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Interview: Asel Sartbaeva, chemistry researcher, University of Bath

Everywoman in Tech Woman of the Year 2021, Asel Sartbaeva, talks about her work with vaccines, and the importance of role models in encouraging young women into science

When certain drugs such as vaccines are transported and stored, they typically need to be done so under constant refrigeration to prevent the proteins in the vaccines from breaking down.

But this isn’t an accessible option in all countries, so Everywoman in Tech 2021 Woman of the Year, Asel Sartbaeva, a reader of chemistry at the University of Bath, has invented a way to transport and store biopharmaceuticals without the need for cold storage in order to help prevent vaccine spoilage and make it easier to transport vaccines to poorer countries for distribution.

“Currently, every year, about two million children – so, infants and children up to five [years old] – die from vaccine-preventable diseases. It means that these children have not been vaccinated in time before they catch the disease,” she says.

“With our method, we are hoping that we will be able to transport these vital vaccines to a lot of those children. And we’re hoping that we will be able to vaccinate these children before they would catch the diseases which eventually can lead to death.”

Making vaccines transportable

Vaccines are very much on the public’s radar of late as millions worldwide are receiving vaccination against the virus that causes Covid-19.

Using the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer coronavirus vaccines as examples of how biopharmaceuticals are usually handled, Sartbaeva says the Oxford/AstraZeneca has to be kept between 2°C and 8°C, while Pfizer has to be kept between -15°C and -25°C.

This is not unusual for vaccines, and sometimes causes issues with transportation, according to Sartbaeva, especially in poorer countries where there is no electricity, no roads or no way to refrigerate these medicines.

“All the other vaccines, every vaccine which we have been using so far to vaccinate every child around the world, requires constant refrigeration. The big problem with it is that we lose up to around 50% of the vaccines today because the cold chain is not up to scratch,” she says.

Where these basic requirements are not met, it is “practically impossible to transport vaccines”, meaning many children in these countries end up dying of preventable diseases.

Sartbaeva’s method uses a silica “nano coating” around the individual components of a vaccine – the amino acid proteins that make up the vaccine’s structure – to prevent them from “denaturing” or breaking down.

Because the coating is made of a very different material than the vaccine itself, they don’t interact with each other.

Asel Sartbaeva

 “I’m trying to promote the idea that it’s okay for women to try to achieve in science because, looking back at my time when I was studying, there were no female role models”

Asel Sartbaeva, University of Bath

Sartbaeva says: “Once we have that cage, this lubricant which we build around the existing vaccine proponents, then what we find is that these vaccines can now be transported without refrigeration or freezing. And it increases the shelf life of these vaccines, which means that will be able to transport these vaccines all around the world.”

This can be applied to already existing vaccines to make them more transportable.

When it comes time to administer the vaccine, a chemical is added to break down the silica coating and the vaccine can then be used – an aspect of the method which still needs tweaking.

Sartbaeva says: “We want to make it as simple as possible, so that medics will just take it and use it in an injectable device, for example, like a syringe so it’s easy to administer, because we want anybody to be able to use it.”

Seeing women in science

From a self-confessed unusual background, Sartbaeva was born in Kyrgyzstan during the Soviet Union, and she claims her chances of becoming a scientist were “incredibly slim”, but that she “really wanted to go into science because it’s cool”.

But other than famous scientists such as Einstein, Sartbaeva said she “didn’t have a clear picture” of what she would do as a part of a career as a scientist.

After volunteering for the British Council in Kazakstan, she eventually gained a scholarship to Cambridge where her career in scientific academia began.

Reflecting on her time in the field of science, Sartbaeva says while she had no female role models and was one of only a few women on her career path, she did not realise until much later how much discrimination she had faced throughout her career.

A lack of visible and accessible role models is often cited as a reason why young women don’t choose to pursue technology careers – some girls say they don’t choose tech subjects because they think they are “too hard”, and have misconceptions about the types of people who choose tech careers because they don’t see other people like them involved in the sector.

Sartbaeva is now an ambassador of the UNICEF Girls in Science programme, hoping she can be one of the role models for others that she didn’t have herself.

“I'm trying to promote the idea that it’s okay for women to try to achieve in science because, looking back at my time when I was studying, honestly there were no role models at all, no female role models,” Sartbaeva explains.

“It didn’t affect me at the time, but some women who come to me say that it’s important for them to have me as a role model because they are now trying to achieve their potential, and they’re trying to achieve it because they’re seeing that it was possible for me.”

For Sartbaeva, winning the Everywoman in Tech 2021 Woman of the Year award is a step towards helping to “bring [her] story to life” for others, perhaps inspiring and encouraging them into a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) career of their own.

Read more about female tech role models

  • Everywoman in Technology award winner and CEO of hiveonline, Sofie Blakstad, has a long history in the tech sector, and has been using tech to help those in sub-Saharan Africa set up businesses and become digitally literate.
  • Initially a charter aimed at educating young women about tech careers, PwC-led initiative Tech She Can is now an independent charity with 200 members.

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