WHEN Dr Anna Blakney was asked to help make a new vaccine to protect against a highly infectious respiratory disease which was spreading from China last January, she had no idea of the challenge which lay ahead.
Fast forward just 24 hours and the 30-year-old scientist was locked in a lab – where she would stay for most of 2020 – at Imperial College London working on a life-saving Covid-19 jab.
Dr Blakney is just one in a huge army of female vaccine researchers and clinicians that have worked tirelessly on the vaccine rollout.
In an interview with The Sun to mark International Women’s Day, she says: “I think one of the best side effects of the pandemic is seeing this explosion of women scientists in the spotlight.
“It should have come sooner. Remarkable scientists like Professor Sarah Gilbert who headed up the Oxford vaccine project didn’t start her career last week but she’s only just being recognised.
“There are so many badass women in science out there, we just don’t see much of them.
“I’m glad they’re now getting the recognition that they deserve – and I hope more women and girls consider a career in science as a result.”
Indeed, it was as a result of the hard work of Professor Sarah Gilbert – who is honoured in our Rise Up and Shine statue campaign – that the UK’s Astrazeneca vaccine has been rolled out and saved thousands of lives.
While most of the country remained indoors, scientists like Sarah and Anna were literally working to save the human race.
“There were long hours at the start,” Dr Blakney says. “We worked on the vaccine in the lab for a couple weeks before beginning animal studies on mice which took about six weeks.
“At first my mind was on overdrive looking at the task ahead but going to work and having that routine – while seeing our small team– helped me keep some normalcy in my life.”
Anna had been working on a vaccine platform for three and a half years before the pandemic, but has focused specifically on Covid-19 throughout last year.
“For people that work in this field of biomedical research, the dream is that one day something you’ve worked on will have a positive impact on human health,” she says.
“So few people get to do that in their career, so it was a really proud moment.”
Join our #RiseUpAndShine campaign
With our #RiseUpAndShine campaign the Sun is celebrating the women who have risen to the challenge in the past – very difficult – year.
These women – like Professor Sarah Gilbert and Kate Bingham – have led the efforts to create life saving vaccines, rallied our communities and kept us entertained and informed.
To mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’ve created an Instagram filter which allows you to bring eight of the UK’s most influential women to life in front of you in the form of 3D gold statues.
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In Anna’s lab, there were four main people that worked on doing the pre-clinical testing – two women and two men. Sadly, that wouldn’t have been the case several years ago.
She says: “I take for granted that it’s more equal now. It’s a privilege to not have to think about that.
“It’s so good that all these female scientists are being highlighted. It’s very powerful to see somebody that looks like you doing a role that you’re maybe intimidated by, or perhaps has never crossed your mind as a feasible possibility.
“I can’t recall ever seeing anything like this in newspapers and magazines when I was young, and while it didn’t end up stopping me, I recognise how important it is to have that visibility.
“I hope it is inspiring to young women.”
Alongside female scientists, there have been millions more women going above and beyond throughout the pandemic to save lives, from cleaners and public transport workers, to nurses and shop staff.
Anna says: “These women are the real heroes, they’re exposing themselves to patients that have had the virus every single day, they’re really on the frontline.
“It was always weird for me to consider myself a frontline worker. It’s not like I was in a Covid ward at a hospital.
“Something that’s made me realise the extent of being involved in this though is the amount of people I’ve heard from – people I hadn’t talked to for years.
“I received a really nice message from one of my school science teachers in the midst of it last year, who said, ‘I saw you were working on this, this is the reason I went into teaching in the first place, for moments like this’. It was so nice to hear.”
While she’s doing a job she loves every day now, Anna’s dream wasn’t always as clear in her mind.
She initially chose to study chemical engineering, but the more she looked into the biological aspects of it, the more she became interested in research – and it grew from there.
She says, if it wasn’t for two key female influencers in her life, she may not have got to where she is today.
One was her maths teacher at school, who gave her the confidence to pursue her dream, and the other was her mentor at university.
Anna now hopes she can inspire young people as well, and has become an unlikely TikTok star in recent months – as she shares fun, fact-filled videos aimed at busting dangerous myths being spread by anti-vaxxers online.
Recording short clips for her 211K followers, to the tune of music legends like Dolly Parton, she is bridging the knowledge gap between professionals and the wider public.
“I think as academics and scientists, we do have this duty to educate the public,” she says.
Anna only got into the social media platform towards the end of last year, after becoming involved in an initiative called Team Halo – a growing group of international vaccine experts who volunteer their time to answer any questions the public might have.
Anna left the UK in December following her team’s success, to work as an assistant professor at a lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, but is continuing to record her TikTok videos from there.
She says: “I have had really good interactions with people asking me questions in the comments. It’s a great platform for scientists – hopefully making science cool too!”
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