked her fam­ily for their sup­port, she gave spe­cial thanks to her daugh­ter, “as I had to leave her with her grand­mother when she was one month old. When she came back to me she was 10. But she never com­plained.”

Chang, now 82, was one of five lau­re­ates, each from a dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent, hon­ored at the awards cer­e­mony, which marked the 20th an­niver­sary of the suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship be­tween the L’Oreal Foun­da­tion and UNESCO to sup­port fe­male sci­en­tists and ad­dress a gen­der bias in science.

“For 20 years, UNESCO and the L’Oréal Foun­da­tion have been work­ing side by side to sup­port women sci­en­tists,” says Au­drey Azoulay, UNESCO di­rec­tor-gen­eral. “Some 3,124 women sci­en­tists from around the world have been cel­e­brated for their out­stand­ing achieve­ments, and each lau­re­ate has been rec­og­nized for ex­cel­lence in her re­spec­tive field of ex­per­tise.”

Over the past two decades, the per­cent­age of women work­ing in science has in­creased by about 12 per­cent, but less than 30 per­cent of re­searchers are women.

A glass ceil­ing is still ev­i­dent for women in science. Only 3 per­cent of No­bel prizes for science have been awarded to women and only one woman has been awarded the Fields Medal for Math­e­mat­ics since its cre­ation in 1936.

“It is in the in­ter­ests of ev­ery­one to change their mind­sets,” says Jean Paul Agon, chair­man and CEO of L’Oreal and chair­man of the L’Oreal Foun­da­tion. “Women and men both have a role to play.”

That is why an ini­tia­tive was launched at the March 22 event aimed at mo­bi­liz­ing men within the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity to ac­tively en­gage in ef­forts to pro­mote gen­der equal­ity in science.

In China, the Young Women in Science Fel­low­ships were cre­ated 15 years ago. Th­ese have re­warded and spot­lighted a group of young fe­male sci­en­tists “who are show­ing that women are just as ca­pa­ble of changing the world with the power of science as men,” says L’Oreal China CEO Stephane Rin­derknech.

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