UNESCO Honors the Chilean Female Scientist Whose Work May Answer If There’s Life Outside Earth

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Since 1998, the L’Oréal Foundation and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have uplifted women in the field of science. With women only accounting for about 28 percent of the world’s researchers, L’Oréal and UNESCO highlight women breaking barriers in its yearly For Women in Science awards ceremony. On Thursday, the organizations honored five women from across the world for their groundbreaking contributions at the Maison de la Mutualité in a ceremony that took place during Women’s History Month. For Latin America, Chilean astrophysicist María Teresa Ruiz received the prize “for discovering a new type of celestial body, halfway between a star and a planet, hidden in the darkness of the universe,” according to a press release. “Her observations on brown dwarfs could answer the universal question of whether there is life on other planets.”

Saudi analytical chemist Niveen M. Khashab, Australian physicist Michelle Simmons, Swiss material scientist Nicola A. Spaldin, and chemical engineer Zhenan Bao also received the laureate award. Each of the women also collected a cash prize of about $107,000. During his opening speech, Jean-Paul Agon, Chairman of the L’Oréal Foundation celebrated the work of female scientists. “Only a shared, controlled science, at the service of the world’s population, is able to meet the major challenges of the 21st century, and our researchers are the proof,” he said. “They are the ones that give science all its greatness.”

At 70 years old, María Teresa Ruiz is one of a handful of Chilean women to receive this prize. But throughout her career, Ruiz has shattered many glass ceilings, including becoming the first woman to lead the Academia Chilena de Ciencias in 2015. She received world renown for discovering one of the first brown dwarfs – named Kelu 1 after the Mapuche word for red.

When she returned to Chile in the 80s, the country didn’t have the resources to send her to conferences or to pay for access to scientific journals. But she did have the telescope in the country’s international observatory center. Though she could have focused on far away objects in the universe – which she describes as a very “sexy” field – she wanted to look at what was closer, on small, weak objects that emitted very little light. That’s how she accidentally stumbled upon a brown dwarf, which are like giant planets.

“I began studying these objects, now using giant telescopes, which arrived from European observations,” she said in a Facebook Live session with UNESCO. She’s dedicated her career to learning how they form and their evolution cycle.

Learn more about her work below: