'My lab heard the news about the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine being 90% effective at the same time as everyone else. We cheered and celebrated. It has given us all so much hope. It’s the same type of vaccine that we are working on, so it’s reassured us that we’re going about it in the right way.'
This year has seen the spotlight land on scientists in a way it never has before. What’s more, a number of brilliant women have been at the forefront of the discovery of the vaccine. BioNTech’s co-founder and chief medical officer, Ozlem Tureci (who, with her husband Ugur Sahin, is the most prominent person behind the Pfizer jab), epitomises a new type of celebrity. After decades of headlines about the gender gap in STEM subjects, I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see.
I decided to pursue a career in science after watching a number of badass women – my university professors – lead the way. If I hadn’t had them to look up to, who knows whether I’d have considered it. Seeing people who look like you in a certain field is integral when it comes to giving others the confidence to believe they can do it too. The fact so many girls will be noticing women working on the vaccine gives me hope that we’ll see a more equal split of male and female scientists in future generations. Girls today will be realising it’s a cool, fun and accessible option for them.
I’m part of Team Halo, an initiative started by the UN with the aim of connecting the public to scientists working on the vaccine. I’ve been doing this over TikTok, which sounds silly but it’s a brilliant way to show younger people what we’re doing in the lab and explain how vaccines work. The response has been insane. I recently made a joke video of me knocking over a tube of ‘the vaccine’ and it spilling everywhere. It got 13.2 million views!
I’ve loved seeing the conversations my TikTok videos are provoking: people asking what a vaccine is, how they work, whether they’re safe and whether they’re being rushed; a new demographic is engaging with science. The fact I’ve gained over 160k followers this year goes to show the surge in interest around science. The pandemic has framed the subject in a new light and shown the world how impactful it can be.
I got a lovely email last week from a mother whose young daughter has been watching my videos. She told me they’ve made her daughter want to go into science. The mother thanked me for this positive outcome to the terrible disease, which was just the most wonderful thing to read.
A lot of people assume scientists are racing each other, but there’s been a lot of collaboration. We’re talking to Oxford University about combining our two vaccines and seeing if they work better together. We’re slightly behind the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, as ours was a bit delayed, but we’re getting closer by the day. I’m constantly asked when life will return to normal – I think this time next year. In the meantime, I’m going to keep shouting about how exciting and imperative science is so girls, boys, children and adults realise it and the idea that it’s a boring subject just for men is consigned to history.