WTF Fun Fact 13377 – Tu Youyou and the Nobel Prize

Tu Youyou is a Chinese scientist and pharmaceutical chemist whose groundbreaking work in the discovery of artemisinin revolutionized malaria treatment. Her contributions have had a significant impact on global health, saving countless lives. Interestingly, she sought (and found) the award-winning compound in the corpus of Ancient Chinese Medicine.

According to the Nobel Prize website (cited below): “She is the first mainland Chinese scientist to have received a Nobel Prize in a scientific category, and she did so without a doctorate, a medical degree, or training abroad.”

The training of Tu Youyou

Born in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China, Tu’s interest in medicine may have started after she had to miss two years of school after a bout of tuberculosis.

Tu’s interests eventually landed her at Beijing Medical College. There, she studied pharmacology – a modern science – but with a traditional backbone. At college, she learned how to classify medicinal plants and extract their active ingredients in order to learn more about their chemical structure. She would do this with many of the thousands of plants in the ancient Chinese medical handbooks.

Tu Youyou went to work at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1955, after graduation.

She was first asked by the Chinese government to help find a treatment for malaria during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese soldiers were dying in droves because the disease had become resistant to the standard treatment – chloroquine. But this posed a global health threat. She joined the battle against the disease after Chairman Mao Zedong launched a project called Project 523 in 1967.

Discovering a new malaria treatment

In 1969, Tu became the head of Project 523 and traveled to Hainan Island in southern China. She had to leave her two young children behind for three years to study the disease in its deadly habitat.

After she returned, the scientific work began.

In Beijing, Tu and her team were facing a difficult situation. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested for their potential use in anti-malarial drugs, but none worked. That’s when they returned to the ancient Chinese medical text.

A reference to sweet wormwood (known as Artemisia annua) would turn out to be the key. She had identified it for its ability to help with “intermittent fevers” – a key symptom of malaria. It had been used in China around 400 AD.

Turning nature into medicine

Through meticulous experimentation, Tu Youyou and her team successfully isolated a compound from Artemisia annua that demonstrated potent anti-malarial properties. She named this compound artemisinin. It was very successful in killing malaria in laboratory tests.

After lab tests came clinical trials, which were also successful. The great thing about artemisinin was that it helped kill malaria while minimizing the development of resistance to the medication. Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which combine artemisinin derivatives with other anti-malarial drugs, have since become the gold standard in malaria treatment worldwide.

Tu Youyou’s groundbreaking discoveries earned her numerous accolades and recognition. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the first Chinese scientist to receive this prestigious honor. Her contributions have had a profound impact on global health, particularly in regions heavily burdened by malaria.

Tu Youyou’s impact on the future

Artemisinin and its derivatives have transformed malaria treatment and played a crucial role in reducing the mortality rate of this deadly disease. Their widespread use has significantly contributed to the decline in malaria-related deaths worldwide. Tu Youyou’s work continues to inspire scientists, researchers, and healthcare professionals in the ongoing fight against malaria.

Despite the remarkable success of artemisinin-based therapies, challenges remain in the battle against malaria. The emergence of drug resistance, particularly in Southeast Asia, underscores the need for ongoing research and innovative approaches to combat this persistent global health issue. Scientists continue to study artemisinin and explore novel drug combinations to stay ahead of the evolving malaria parasite.

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Source: Tu Youyou – The Nobel Prize website

WTF Fun Fact 13021 – The Scully Effect

The way we see scientists portrayed in books, movies, and television shows shapes the way we think about science in general. It also affects whether we can relate to the idea of being a scientist. This is especially important for women, who are underrepresented in most science fields. That’s part of what makes the Scully Effect so remarkable.

What is the Scully Effect?

Dana Scully was a character on the iconic television show The X Files. She was one of the first visible examples of a female scientist on a long-running television show. And it turns out that Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of the character changed the way viewers thought about the role of women in science.

According to a blog published by Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WWEST) on Simon Fraser University’s website (cited below), “a phenomenon called ‘The Scully Effect’ has been anecdotally reported among fans of the TV show The X-Files and women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.”

In 2017, WWEST started a project called Media Depictions of Women in STEM “to evaluate how woman characters in STEM are depicted in popular media and how this might shape viewers’ ideas of women’s role in STEM (especially viewers in elementary and secondary school).”

They also reported that “a study by the Geena Davis Institute has examined just how much the character of Dana Scully has influenced girls and women to focus on STEM in their schooling and careers.”

What does the research show?

There were 2,021 participants in the study, in which :
– 63% of women who were familiar with Dana Scully said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM.
– 50% of those same women said Scully increased their interest in STEM.
– 43% of women who were medium to heavy viewers of The X-Files were influenced to consider working in STEM fields by Scully.
– 27% were convinced to actually study STEM.

Gillian Anderson said of “The Scully Effect”:

“At the time that Scully showed up [in 1993], we didn’t see that type of female represented very much at all out in the world of television, which is what we look to more and more as examples of who we are and to help make sense of us as human beings. And so, to suddenly have an appealing, intelligent, strong-minded female who was appreciated by her pretty cool male coworker was an awesome thing to behold, and I think that a lot of young women said, ‘That’s me. I’m interested in that. I want to do that. I want to be that.’”

Other research has shown that children tend to associate men with science around age seven due to cultural depictions of men in books, shows, and films. But when this can be prevented by also showing women as scientists, girls are more likely to believe that science is a general career path open to them as well.  WTF fun facts

Source: “The Scully Effect” — Simon Fraser University