Female Scientists

Female Scientists grants 2016


For the sixth straight year, the Hasselblad Foundation is allocating funding to female researchers in the natural sciences.

This year, the SEK 1 million grants have been awarded to Merima Hasani, assistant professor at the department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Chalmers University of Technology, and Ulrika Islander, researcher at the Department of Rheumatology and Inflammation Research, University of Gothenburg.

‘I just screamed, it was so awesome. It’s a prestigious award and a great acknowledgement of me as a researcher. It’s also a grant that offers a lot of freedom,’ says Islander.

 Ulrika Islander


Awarded for Her Research on Oestrogen and the Immune System
The female sex hormone oestrogen is often associated with breast cancer. But the hormone may also have a protective effect in diseases such as arthritis and osteoporosis. Ulrika Islander, immunologist at the University of Gothenburg, studies how oestrogen affects the immune system and various immune cells. She has just been awarded SEK 1 million from the Hasselblad Foundation.


When the phone rang and Ulrika Islander understood that she is one of two recipients of the Hasselblad Foundation’s special grant for female scientists, she almost lost control of herself.

‘I just screamed, it was so awesome. It’s a prestigious award and a great acknowledgement of me as a researcher. It’s also a grant that offers a lot of freedom.’

In June, Islander and her family will leave for Switzerland, where she will spend one year as a visiting researcher at the prestigious Institute of Immunobiology, Medizinisches Forschungszentrum at Kantonsspital St Gallen.

‘It’s a great opportunity. I feel so excited about the new possibilities to expand my international scientific networks and further develop myself as a scientist and research leader.’


Oestrogen Protects against Disease

Islander carries out research in the intersection between endocrinology and immunology, and she is trying to understand how the two systems interact. A little over a decade ago, she wrote her doctoral thesis on how signalling through oestrogen receptors affects various cells in the immune system.

She is particularly interested in a specific type of cell called Th17. This is a type of immune cell that produces a protein (IL17) that in turn serves an important function in the body’s defence against certain bacteria and fungal infections.

‘But these cells also trigger the development of some diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis. These diseases are closely interconnected with each other. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis are also affected by osteoporosis,’ she says.

Right now, she is studying how oestrogen affects the immune system and various immune cells, such as Th17. Her research team was recently able to show that oestrogen seems to inhibit the ability of these immune cells to move from lymph nodes to joints.

‘We have data to suggest that this transfer mechanism is affected by oestrogen. But we need more experiments to be able to confirm this. It is important to stress that we are dealing with basic research and that we still have a long way to go.’


Learn New Methods

If the finding turns out to be correct and things go Islander’s way, the vision is for her research to contribute to the development of new treatment methods, where the immunological mechanisms involved in the protective effect of oestrogen in rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis can be used as targets for new treatments.

‘But a lot of work remains and it will take a long time before patients can benefit from our research. Again, we are dealing with basic research and trying to understand the beneficial effects of oestrogen on the immune system and the mechanisms involved. Once this has been accomplished, we will be able to move on and focus on specific proteins and ultimately develop effective treatment methods,’ says Islander.

At the moment, she is looking forward to her year as a visiting researcher in Switzerland and the opportunity to learn new advanced immunological methods that will help move her research forward.

‘When I return, I want to implement the tools and methods at our lab in Gothenburg and continue working with the specific issues from here,’ says Islander.


Merima Hasani


Building Blocks from Trees Provide Materials of the Future

More efficient use of trees could drastically reduce our dependence on fossil resources and oil-based products. Merima Hasani, researcher at Chalmers University of Technology, is developing chemical tools for extracting and modifying building blocks from trees. She has just been awarded a research grant worth SEK 1 million from the Hasselblad Foundation.


Merima Hasani is assistant professor at the department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Chalmers University of Technology. She works in an interdisciplinary field where cooperation and international engagement are of key importance.

‘The grant will make a major difference, I’m so happy! The moment I found out about it, I could see how the doors to long-awaited collaborations and contacts with
internationally renowned research groups suddenly opened.’

She was born in Bosnia and came with her family to Sweden in 1995. She attended upper secondary school in Varberg and was interested in the natural sciences and chemistry already as a kid.

‘I knew early on that I wanted to study at Chalmers.’


Biomaterials of the Future

The transition to a bio-based and sustainable society is urgent. According to Hasani, we could become much better at using the widely available biomass from trees in this transition process.

‘Take for example cellulose fibres. You can do so much more with them than just produce paper products and textiles. Trees have an abundance of structures and building blocks that could become useful in the development of the next generation of biomaterials.’

Examples of possible areas in which the building blocks of trees (small molecules, polymers, nanostructures and fibres) may become useful include the production of bio-plastics, composites, carbon fibre materials, adhesives, cosmetics and medicines.

‘Cellulose structures are already being used in drug development. This is a big and exciting area of development,’ says Hasani.


Does this imply a risk of mass felling of trees in order to access the building blocks?

‘No, I don’t think so. We won’t need to use a lot more trees than today. Rather, it’s a matter of using the trees more efficiently. Today, we cut down trees to produce paper and energy. But we could get so much more out of the trees if we really took advantage of all the components and structural variations in the cell walls of the trees.’


Decouple the Building Blocks

Merima Hasani’s goal is to develop chemical tools that are able to decouple the building blocks and facilitate better and wider utilisation of forest biomass.

‘We need more knowledge about how to gently decouple the complex and robust structures formed throughout evolution to enable better and broader utilisation of the building blocks.’

Merima Hasani is looking forward to using the grant to connect with reputable research groups in areas such as material design, polymer functionalisation and advanced microscopic methods.

‘I’ll visit research groups in Austria, Germany and France to seek knowledge and inspiration and create valuable contacts. The overall objective is to develop new materials from trees and the intermediate goal is to develop new methods that can help us along the way. It’s a long but exciting journey.’

Grant 2015 – Allocations for research for sustainable energy and for healthy ageing

Chalmers researcher Anna Martinelli and Marija Cvijovic at the University of Gothenburg


Mathematical models for healthy ageing and longevity, and new materials to develop fuel cells and biodiesel – this is the goal of the two scientists who receive the Hasselblad Foundation’s annual research funding.


For the fifth consecutive year, the Hasselblad Foundation allocates research grants to female scientists. This year the grant of SEK 1 million each is awarded to the Chalmers researcher Anna Martinelli and Marija Cvijovic at the University of Gothenburg.

– Thanks to the grant from the Hasselblad Foundation I can recruit new competence to my research and advance the research, says Marija Cvijovi, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.


Prevent diseases

Marija Cvijovic hopes that her research and mathematical knowledge can contribute to give us a healthy old age. Although we, in our part of the world, live longer than ever before, many are stricken by severe diseases like Alzheimer’s already in their 60s.
­– In Sweden we live long at a population level, but we want to ensure that we can also feel better longer, which would mean that most of us wouldn’t suffer from age-related diseases until during our last years, says Marija Cvijovic.


Marija’s research is not about curing or finding a treatment, rather about preventing, so that those diseases affect us as late in life as possible.
­– It’s important that we stay healthy. To have Alzheimer’s for 20 years is difficult both for the individual, the family and the society.


Mathematical models of life
But how can a mathematical model help make us healthier as elderly?
– We create a model of life in the computer and can analyze large amounts of data at the same time.

The advantage of a mathematical model is that we can examine phenomena in large scale and far into the future. We can’t follow a person throughout life. It takes too much time, and moreover, we’d have to follow an incredible number of people, says Marija Cvijovic.


If scientists can develop a good mathematical model, they can create different scenarios and anticipate what may happen.


From yeast cell to human
So far, researchers use yeast cells in their experiments, since the mechanisms which take place in a yeast cell are quite similar to those occurring in a human.

– It will take time to take the crucial step from yeast to human. I hope it happens in my lifetime. Within the next ten to fifteen years, I think we can help prevent certain diseases at yeast level, says Marija Cvijovic.


Anna Martinelli & Marija Cvijovic


New materials for sustainable energy
Anna Martinelli, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Chalmers is awarded the Hasselblad Foundation grant to develop new materials for sustainable energy.

The goal of the research is to develop super functional ionic liquids that can be used to produce clean energy in the form of, e.g. fuel cells or to produce biodiesel.
Ionic liquids, considered as optimal candidates to replace conventional electrolyte and solvent, consist of a kind of salt that is liquid at room temperature.


Ionic liquids can contribute to clean energy
The need to reduce emissions from the transport sector is driving this trend towards electric and hybrid vehicles. Energy systems based on fuel cells, in which electricity is produced when hydrogen is burned with only water as sole byproduct, is a solution with great potential. But a large-scale commercialization of the technology is limited by the performance of the electrolyte. Here ionic liquids can play an important role because of their high conductivity at temperatures above 120 degrees Celsius.


From lab to market
If Anna and her research team manage to find materials that work on a small scale, the big challenge will be to make them work in a real fuel cell, i.e. bringing research from the lab to the market.
– If we succeed, the fuel cell may become a more attractive technology, Anna Martinelli says.