Sarah Gilbert wins the 2021 Erna Hamburger Prize

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The EPFL WISH Foundation has selected Dame Gilbert as the winner of this year&rs
The EPFL WISH Foundation has selected Dame Gilbert as the winner of this year’s Erna Hamburger Award. ©University of Oxford / John Cairns

The EPFL WISH Foundation will present the 2021 Erna Hamburger Award to Prof. Dame Sarah Gilbert, a British vaccinologist and expert in vaccines against influenza and emerging viral pathogens, at a ceremony on October 18.

The BBC describes her as "the woman who designed the Oxford vaccine." After the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Prof. Gilbert’s research group at the University of Oxford worked tirelessly to come up with an effective vaccine - now produced by AstraZeneca - in just a few months. Her groundbreaking work brought her unprecedented national and international recognition, including her being named Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The EPFL WISH Foundation has selected Prof. Dame Gilbert as the winner of this year’s Erna Hamburger Award, which will be presented to her at a ceremony on October 18. This award was introduced in 2006 to recognize influential female scientists.

Sarah Gilbert is a professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. She completed her undergraduate studies in biological sciences at the University of East Anglia and obtained a PhD at the University of Hull in genetics and the biochemistry of yeast. After spending four years as a research scientist at the biopharmaceutical company Delta Biotechnology, she joined Oxford University in 1994 - working on the genetics of malaria - and became part of the Jenner Institute when it was founded in 2005.

That’s when Prof. Dame Gilbert began studying the influenza virus in the hopes of developing a universal flu vaccine that would be effective against all the different strains. She also worked on vaccines against Ebola and Nipah. When COVID-19 emerged in China, she had just begun the second trial of a vaccine against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another type of coronavirus. Her research group, drawing on their 25 years of experience, had already been developing technology that uses an adenovirus as a vector against different pathogens. Once the DNA sequence of the new coronavirus was published, the group worked around the clock to incorporate the genetic code into their adenovirus. By 25 July 2021, over 592 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, called VaxZevria, had been administered.

Prof. Dame Gilbert has received an array of awards and distinctions this year, honoring this brilliant, yet reserved, scientist. She won the Albert Medal from the Royal Society of Arts and the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research; was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences; and was named as one of Bloomberg’s 50 Most Influential people in 2020. She received a standing ovation at Wimbledon in June, and Mattel has even modeled a Barbie after her.

About the Erna Hamburger Award The Erna Hamburger Award, first presented in 2006, recognizes leading, influential female scientists who are transforming their fields and driving change. It is handed out by the EPFL Women in Science and Humanities (WISH) Foundation - an independent organization created by female professors at EPFL to encourage young women to pursue careers in science and engineering. The award is named after the first woman to be named EPFL professor and who today still serves as an inspiration for ambitious students and researchers.