Fifteen female researchers are celebrating International Women's Day (March 8) a few days early. They've received fellowships of up to $40,000 each to pursue doctoral or post-doctoral research through the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-L'Oréal For Women in Science International Fellowship program, announced this week in Paris.

This year marks a full decade of the program, which has funded 135 women from more than 70 countries. Christine Ouinsavi from Benin, who received funds to research forest conservation in 2007, is now that country's Minister of Trade and Industry, and Pascale Cossart, who won a fellowship in 1998 has gone on to become an award-winning bacteriologist at the Institut Pasteur of Paris.

This year's winners include Ishrat Bano from Pakistan who will work at Cambridge University in the U.K. on the development of magnetic nanoparticles to improve drug administration and Fina Kurreeman from Mauritius who is set to examine genes that may be linked to rheumatoid arthritis at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Five accomplished female scientists were also honored as "For Women in Science" Award Laureates, which comes with a cash prize of $100,000. Beatriz Barbuy, vice-president of the International Astronomical Union, was chosen as one of this year's Laureates. "To be seen as a role model is both humbling and gratifying," she said in a statement. "My hope is that the Laureates will inspire young women worldwide to vigorously pursue their passion for the sciences."

According to a 2006 UNESCO report, only about 27 percent of scientists worldwide are women. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which has tracked degrees and gender since 1966, says that the number of women getting undergraduate degrees in science and engineering has quadrupled over the past 50 years, making them nearly equal to the number of men getting them. But the NSF says that women still lag behind in the advanced-degree department, accounting for half as many of the doctorates in those fields in 1999 (the last year the data was recorded).

Image © iStockphoto/mrloz