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Research with a Gentle Touch
Karolinska Institutet's first female president believes that the scientific community fails to realise half its potential by not encouraging more women to pursue careers in research.
by Lay Leng TAN

arriet Wallberg-Henriksson, the first female president of the 195-year-old Karolinska Institutet (KI) and a member of the Nobel Assembly that chooses Nobel Prize winners, strongly advocates equal-opportunity science for women. She is convinced that women can make contributions to scientific and medical research as good as their male counterparts. "We need gender equality at our university so that our doctors and nurses can fully acknowledge gender differences in medicine. Moreover, if we do not have gender equality, we lose half of all potential good thought. A woman reflects on a problem differently from the way a man does and addresses a question from another angle," she stresses.

Because KI has a large nursing school, women dominate at the undergraduate level, accounting for 80% of the student population. However, as they progress through postgraduate, PhD, and senior lecturer levels to full professor, the proportion of women to men falls - only 17% of the full professors are women. The new president of the institute wants to help female scientists continue their careers into the higher strata of research.

"Where are the women professors?" she asks. "What explains the drop-out rate of women before they attain professorships? We found that women lecturers at KI had less time for research because they taught more, they supervised fewer PhD students, they obtained less grant money, and they had smaller work spaces - all of which make it hard to carry out research and make progress."

To address this gender bias, KI has instituted new policies and initiatives and earmarked financial support to encourage women to climb the research-career ladder. The goal is eventually to have women hold 50% of senior positions, including president, vice president, deans, and vice deans.

In addition, Wallberg-Henriksson personally directs a university task force to look into equal-opportunity issues. "Much medical treatment today relies on research performed on men. Since patients are both male and female, all have the right to diagnosis and treatment on the basis of studies performed and evidence gathered on their respective genders." KI set up the Centre for Gender Medicine to perform research on the symptomatologic, diagnostic, and treatment differences between the sexes. For example, heart disease manifests itself differently in men and women, and as a result, women's heart disease has been under-addressed.

Does a woman offer an extra something in a male-dominated research world? "I am perhaps what you can call a role model for younger women. They see that success is important and possible." She believes she has brought into the university something more than her male colleagues as she can personally empathise with the struggle that women scientists face and the problems they might encounter.

When asked whether a woman researcher has to make greater sacrifices to pursue a career, Wallberg-Henriksson ponders: "I don't feel as if I have sacrificed anything. I have a family with two children who are now 18 and 20. Of course, when children are young, you have to organise your life so that they are cared for. Guilt rises as you agonise over wanting to spend more time with them and to spend more time at work! My two children, when asked whether they have felt abandoned, gave an emphatic "No" as they think I was around for them."

The new head of KI has initiated strategies since taking office in early 2004. "First, we are optimising our organisation. Second, I am reviewing the ethical aspects of our work to make sure that we have a transparent system that people understand. It includes how a scientist in the medical field relates to industry, such as having industry pay for certain activities like conferences. Transparency ensures that people have trust in what we do.

"Third, I wish to emphasise clinical research and collaboration with the university hospital and the county council in Sweden responsible for healthcare. Fourth, we shall increase the visibility of what we do in public health and preventive medicine. Our expertise in this area allows us to get the right information to the right organisations.

"International collaboration is very important to the institute, and we are going to build on it. Our typical collaboration has been with the West, but recently we have started to look more closely at Asia. Our partnership with Singapore and the National University of Singapore (NUS) has been most productive and grown the fastest."

A joint PhD programme in molecular and genetic epidemiology permits graduate students to get degrees from both universities. "The basis of this joint PhD programme is true complementarity," says KI dean of research Jan Carlstedt-Duke. "Its strong knowledge focus centres on genomics, epidemiology, and patient materials." Additional courses will expand into neurobiology, stem cell biology, host-microbe interaction, and programmed cell death. 2005 will see a new programme on molecular and genetic epidemiology.

Another joint-research venture between KI and NUS includes studying interactivity among treatment, genetics, and environmental factors in postmenopausal breast cancer in Asian women compared to those in the West. Other projects include host-pathogen interaction between intestinal microorganisms and the induction of cancer-cell suicide, immune response to allergens in children, diet-dependent mechanisms of colonic damage and protection, the mechanism of cell-death inhibition in lymphoma, and dental-tissue regeneration using stem cells.

In addition, the Swedish university recently opened an office at NUS to coordinate its present collaborations. "This is the first office we have opened abroad, having determined that Singapore is presently the most strategic place in Asia. We anticipate a longterm European-Asian partnership." He says plans are in the pipeline to set up laboratories on the Singapore campus.

Cancer Research

Sven Pettersson, KI's professor in charge of the Singapore office, hopes to establish win-win interactions that benefit both sides to sustain healthcare and foster life-science research, particularly in the area of breast cancer. A KI researcher working at the Genome Institute of Singapore is conducting genome analysis and identifying prognostics and treatment.

Another focus is angiogenesis or the formation of blood vessels that feed cancer growth. Yihai Cao, KI¡äs researcher in natural medicine, studies green tea as an agent to block this growth and thus cut off the blood supply to tumour cells.

KI was the first university in Scandinavia to transfer research knowledge to industry by developing an innovation strategy. It started a holding company, Karolinska Institutet Holdings, in the early 1990s. It has also established an innovation company and a development firm. These autonomous units help scientists decide whether their results will prove sufficiently worthy to apply for patents or to pursue commercialisation.

The discoverer, the university, and the company split the intellectual property rights equally. With 13 KI spin offs formed, the programme is so successful that researchers at other Swedish universities have come to develop their discoveries. "We need this type of system to commercialise our efforts to find cures for disease," Wallberg-Henriksson asserts.

Science cannot be predicted, she declares, and no one knows where the next big, novel discoveries will come from. "The thing is to be creative and think in new ways, to put things together in a manner not done before - all in an environment that encourages creativity."

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