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Janssen Award Symposium Spotlights Robert Langer, Biomaterials Pioneer and Beloved Mentor

Published March 06, 2024
By David Freeman

Self-boosting vaccines. Regeneration of diseased tissues and missing limbs. Organs on a chip.

Such life-saving advances in biotechnology—some already in existence and others in the works–took the spotlight on February 8, 2024, when thousands of attendees around the world gathered online for the Paul Janssen Award Symposium in honor of Robert S. Langer, ScD, a renowned chemical engineer and entrepreneur best known for his pioneering work in drug delivery systems and tissue engineering.

Dr. Langer, whose work has led to new treatments for heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and other ailments, is the 2023 recipient of the Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research. Given annually by Johnson & Johnson to a scientist or scientists who have made a “transformational contribution toward the improvement of human health,” the award includes a sculpture and a $200,000 cash prize. Eight of the 23 scientists who have received the award have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Impactful Research from MIT

Hosted by The New York Academy of Scientists and the Dr. Paul Janssen Award, with sponsorship by J&J, the event featured a keynote address by Dr. Langer as well as talks by a trio of eminent researchers who trained with him at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is one of a handful of faculty members who hold the prestigious title of Institute Professor.

The other researchers, who detailed their own research and described Dr. Langer’s contributions as a scientist and mentor, were Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D., professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Connecticut and CEO of the Cato T. Laurencin Institute for Regenerative Engineering; Kristi Anseth, Ph.D., professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Colorado; and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering and medicine at Columbia University.

The event began with remarks from Academy president and CEO Nicholas B. Dirks who hailed Dr. Langer as “a luminary figure” whose work “reflects a visionary spirit that advances science while demonstrating the importance of this research for the public good, inspiring the next generation of innovators and scientists to follow in his path.” Following Professor Dirks, William N. Hait, M.D., Ph.D., Executive Vice President, Chief External Innovation and Medical Officer, and a member of the Johnson & Johnson Executive Committee, praised Dr. Langer for his groundbreaking work at the intersection of biomaterials and biotechnology. He also highlighted Dr. Langer’s remarkable productivity, with over 1,400 patents issued or pending and nearly 1,600 publications.

Blazing a Trail in Biotechnology

Dr. Langer said he was humbled to have received the award and then went on to explain the roundabout way he got his start in biotechnology. After getting a chemical engineering degree from Cornell University in 1974, he said, he turned multiple job offers from oil companies. “I just didn’t want to spend my life doing that,” he recalled. He wrote to universities, medical schools, and hospitals, hoping to land a job in science curriculum development or in medicine—but got nowhere, he said, because he lacked the right pedigree for such work.

Ultimately, Judah Folkman, a Boston surgeon with a reputation for hiring “unusual people” to work in his lab, brought on the young engineer with the task of developing tiny particles that release molecules that block the growth of blood vessels within tumors. Blocking this growth, the “anti-angiogenesis” theory went, would starve tumors of the oxygen and nutrients they need to grow.

Many scientists said the task was impossible. But Dr. Langer was undeterred. “I spent several years working on this, and I literally found several hundred ways to get this to not work,” he said. “But eventually we got one way to get it to work, and I was able to make these tiny little particles.”

The First Anti-angiogenesis Cancer Drug to Win FDA Approval

In a 1976 paper published in the journal Science, Dr. Langer showed that microparticles that deliver macromolecules could indeed inhibit blood vessel formation in tumors. Years later, he patented the technology, and in 2004 Avastin (bevacizumab) became the first anti-angiogenesis cancer drug to win FDA approval. It and other drugs based on the technology are now used to treat various cancers, as well as the vision-robbing eye disorders macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, which are caused by abnormal vascularization in the back of the eye.

Dr. Langer and his collaborators went on to develop polymer materials that could be tailored to release drugs within the body continuously at a specified rate—a functionality that they thought might prove useful for the treatment of brain cancer. As with the earlier anti-angiogenesis research, other researchers expressed skepticism about the safety and effectiveness of these synthetic degradable polymers. But Dr. Langer and his collaborators, including Dr. Laurencin, didn’t give up; in 1996 the FDA approved Gliadel for the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme, the deadly brain malignancy. It was the first new drug approved for the treatment of brain cancer in two decades and the first ever approved for local chemotherapy, according to Dr. Langer.

Applications to Covid

Dr. Langer went on to help in the development of a technology to immunize people against Covid without the need for repeated injections, using 3D printing to fabricate microneedle-equipped transdermal patches that deliver periodic “pulses” of vaccine without the need for repeated booster shots. Ongoing research, he said, will find out if related technologies might be possible to engineer synthetic tissues and organs that would replace diseased ones. “You could combine cells with materials and theoretically make almost any organ,” he said, including skin to treat burns and diabetic ulcers.

Dr. Langer said, “I’m incredibly proud of my students, who received all kinds of awards and great jobs”—and the three speakers returned the compliment to their former mentor.

An “unmatched record of brilliance”

Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic said Dr. Langer has an “unmatched record of brilliance.” With his more than 400,000 citations and 1,600 papers, she said, he is “the fourth-most cited scientist of any kind in the world and the most cited engineer in human history…About 400 of his 1,000 trainees are today faculty at prime universities around the world.”

Said Dr. Anseth, “He was always very encouraging. To this day I’m inspired by his ability to be available. Usually, his response time is in minutes and not hours.”

Dr. Anseth said she had a longstanding interest not only in developing new disease-fighting biomaterials but also in exploiting patient-specific cells or tissues with the goal of moving from off-the-shelf drugs into personalized, sex-specific medicine. “A lot of times in medicine, we scale down products, so we think of a woman as a small man…but that is not the case at all.”

Different Affects for Males and Females

Many ailments affect males and females differently, she said, including mental illness, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. She recounted her and her collaborators’ work on valvular heart disease in particular, an ailment that traditionally has required surgery to replace the diseased heart valve to restore cardiac function. Men’s aortic valves tend to develop calcified deposits, she said, whereas women’s tend to thicken and become more fibrotic. Dr. Anseth wondered: Could valvular disease be treated medically rather than surgically? Should women with valve disease get different treatment than men?

Research showed that when cells taken from diseased valves were cultured in the lab, the genes expressed by the cells changed markedly, thus making it hard to understand the disease process in vivo. But when the cells were placed on newly developed hydrogel materials rather than the hard plastics typically used for cell culture, she said, they behaved as they did inside the body. That gave the researchers a good model for studying valvular disease—which, in turn, might help lead the way to drugs that could transform diseased heart cells into healthy, quiescent ones.

“We designed in our hydrogel systems ways that could recapitulate these [sex-linked] differences where the females would get lots of fibrosis and collagen and the males would get much more calcification,” she said. “And we can use this for screening different types of drugs.”

Organs on a Chip

Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic described recent work with human stem cells, including their use in tissue regeneration research and the creation of so-called organs on a chip, which emulate organ function outside the body. Recently, she’s been involved in research aiming to find develop a system for restoring the health of human donor lungs so that more can be implanted and fewer discarded. Studies with pig and human lungs have shown that it is possible to improve the performance of diseased lungs, she said.

Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic concluded her remarks by recounting a list of 10 life lessons she had learned from Dr. Langer. Among these were: “dream big and take big risks; work on something you’re passionate about and things take care of themselves; pursue science that can benefit people; and work hard and be strong and never give up.”

Dr. Laurencin said Dr. Langer had taught him not to confuse activity for accomplishment, and that “everything you do should be extremely meaningful.” He praised Dr. Langer for inspiring generations of researchers and helping them balance their research with family life. “Bob Langer rubs people the right way,” he said.

To watch this event, visit https://events.nyas.org/DPJA (available until May 9, 2024).

The Adventures of the Nutritional Kingdom Project

Winner of the Junior Academy Challenge – Spring 2023 “Healthy Snacks”

Team members: Natalie O. (Team Lead) (United States), Lara K. (Jordan), Connie H. (United States), Mariem M. (Egypt), Ibrahim S. (United States), Amena S. (Jordan)

Mentor: Leticia Mendoza-Martínez (Mexico)

Childhood obesity has become a major public health issue around the world. In the United States alone, 1 in 5 children is overweight or obese– a particularly prevalent issue in the Hispanic community, where lack of access to affordable, healthy food along with other socioeconomic factors create major disadvantages. For the Junior Academy’s 2023 Spring Innovation Challenge on “Healthy Snacks”, six students formed an international team to develop “The Adventures of the Nutritional Kingdom”– a campaign to encourage healthy eating aimed specifically at Hispanic children in the southern U.S. Collaborating across continents and time zones, the students met online to create the winning project. “Cooperation enhances the goal because when a group from different countries of the world gathers to work on one goal, this undoubtedly confirms its importance,” Meriem says.

According to the CDC, 26.2% of Hispanic youth are obese. Childhood obesity can have broad consequences, from long-term health implications like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, to psychological impacts like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, (often related to bullying). Before devising their solution, the team conducted a survey of Hispanic families in both Spanish and English to help them identify a novel approach. Natalie assumed the role of Team Lead. “I was in charge of overseeing everyone’s collaboration efforts, notifying team members of their weekly tasks, and was the head website developer for the team. It was a surreal experience being a leader of such intelligent and motivated students. Our ideas were productive, and our final results are absolutely spectacular,” she says. “I learned valuable leadership and time management skills that will help me in future years to come.”

To reach the target audience, the team created an interactive, kid-friendly website with a vibrant jungle theme and gender-neutral animal characters, as well as a series of articles providing useful information on healthy nutrition and eating disorders. They also explored recipes, recreating a popular snack using alternative, healthier ingredients, and created an app with 13 different games that incorporated important nutritional information.

Meriem worked for hours on developing the games, using vivid colors attractive to young users. “I contributed by writing four articles on healthy eating habits and summarizing the problem and background of our solution,” explains Connie. “I also researched (former First Lady) Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, alternatives to unhealthy snacks and previous initiatives introducing healthy snacks.” Ibrahim conducted research and contributed extensive data on physical exercise and hydration. “I read articles and answered questions such as how people got their nutrients during the Great Depression, foods that can be cooked at low temperatures as well as foods that keep hydration in your body and more,” he says. Among her many contributions, Amena focused on how to reach the target audience for the app. “I provided my knowledge and skills in business and marketing the product to help us reach children, whether they were high or low-income children, as well as designing the product’s packaging,” she explains.

The team is excited to see their carefully considered, multi-faceted project create social impact, hoping to find ways to even further reduce mental stress and health problems among Hispanic children. In particular, they want to make their website available in Spanish as well as English to expand its reach. “This experience has fostered a deeper understanding of the power of teamwork and its capacity for optimizing collaborative efforts between human agents,” says Lara. “Future pursuits will undoubtedly involve enhanced focus on cooperation among individuals to promote more effective outcomes.”


The Junior Academy was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.

Ross Prize Symposium 2024

The annual Ross Prize in Molecular Medicine is established in conjunction with the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research and Molecular Medicine. The winner will be an active investigator having produced innovative, paradigm-shifting research that is worthy of significant and broad attention in the field of molecular medicine. We expect this individual will continue to garner recognition in future years, and that their current accomplishments reflect a rapidly rising career trajectory of discovery and invention. 

An App to Improve Health for Underserved, Rural Communities

A person sits in a boat in a dried lakebed.

Meet the winning team from the Fall 2022 Junior Academy Challenge, “Public Health Impacts of Climate Change.”

Published December 21, 2023

In Fall 2022, 42 international teams of high school students participated in a Junior Academy Challenge to find innovative solutions for the multiple impacts of climate change on human health.

The winning team, MiHealth — comprised of Betsy D. (United States, Team Lead), Joanna A. (United States), Mehmet A. (United States), Grace Chenxin L. (United States), Brennan C. (United States), and Rowayda A. (Egypt) — opted to focus on the Miami area’s prolonged exposure to heatwaves, chosen because of Miami’s high level of poverty in underserved communities with limited access to quality healthcare. The team worked under the guidance of mentor Raga Krishnakumar (United States).

In particular, the team noted that in the South Florida area, where access to healthcare is acutely below state and national averages, African Americans and Latinos are among the most underserved communities. Southern U.S. states like Florida face a growing number of days in which temperatures reach above 100oF.

Miami Dade county, for example, currently endures 50 very hot days per year, but this number is expected to rise to 91 within the next thirty years. According to the Center for Disease Control, exposure to extremely high temperatures increases risks for patients suffering from hypertension, heart disease, angina and stroke.

“I chose this challenge because I intend to pursue medicine and felt that it connected well with climate change,” explains Mehmet. The health risks caused by climate change also resonated with fellow team member Brennan, who was taking part in his third Junior Academy challenge. “I believe health and climate change are a huge problem in the world. Everyone is affected by it and finding solutions as quickly and efficiently as possible should be the world’s priority,” he says.

Developing an App for Underserved Communities

The team designed an ingenious, easy-to-use app called “MiHealth (Miami Health)” that delivers telemedicine services to underserved communities, particularly in rural, poor or crowded areas in southern Florida where access to quality healthcare is limited. Team Lead Betsy found the experience of cooperating remotely with other students very rewarding.

“I have always been researching and wanting to make a change in the world through science and medicine. These passions have led me to take on the challenge of solving public effects of climate change”, she explains.

Aside from limited access to medical professionals, the team also identified the lack of access to ambulances or air-conditioned transportation as a key issue. Stepping outside in the searing heat may pose a significant danger for vulnerable patients. Cost, too, is a major concern for socio-economically disadvantaged communities.

Developing the app required hard work and intense consultations among team members, supported by their mentor. The app offers pre-hospitalization diagnosis, information on preventative measures, and a telecardiology feature to monitor heat-induced heart disease.

Utility Beyond Southern Florida

It also monitors local temperature and links users to medical resources available in their vicinity. While their project focused on the Miami area, the team believes their innovative approach could be rolled out nationwide to help vulnerable populations gain access to healthcare resources.

“Working on the public health impacts of climate change has greatly expanded my knowledge, particularly about heat waves, their causes, and how they can affect the human body in Miami and other parts of the world,” says Rowayda.

“It’s been an insane journey,” says Joanna. “Through constant zoom meetings, coding sessions, and researching, I’ve not only fostered my current skills, but I’ve learned new ones and created new memories with such amazing people.”

MiHealth team members were delighted that their hard work paid off and their innovative solution was chosen as the winning project.

“I’m incredibly grateful to NYAS and the Junior Academy for offering a global platform for collaborating on such critical issues,” says Grace. “Knowing that we can change the world together is unbelievable, one-of-a-kind, and empowering!”


The Junior Academy was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.

Takeda and The New York Academy of Sciences Announce 2024 Innovators in Science Award Winners

  • 2024 Award Celebrates Outstanding Research in Cancer Immunology
  • Winners Discovered Novel Connections Between the Immune System and Cancer
  • Recipients Each Receive Unrestricted USD 200,000 Awards

OSAKA, Japan, and CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, December 5, 2023 – Takeda (TSE:4502/NYSE:TAK) and The New York Academy of Sciences today announced the winners of the 2024 Innovators in Science Award for their excellence in, and commitment to, innovative science that has significantly advanced the field of research in cancer immunology. Each winner receives an unrestricted prize of USD 200,000.

The 2024 Senior Scientist winner is Robert D. Schreiber, Ph.D., the Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Immunology and director of The Bursky Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Schreiber is an international leader in the fields of tumor immunology and cytokine biology. His early work was foundational in characterizing the role of cytokines in promoting immune responses to cancer. Dr. Schreiber pioneered the concept of “cancer immunoediting,” which describes how the immune system can induce, promote and prevent cancer. He also identified a novel subset of immune cells that interfere with cancer immunotherapy.

“I began researching the connection between the immune system and cancer more than 40 years ago. Along the way my research has benefitted from the contributions of more than 70 colleagues, technicians and trainees who have helped build on both our small discoveries and setbacks to make connections that are now transforming cancer research and treatment,” said Dr. Schreiber. “Scientific research is rewarding even when it takes decades to see results, which is why this award is so meaningful to me.”

The 2024 Early-Career Scientist winner is Elham Azizi, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and the Herbert and Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Cancer Data Research at Columbia University. Dr. Azizi is recognized for developing a suite of computational tools and models that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to characterize immune profiles in the tumor microenvironment. Her novel machine learning algorithms are applied to data from genomic and imaging technologies, guiding improved and personalized cancer therapies. Dr. Azizi’s work has helped identify immune components involved in anti-tumor responses and characterize immune states that promote tumor progression and response to immunotherapy. Her innovative models have identified, for the first time, determinants of immunotherapy response in leukemia.

“This award is a significant recognition of our efforts to push the boundaries of cancer immunology through innovations in statistical machine learning,” said Dr. Azizi. “The Innovators in Science Award motivates me, my team and the broader community to continue on the path of blending multiple fields to find creative cancer immunology solutions. This award will allow me and my team to forge new collaborations and explore high-risk and ambitious directions in our mission to help patients.”

“We are inspired by the groundbreaking work of Dr. Schreiber and Dr. Azizi to deepen our understanding of both the immune response to cancer and immunotherapies,” said Andrew Plump, M.D., Ph.D., president of research & development at Takeda. “There has been remarkable progress in treating cancer with immunotherapies, thanks to the advances of these researchers and others. Takeda proudly supports the Innovators in Science Award to honor researchers who share in our goal to improve lives through the relentless pursuit of science.”

“Cancer is the second-leading cause of death worldwide. We are proud to join Takeda to champion pioneering medical researchers around the world who seek to harness the power of the body’s own immune system to fight cancer,” said Nicholas Dirks, president and chief executive officer of The New York Academy of Sciences. “The 2024 Innovators in Science Award winners are using AI, computational tools and groundbreaking methods to fight cancer and advance the field of cancer immunology. We congratulate the winners and eagerly await their future discoveries.”

The 2024 winners will be honored at the Innovators in Science Award ceremony and symposium in April 2024 in Boston. For more information, visit TakedaInnovators.com.


About the Innovators in Science Award

Established in 2016, the Innovators in Science Award grants two unrestricted prizes of USD 200,000 each award cycle: one to an early-career scientist and the other to a well-established senior scientist who have distinguished themselves for the creative thinking and impact of their research. The Innovators in Science Award is a limited submission competition in which research universities, academic institutions, government, or non-profit institutions, or equivalent from around the globe with a well-established record of scientific excellence are invited to nominate their most promising early-career scientists and their most outstanding senior scientists. The therapeutic focus rotates each year. The 2024 focus is cancer immunology. Prize winners are determined by a panel of judges, independently selected by The New York Academy of Sciences, with expertise in these disciplines. The New York Academy of Sciences administers the Award in partnership with Takeda. For more information, visit TakedaInnovators.com.

About Takeda

Takeda is focused on creating better health for people and a brighter future for the world. We aim to discover and deliver life-transforming treatments in our core therapeutic and business areas, including gastrointestinal and inflammation, rare diseases, plasma-derived therapies, oncology, neuroscience and vaccines. Together with our partners, we aim to improve the patient experience and advance a new frontier of treatment options through our dynamic and diverse pipeline. As a leading values-based, R&D-driven biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Japan, we are guided by our commitment to patients, our people and the planet. Our employees in approximately 80 countries and regions are driven by our purpose and are grounded in the values that have defined us for more than two centuries. For more information, visit www.takeda.com.

Media Contacts:

The New York Academy of Sciences

Kamala Murthy
Kmurthy@nyas.org

Takeda

Japanese Media:
Yuko Yoneyama
yuko.yoneyama@takeda.com

U.S. and International Media:
Kerry Bryant
kerry.bryant@takeda.com

Neuroscience and Music VII: Connecting with Music Across the Life Span

Continuing a long-running collaboration between Ann NY Acad Sci and the community of scientists in the cross-domain fields of neuroscience and music, this collection presents papers invited from participants of the 2021 Neurosciences and Music conference in Aarhus, Denmark, organized by the Mariani Foundation. Several previous collections of papers have been published in Ann NY Acad Sci, including volumes 1423, 1337, 1252, 1169, 1060, and 999. See https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/toc/10.1111/(ISSN)1749-6632.neuroscience-music-vii.

Cooley’s Anemia

The papers in this virtual issue were invited from speakers of the Eleventh Cooley’s Anemia Symposium, held at The New York Academy of Sciences on October 17-20, 2022. The symposium brought together basic scientists, clinical investigators, and clinicians to review and discuss recent research for thalassemia syndromes. Several previous Annals issues have presented papers from past Cooley’s Anemia Symposia, all in collaboration with The New York Academy of Sciences. See https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/toc/10.1111/(ISSN)1749-6632.cooleys-anemia.

Evolution and Epigenetics

The 2022 symposium entitled “How Evolution Learnt to Learn – Epigenetics of Experienced Context” and this virtual issue follow on published volumes of previous symposia: Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. Vol. 1178 (Natural Genetic Engineering and Natural Genome Editing) in 2008, Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. Vol. 1341 (DNA Habitats and Its RNA Inhabitants) in 2014, and Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci Vol. 1447 (Evolution — Genetic Novelty/Genomic Variations by RNA-Networks and Viruses) in 2018.

The symposia were organized by Guenther Witzany. The 2022 symposium included 50 experts to discuss epigenetic marking and its regulatory impact on transgenerational inheritance, cell fate and identity, morphology, physiology, genetic instructions, neuroepigenetic reprogramming, memory and learning, physical and mental disease, immunity, and the roles of persistent viruses and their co-opted and exapted defectives such as non-coding RNA networks and mobile genetic elements. The symposium took place on July 6-10, 2022 at the St. Virgil Conference Center in Salzburg.

Head administrator Hiltrud Oman managed all the details before and during the meeting; Andreas Oman, Martin Koller, and Tanja Walorz assisted directly at the conference center; and Land Salzburg and Stadt Salzburg supported the symposium. Heidi Vereno performed as the harpist at the conference dinner.

See https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/toc/10.1111/(ISSN)1749-6632.evolution-and-epigenetics.

Getting Out the Facts on Public Health

A tablet with a medical application pulled up on the screen.

All-Girl Team Wins Junior Academy Challenge Combating Public Health Misinformation.


Collaborating across borders, U.S.-based student Angel and Asmaa from Jordan won New York Academy of Sciences’ Junior Academy Innovation Challenge with a text-based campaign designed to combat online misinformation and provide young people with accurate facts about public health issues. The two participants were part of an all-female STEM team that also included participants from Lebanon and Oman.


Angel, aged 15, who lives in upstate New York, and Asmaa, aged 16, based in Amman, Jordan, have never met in person– but the two high school students got to know each other well over an intense 10-week period in the spring.

Both passionate about science, the teenagers collaborated online, alongside other team members from Lebanon and Oman, to compete in New York Academy of Sciences’ Junior Academy Innovation Challenge, “Combating Misinformation about Public Health.” The Junior Academy is a virtual, international network of students aged 13-17 who have a deep interest in STEM and work together to solve society’s greatest challenges (“Innovation Challenges”).

For Angel and Asmaa, the experience has been uplifting– not only because their team, “Girls Combating Misinformation,” won the challenge (chosen among 11 teams that submitted final presentations).

“Being part of this challenge has definitely impacted me, in my coursework at school, in other areas in my life. I feel better getting my voice out. I have become more of a scientific thinker overall because you have to come up with a creative solution that attracts people and offers a different approach. I feel I have grown as a person through this project,” said Angel.

Empowering Girls in STEM

Both participants acknowledge that girls sometimes lack the confidence to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

“Girls may think they don’t have enough knowledge to get into STEM. Sometimes, the community places the bar too high, although this may not just affect girls,” said Asmaa.

Globally, women are still under-represented in STEM-related fields, both in education and as practitioners. On average, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women.[1] In general, fewer women than men study life sciences, and the gender gap is even wider in fields like engineering and maths.

Diversity is important for the future of science, which is why the Junior Academy seeks to empower young women in STEM and to encourage them to consider careers in these fields. In 2021-2022, its programs had 63 percent female participation.

At the initial stage, the teammates, coming from diverse backgrounds, assessed each other’s strengths and abilities, communicating through the Junior Academy’s Launchpad online platform.

“We all had different interests coming in, then we started narrowing them down. It was very useful to have their insights, different perspectives. It really helped the project blossom,” said Angel.

She praised the team spirit that developed among the participants as they allocated tasks and responsibilities and started developing and testing their ideas.

Developing an Idea

Before coming up with their innovative approach against misinformation, the team researched how information on vaccines, cancer, tobacco, drugs, mental health, nutrition, and other health conditions is disseminated online. They immersed themselves in their assignment, meeting online every Saturday, reaching out to experts, and carrying out surveys among their peers to gain a better understanding of the problem.

“A lot of misinformation about health affects children and teens through social media,” reflected Asmaa, who said she boosted her research skills during the challenge. “When you start researching a topic, you want to get to the root of it.”

Eventually, the students opted to use text messages as the most impactful way to reach young people, and designed a campaign that would deliver daily, accurate facts on health issues, focusing particularly on correcting misleading information on topics trending on social media. To test their approach, they encouraged peers to sign up to receive these reliable health messages.

“We were stoked to have won the challenge,” said Angel, who suggested to her teammates that they continue working on the project and implement their concept. “We’ll do some outreach and tell the world about our solution.”

Angel and Asmaa said working as a team on this assignment has taught them a lot and strengthened their skills in communication, writing, leadership and problem solving.

“I feel that all of us have gained more confidence in ourselves, and we’ll push to end the STEM gender divide,” Angel says.

Inspired to Inspire

Having a supportive mentor who shared her own expertise and provided guidance and encouragement along the way contributed to their success, Asmaa pointed out. Asmaa believes role models are important, particularly for girls who may find STEM topics daunting.

She credits a charismatic science teacher at her school for kindling her own passion for maths and biology.

“I hope one day I will be able to inspire others to do what they want. To students interested in participating in a challenge, especially girls, I would say: It is a great experience. Don’t hesitate; just go for it. We all make mistakes and we learn from them. That’s how we grow,” said Asmaa.

For teenagers who have not found such inspiration at school, she believes that participating in the Junior Academy would be an exciting way to explore STEM fields.

Asmaa says her involvement in the project has made her more self-assured, and has reinforced her desire to study medicine. Angel, whose primary interests were psychology and the human mind, says the project has sparked her interest in a new field. “After this challenge on public health, I feel I want it to be part of my future,” she said.

The Junior Academy was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.

[1] UNESCO, Women in Science 2019


A version of this story was originally published on the Stevens Initiative’s website here.