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Pole amongst rising talents in science according to the L'Oréal-UNESCO
The L'Oréal Foundation and UNESCO have announced the winners of the International Rising Talents award – 15 women who, through their scientific research, can change the world. Amongst them is a Pole, Dr Agnieszka Gajewicz from the University of Gdańsk. The awards ceremony will be held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris during Women in Science Week when the world’s eminent scientists come together to celebrate women’s contribution to the development of science.
Dr Agnieszka Gajewicz, scholarship winner of the 17th edition of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme,
Description of scientific project
Subject of scientific project: Devising read-across methods to assist the process of assessment of the chemical risk posed by nanomaterials.
Area of research: Chemical substances (both existing and newly synthesised) have an enormous influence on the quality of everyday life, offering better and better products and more and more efficient technological processes. The same chemical substances may, however, pose a serious risk to human and animal health and have a negative impact on the natural environment. Therefore it is crucial to assess the potential risk which chemical substances may pose throughout their entire life cycle and to manage this risk in order to minimise future negative effects. This is often difficult due to high research costs, exceptionally time-consuming and complicated experimental procedures, as well as ethical dilemmas connected with conducting the experiments on laboratory animals. In this situation, it is therefore becoming vital to employ computer methods (so-called in silico methods).
Aim of research: To devise new read-across algorithms to assist the computer assessment of risk posed by chemical compounds (with specific focus on nanoparticles) using methods from the fields of theoretical chemistry, chemometrics, statistics and mathematics.
Description of research: The basis of in silico methods is the assumption that compounds with a similar chemical structure demonstrate similar biological activity. Therefore, it is possible, on the basis of structurally similar compounds from a given group, to predict a modelled value (e.g. toxicity) for the compounds for which such data is lacking. It is possible on the basis of a collection of structure descriptors (i.e. variables coding information on chemical structure) calculated by methods of computational chemistry and an appropriate mathematical model. At present the most important computational methods with regard to risk assessment include quantitative structure–activity relationship methods (QSAR) and read-across methods. However, both groups of methods involve numerous problems. QSAR methods require a large and representative collection of experimental data, which may not always be available. With read-across methods, the limitations are connected, for example, with a lack of a transparent modelling algorithm. For that reason, before read-across methods find full application in the process of risk assessment of new and existing chemical substances, it is necessary to supplement the missing elements of knowledge regarding the very methodology of the research conducted. The devised read-across algorithms will additionally support the process of designing new chemical compounds, safe for both humans and the natural environment (e.g. nanoparticles), in line with the idea of "safe-by-design". This will be made possible thanks to computer assessment of the potential risk posed by combinatorially generated virtual compounds. As a result, only the most promising compounds (i.e. those which present an optimal combination of specific features, functionality and safety) will finally be synthesized and experimentally tested.
Academic career: Dr Agnieszka Gajewicz has been linked to the Faculty of Chemistry of the University of Gdańsk since the beginning of her academic career, first as a student (1999-2004), then as a doctoral student (2008-2013), a scientific and technical employee (2011-2013), an assistant (2013-2014), and currently an adjunct (since 2014). Between 2016-2017 she completed a year-long postdoctoral placement in Japan. Prior to this, she also completed 8 short-term scientific placements in, amongst others, the USA, Japan and Germany. Dr Gajewicz has been actively involved in scientific projects as head (National Science Centre) or participant (Horizon 2020, 7th Framework Programme, Foundation for Polish Science, PAS-JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science)). She is an author of over 35 scientific publications in leading journals (e.g. Nature Nanotechnology, Nanoscale, Nanotoxicology, Chemistry of Materials). She is also the winner of Polish and international awards and distinctions, including the scholarship by the Minister of Science and Higher Education for Outstanding Young Scientists.
Research work and its significance: The objective of Dr Gajewicz’s research project is the development of chemoinformatic methods for assisting the assessment of chemical risk posed by both new chemical substances and already present in the environment (with particular focus on nanomaterials). This is particularly significant in relation to a recently observed steady increase in the number of chemical compounds which may pose a serious threat to human health. The methods devised also find application in the process of computer-assisted development of new chemical compounds, safe for both humans and the natural environment, thus allowing for the selection of the most promising candidates from the virtual library of millions of combinatorially generated compounds. In her research Dr Gajewicz employs methods from the fields of theoretical chemistry, chemometrics, statistics and mathematics. Her work is important with regard to limiting the time and cost of experimental research and minimising the number of laboratory animal tests.
Path to academic career: For as long as she remembers, she has always been fascinated with science. As a child she used to dream of discovering the secrets behind the functioning of the human body. She wanted to know where medication came from, how it worked and how to design an effective vaccine. And, although the passion for discovering the world and its secrets has been with her to this day, the road from childhood fantasy to the place where she is now has been far from straight. At subsequent levels of her education and research, she has had a great deal of luck to have been supported and inspired by exceptional people who were willing to offer advice, encouragement and criticism in perfectly balanced proportions.
Non-academic interests: Chemoinformatics is Dr Gajewicz’s academic passion which in her free time she combines with a passion for running, dreaming of completing the Seven Continents Marathon. Her areas of interest also include capturing the world in the lens of a camera, the history of the 19th and 20th centuries and oriental literature.