Dr Asel Sartbaeva speaks to workingmums.co.uk after winning the Woman of the Year Award at the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards for her ground-breaking work developing vaccine ensilication.
Dr Asel Sartbaeva was not encouraged to take up a career in science. Indeed at her university in Kirghizia women who took science were treated as second class students. Yet Asel, now a world-leading chemist based at the University of Bath, has just won the Woman of the Year Award at the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards, an acknowledgement of her ground-breaking work developing vaccine ensilication – stabilising vaccines without the need for refrigeration – an innovation that has come to the fore during the Covid pandemic.
Asel was born in Kirghizia before the country became independent from the former Soviet Union. At the time, the society was fairly patriarchal and girls were not encouraged to go into science. Asel describes herself as an unremarkable school student until the age of 15 when she made a conscious decision to put more effort into her studies. For her last year of school she won a scholarship to go to a private school and received almost one to one teaching in physics and maths which boosted her confidence and led to her opting to study science at university despite the fact that this “raised a lot of eyebrows”.
She was one of only three females in a class of 25 males and was the only Kirghiz woman. “The teachers treated us as second class,” says Asel. “It was a common view that girls would not finish the course anyway and we were not encouraged.”
In her second year, Asel put herself forward for a Science Olympiad in strength of materials [equivalent to materials science], deemed the hardest subject in Soviet education at the time. The national science competition had never had any female entries before. Asel won first prize. However, some people suggested that she had cheated. That upset Asel so much that she entered again the following year. “I won again and proved that I had won on merit and that I wasn’t a fraud,” she says.
She decided around the same time that she wanted to do a PhD, but was shocked by the way PhDs were examined in Kirghizia so she looked at international options, given she spoke good English. The only problem was funding. She spent six or seven years applying for funding while she was completing her undergraduate degree, but it was when she was volunteering at the British Council soon after that she read an advert for a new scholarship at Cambridge University in the New Scientist.
She won the funding and completed her PhD in 2004. At Cambridge she met her husband and after graduating he was offered a position at Arizona State University. Asel moved to Arizona with him and spent six months out of work. Once she had a work permit she won a contract to do computer modelling which was subsequently extended. That experience convinced her to stay in academia and she published several research papers while she was there.
Three years later, she won a fellowship at Oxford and her husband followed her and compromised his career ambitions by taking a lower role at Warwick University in order to be with her. At Oxford, Asel’s first daughter was born in 2010 while she was on a Royal Society Fellowship. It was due to her daughter that she came up with the idea for vaccine ensilication. Her daughter was due her BCG vaccine and Asel asked the doctor why the vaccine needed to be refrigerated. “The doctor explained why and I started thinking about it. I had been studying silica-based materials and I decided to see if they could be applied to preserve vaccines. Opinion among the respected professors I consulted was very divided, some thought it was a stupid idea and others thought it was brilliant,” says Asel.
Her husband encouraged her. In the beginning she was not aware how much of a big problem thermal stability of vaccines was. “I was shocked at the amount of vaccines being wasted. More than 70% at the time,” she says. That number has since fallen to 50%, but it’s still an awful lot of wastage. That is in large part due to inefficient packaging that means that multiple doses are packaged together to keep the temperature stable and doses that are not used immediately on opening have to be thrown away.
Asel explored the idea in depth on return from her six months off on maternity leave. She says that it took her a while to get back into the swing of things after her leave, however, and she didn’t publish for a couple of years afterwards. Publication in academia is how reputations are built, but many women struggle with getting back on track after maternity leave. Indeed, due to her experience first time around, Asel didn’t take time off when her second daughter was born.
As a chemist working on vaccines, she also had to get to grips with new concepts and methods from biology. She now works across many disciplines, with engineers, immunologists and more and her team is very international, stretching from Taiwan to South Africa and the Netherlands. The pandemic has brought the work she is doing to the forefront as more people have become aware of the issues around thermal stability – a particular problem for the Pfizer vaccine which needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees [although it has since emerged that it can survive for two weeks at minus 20 degrees].
The pandemic also showed that ‘where there is a will there is a way’. Before the pandemic vaccines would typically take a decade or more to develop. The Covid vaccines have been developed and trialled within less than a year. “It’s fantastic,” says Asel.
Previously she had been working on children’s vaccines such as MMR and HPV about which there is a lot of data. Ensilication – a method that encases proteins in a resistant silica cage meaning they don’t require refrigeration to maintain their temperature – can take place at the end of the manufacturing process and a full clinical trial is not needed. Refrigeration is a huge issue in many places, including Kirghizia where the Ministry of Health initially said they couldn’t use the Pfizer vaccine due to a lack of specialist equipment.
Asel’s work has won her several awards, including a Wise [Women in Science and Engineering] award in 2017. She says she feels very honoured to win the Woman of the Year award. “I was in such an amazing, inspirational pool of women. It is an honour and a responsibility to finish the work we are doing on ensilication,” she says.
She is aware of the responsibility to be a role model for women in science too and was recently appointed a UN Goodwill Ambassador in Kirghizia with the aim of engaging 1,500 girls at high school in STEM subjects. She is also working on a vaccination project in Kirghizia and with an outreach project with primary school children in the UK. The aim is to get children doing chemistry experiments from the age of four upwards and the materials given to teachers feature a female scientist so they are subtly introduced to the idea that it is normal for women to do science. Citing figures showing girls lose confidence in science subjects before they are six, Asel is convinced of the need to catch them young.
From her own experience at school and university, she is clear about the need to change the narrative. Her own experience shows just what women in science can achieve.