In many countries around the world, science is still considered the forte of men, with women usually relegated to the more menial position of lab assistants. Fortunately Thailand is not among those nations, as L'Oreal (Thailand) has once again underlined by announcing it has granted fellowships to five female researchers under its "For Women in Science" 2014 programme.

Now in its 12th year, the programme has recognised three leading lights from Chulalongkorn's science faculty - Assistant Professor Dr Onruthai Pinyakong from the Department of Microbiology, Asst Prof Dr Wanpen Tachaboonyakiat from the Department of Materials Science and Asst Prof Dr Patchanita Thamyongkit from the Department of Chemistry. Also receiving fellowships are Associate Professor Dr Kwanchanok Pasuwat from King Mongkut's University of Technology Thon Buri's Biological Engineering Programme and Department of Chemical Engineering and Dr Pimpa Limthongkul from the National Metal and Materials Technology Centre of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA).

Onruthai was recognised in the Life Science category for her work on the genome analysis of newly isolated petroleum oil-degrading bacteria for developing bacterial-based innovations for environmental remediation.

Recent disasters have made the public aware of the dangers posed by highly toxic contamination from oil spills. Onruthai's research focuses on bioremediation, essentially the use of micro-organisms to remove pollutants from the environment.

"It is thought to be the safest and most effective method for environmental treatment. A number of petroleum oil-degrading bacteria have been isolated from various environmental samples, including from the recent incident at Koh Samet," she says.

"This research aims to analyse a whole genome and the petroleum hydrocarbon metabolic network in oil-degrading bacteria so as to develop ready-to-use bacteria for bioremediation. The oil-degrading novosphingobium sphingomonas from mangrove sediment was used as a bacterial model in this study. Preliminary results revealed the presence of several important genes in the degradation pathways of aromatic and aliphatic compounds. Genes relevant to environmental stress response have also been found. The effects of the surrounding environmental condition on the degrading activity and behaviour of the PCY strain is to be assessed but all these studies will provide insight and useful information for successful application of novosphingobium sp, PCY and related bacteria in bioremediation."

Some of Onruthai's bacterial findings have already been produced for use in the industry.

Kwanchanok's work could be of considerable interest to those suffering from cartilage problems. She earned her fellowship for her research into the construction of chondrocyte cell sheets for the treatment of cartilage defects.

She says her inspiration came from a cousin's knee injury. "Articular cartilage defects can be repaired using chondrocyte [the cells found in healthy cartilage] implantation. Although the clinical outcome is promising, several problems remain including low cell numbers, control of the location of the injected cells and incorporation with the host tissue. Autologous transplantation of a chondrocyte cell sheet could overcome these problems," she says.

Under the process, chondrocytes isolated from cartilage tissue are cultured on a temperature-responsive polymer surface until confluence. At 37 degrees C, the polymer becomes hydrophobic, allowing the cells to attach and grow. To detach the cells, the temperature is simply reduced to initiate the polymer chain extension, lifting the cells away from the culture surface. The resulting cell sheet can be readily transplanted to the damaged site of the cartilage.

"This is a new technology that repairs cartilage defects in the knee using a patient's own cells. The multi-layered chondrocyte cell sheet can be transplanted to the damaged site of the cartilage, forming new cartilage with properties similar to those of the normal one. This treatment option can potentially provide a long-term solution to pain reduction and improvement in knee functions, allowing patients with knee problems to resume their normal activities."

Kwanchanok is hopeful that her treatment will be available in clinics within five years.

Wanpen too is hoping that her new diagnostic tool for leptospirosis will also find its way to hospitals in the not-too-distant future. Recognised in the Material Science category for her design of molecular imprinting polymers for a diagnostic kit, she points to the frequency of leptospirosis in the tropics. Humans usually become infected with the disease through contact with the urine of carrier animals, rodents as well as domestic animals, either directly or through contaminated water or soil. Most infected persons develop symptoms similar to other tropical diseases.

"When a patient with a high fever consults a doctor, it's hard to tell if they are infected with leptospirosis. The diagnostic methods have low sensitivity, low specificity and are complicated and time consuming. By the time the doctor can make a diagnosis the symptoms might be so severe that the patient dies," she says

"In this research, we use molecular imprinting polymer as a new diagnostic method for leptospirosis. Molecular imprinting polymer (MIP) is a functional polymer used for biorecognition systems and lends itself for development in biomimetic sensors. In this research, the leptospira was imprinted within an oligomer and then provided with the polymerization. After elimination of the leptospira, a polymer imprinted with leptospira cavities was obtained. An alternative approach for the development of an antigen responsive diagnostic kit is to use antigen-antibody bindings as reversible cross-links for the polymeric water soluble polymer matrix. The particulate gels can then be identified in response to the target antigen found in the contaminated in blood or urine," she says.

The leptospira imprinting polymer and antigen responsive polymers are expected to be viewed as leptospira diagnostic kits for rapid testing and could well resolve the problems of complex and time-consuming laboratory test procedures

Pimpa was also rewarded in the Material Science category for her study "Mixed Conductive Materials for Battery and Fuel Cell Applications", which focused on improving the properties of the mixed conductive materials (electrons and ions), key factors in determining performance and cost of batteries and fuel cells.

"We synthesised new electrode materials that exhibit superior performance than those in current use. With the aid of computational modelling, we also designed, formulated and fabricated mixed conducting electrodes for batteries and fuel cells with the special microstructures necessary to achieve optimal performance," she explains.

The Chemistry category award went to Patchanita Thamyongkit for her study "Development of Organic Photosensitising Materials for Solar Cells and Photocatalysts". It focuses on the development of suitable organic compounds for solar cells and photocatalysts, such as high stability under working conditions, high absorptivity and efficient current production, by using locally available chemicals, and simple, scalable synthesis methods. These compounds are derivatives of well-known chlorophylls found in green leaves. The aim is not just to come up with efficient photoactive compounds, but also to obtain model compounds for in-depth studies of key factors affecting the performance of solar cells and photocatalysts, leading to the upgrading of research and development of solar technologies in Thailand.

Reference : KUPLUTHAI PUNGKANON. 2014. Our leading ladies of SCIENCE L'OREAL TEAMS UP WITH UNESCO, The Nation. 18 November 2014, p. 1A,16B