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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Women physicists from Brazil and Tunisia are among five researchers who have been honoured last week in the 2005 L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards.

Each year, a jury headed by a Nobel Prize winner awards five female scientists — one from each continent — US$100,000 for their research. This year's awards coincide with the World Year of Physics and focus on material sciences.

The object of the award, created in 1998, is to help bridge the gender gap in science by bringing international recognition to women who make exceptional contributions to science and technology.

The 2005 winners are distinguished not only for their scientific contributions but also for their leadership roles in scientific committees, academies and societies.

Zohra Ben Lakhdar, a professor at the University of Tunis, Tunisia, and member of the Islamic Academy of Sciences, was chosen for her work in infrared light spectroscopy and its applications in a wide range of fields, from astrophysics to agriculture.

She has developed advanced methods to study the influence of pollutants such as methane and metals, on the quality of air, water and plants. Ben Lakhdar is the first woman to be a director of a university science laboratory in Tunis.

Belita Koiller

Belita Koiller of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil was recognised for her innovative theoretical research on electrons in 'disordered' materials, such as glass and nanostructures.

Koiller's studies in semiconductors and nanosciences have led to important advances in quantum computing. She is the only woman admitted as a full member in physics at the Brazilian Science Academy.

"[The award] is a great incentive, not only for me personally, but also for others' working towards scientific progress in Brazil, including those teaching at universities," Koiller told SciDev.Net. "The message to young women is that physics represents a very concrete career option, with exciting work and rewarding moments ahead."

The other winners were Fumiko Yonezawa of Keio University, Japan, honoured for her pioneering work on semiconductors and liquid metals; Dominique Langevin from the University of Paris-Sud, Orsay, France, a specialist in detergents and emulsions whose findings have been used in the petroleum and nuclear waste treatment industries; and Myriam Sarachik from the City College of New York, United States, for her experiments on electrical conduction between metals and insulators.

L'Oréal and UNESCO also run a fellowship programme to encourage young women researchers in the life sciences. The 2005 list includes researchers from Argentina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Jordan, Nigeria and North Korea.

Each will receive US$20,000 for their doctoral or post-doctoral research projects.

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