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Sustainability: Sustaining the World's Organisms

Adriana Jalba
© Corbis for L'Oréal Foundation
Adriana Jalba

At first, Adriana Jalba wanted to be an artist. Growing up in the Romanian countryside as a forest ranger's daughter brought constant contact with nature. "My excellent biology and botany teachers influenced me, too," Adriana remembers. By age 18, she recognized her passion for biology. She did become an 'artist' —with plants.

In her first job, research assistant at Bucharest Institute of Biology, Adriana gravitated towards conservation projects. Finding research funding in Romania was difficult. "I wanted to do new things, so I searched for a grant in Europe." In 2003, she received a UNESCO-L'Oréal fellowship and a grant from Denmark's National Environmental Institute, to study effects of environmental stress on thyme.

For her Botany Ph.D., specializing in rare species' environmental issues, Adriana accepted a fellowship to the University of Brussels in 2004, the year she was married. Her daughter was born in 2010. "Juggling family and work is sometimes difficult," admits Adriana. She's grateful for her husband's constant support, "even helping me at the university with experiments and equipment." In 2010, when she completed her degree, he joked, "They should give me a Ph.D. also—I know all about your work!"

By 2007, Adriana realized, "I didn't want to spend so much time in the lab anymore. I decided to look for a private sector job." She's now an Environmental Health and Safety specialist for Huntsman, an international chemical company. "I have great responsibility about the safety of our products. It's very important to me that my company complies with all regulations, and that people are safer because I do a good job, with real impact on lives."

Adriana encourages young women to consider science as a career. "If you want to change direction in your field, it's easier than in other jobs. It's really exciting and stimulating—every day you're doing something else."

She enjoys working in both English and French, at an international company. As a researcher, "Sometimes I didn't even get to wear my dresses or good shoes—just always jeans and lab coats." The private sector pays better than universities, she adds. Adriana loves living in Brussels. With its vibrant international community, "I meet people from all over the world. It's terrific. We get great food …. and the best chocolates."

Solving Water Problems

Melodie Naja
© Deroubaix/Gamma for L'Oréal Foundation
Melodie Naja

Meals matter to Melodie Naja, too. "At our family dinners, conversations get complicated," confides Melodie, whose four sisters are also Ph.D. scientists. Growing up in Lebanon, constantly asking questions about nature, she decided to find answers herself.

With her Environmental Physical Chemistry doctorate, from Université Henri Poincaré in France, Melodie worked for the Lebanese University for two years. "It was very hard. With no research funds, you had to fight for equipment and tools." Determined to be a researcher, she's since worked in Canada, Singapore, and France, before settling down in the United States. "I call myself a Scientist Without Borders," Melodie jokes. "Each time, I tackle different problems. I helped a French mining company reduce pollution from heavy metals." As a UNESCO-L'Oréal fellow in Canada and at Singapore's National University, she pioneered the use of algae in decreasing pollution.

At McGill University in Montreal, she investigated how algae could combat water pollution. "It's hard for researchers to go from a lab to the business sector," Melodie observes. "After our pilot projects to develop a commercial product using algae, we set up a small company. It's been fascinating."

While at McGill, Melodie visited Everglades National Park in Florida. "I loved it, and it made me realize that I was ready for bigger challenges." In 2008, she joined the Everglades Foundation as a Water Quality Scientist. She collaborates with Florida International University to detect Everglades' pollution levels through nanotechnology. "The Everglades became the world's biggest environmental laboratory. We're helping to develop stronger environmental regulations to clean up the entire ecosystem." Sometimes, Melodie even has to testify before judges about environmental issues.

With the Everglades Foundation, Melodie is developing fellowship and internship programs. "I get to teach young scientists eager to learn more about the Everglades. Recently, we organized special seminars for reports on our projects. The young girls in our program are brilliant, and so enthusiastic—that's what I love. It's not an easy path, but science is a fascinating field. Be passionate. Never give up," she advises them.

Happy on a small team (four scientists), Melodie is publishing more and becoming known for her Everglades expertise. She loves being outside in all of the National Park's different areas. "It's so exciting here! The Everglades is such a vast ecosytem, you can't control anything—it's just pure nature."

A Love of the Lab

Unlike Melodie, Eugenia del Pino Veintimilla, a L'Oréal-UNESCO Award laureate, prefers lab work. She entered Pontifical Catholic University (PUCE) in Quito, Ecuador without a specific study plan. The modern laboratory equipment of their impressive new Kennedy Science Program immediately aroused her curiosity.

"I don't like parasites or bacteria or dissecting. But two biology professors detected I was good in science, and encouraged me," Eugenia remembers. She also studied German, and soon faced a difficult decision, between a two-year language fellowship in Germany or four-year science fellowship in the United States. She chose science, and loved her graduate studies at Vassar College and Emory University. "Vassar also helped me to grow up; the cultural difference from Ecuador was very strong."

In 1972, her first (and only) teaching position, at PUCE, didn't provide research facilities. Eager to continue her research, Eugenia needed a local organism to study. In the university's garden, she quicky found an unusual species: a marsupial tree frog. The female has a pouch, like a backback, for carrying its babies. Studying the marsupial frog's unique biology became her lifelong research focus.

Eugenia del Pino Veintimilla
© Micheline Pelletier for L'Oréal Foundation
Eugenia del Pino Veintimilla

"In the U.S., I studied developmental biology and learned names of frogs from books. Back [home], I actually saw them. My horizons broadened," says Eugenia, professor of Biological Sciences. "When I started at PUCE, the combined study of evolutionary and developmental biology was new. Today, more scientists use this approach. It's now called 'Evo-Devo', and it helps build a greater understanding of evolution." Evo-Devo compares the long-term development of different plants and animals.

During her first year at PUCE, some of Eugenia's students joined the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands to assist with research there. When they returned, Eugenia helped them analyze their data. "I guess I did a good job. The Darwin director suggested I come to the Galapagos, too." Since then, she's accompanied several students, guiding their field research.

The richness of Galapagos island life helped Eugenia appreciate nature's biodiversity. "I'm not a field biologist, but when I study a particular frog's early development, I realize that may be important for future conservation measures. Your work in science depends on you—you can decide what you want to learn. No matter what specific area a young scientist trains in, she may still be able to contribute to preserving our planet."

Working in Rural Villages

"I don't discover—I research plants that were never studied before," declares Gloria Montenegro, who shares Eugenia's commitment to plant preservation. Half her research subjects grow only in Chile. "Although we have to harvest them in order to study them, we need to conserve and protect them."

As a child, Gloria loved climbing Chile's mountains, learning names of plants and animals she'd collect. Today, she and her students work closely with women in mountain villages. "We teach them to manage endangered plants to be sustainable—when to harvest, how much, best ways to pick plants, and how to air-dry to preserve chemical properties. Later we give them a diploma. It's very rewarding," says Gloria, professor of Agronomy and Forestry Science at Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago and a L'Oréal-UNESCO Award laureate. She also trains rural bee-keepers in pollination, and how to locate and protect their hives. "With my students, we do the basic science, publish the papers—but our relationship with the local people is what's very unique," she feels. The bee-keepers call her "The Queen Bee." Thanks to her discoveries, they export their honey and earn a living.

Gloria Montenegro
© Micheline Pelletier for L'Oréal Foundation
Gloria Montenegro

Gloria's patents include a honey-based natural fungicide she calls "safe enough to eat," and a medicinal plant extract that may help stop cancer cells from growing. She's proud to have over $1,500,000 in research grants, some specifically for developing products.

Now, Gloria tells young scientists, "Never forget the ethics and truth of science. Do it at the highest level. Try to do something for your own country." Back in 1970, starting a science career in Latin America was challenging. As the only woman in her university's Ecology Department, she fought for recognition. "Competition makes you stronger," affirms Gloria, who also had a young family then. "It helped that I married one of my professors. When I had to stay late in the lab, he understood. The issue is not to be the best at everything. It's to find your own comfort in dealing with it all. I need to feel passion for what I'm doing, and also have fun."

What is Sustainability?

The practice of sustainability protects a plant or animal species, by trying to maintain its environment and the natural resources it needs for long-term survival. Keeping all sorts of different organisms healthy requires stabilizing the complex relationships among all living things, including humans. Sustainability science is quite a new field and brings together the biological, physical, and social sciences, from both local and global perspectives. Sustainability scientists build a dynamic bridge between knowledge and action, seeking practical solutions for important environmental problems, like pollution, water shortages, or endangered species.