Image credit: LKotkas Photography, @lkotkas_photography

Categories: Sanger Science25 January 202310.7 min read

Celebrating the contributions of women during the pandemic

How did the pandemic impact the role of women in science? And what will its legacy be? These were just some of the questions discussed at the Snapshots of Women in COG: Scientific excellence during the COVID-19 pandemic book launch event, held in Cambridge on 19 January. This limited edition book was released by the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK or COG) to recognise and celebrate the success of COG-UK and its various contributors, including those from the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Sign up for our monthly email update

Sign up

‘Unsung heroes’

Scientists and scientific leaders at the Wellcome Sanger Institute are regularly featured throughout Snapshots of Women in COG, with staff having scaled up their sequencing efforts from 300 samples each week to 70,000 during the height of the pandemic.

Dr Sónia Gonçalves, Head of Surveillance Operations at the Institute, is one of the many ‘unsung heroes’ listed in the book, and she was among the panellists at the launch event. Sónia worked alongside Dr Cristina Ariani to lead the teams responsible for the day-to-day flow of samples through the Lighthouse Lab-Sanger pipeline. COG-UK noted that they would have been ‘lost’ without the pair.

Despite this, Sónia’s focus was firmly on her team and on the entire Institute’s efforts in coming together to solve the ever-evolving challenges of the moment.

“It was an absolute honour to be a part of it; everyone gave all hours in the day to make it work. The focus was on succeeding and that dedication and unity is now the gold standard for how our teams work together.

“It has left a huge legacy for all of Sanger’s activities, including the development of the Genomic Surveillance Unit (GSU) which supports partners around the world to achieve their vision for genomic surveillance as a practical tool for local infectious disease control and pandemic preparedness.”

The book seeks to champion and recognise individual efforts, but the launch event highlighted the humility of the panellists who were all mindful that any individual triumphs would have been impossible without the efforts and support of those working around them.


Panel Discussion with Dr Sónia Gonçalves (second from right). Image credit: LKotkas Photography, @lkotkas_photography

Threats and opportunities

The panellists spoke with candour about their grapple with self-doubt during the onset of the pandemic when confronted with this new, unknown threat. Not only that, but virologists were suddenly in hot demand by a gripped media and fretful general public, all eager to gather daily scientific insight. COVID-19 turned much of the world upside down, and its dominance in everyday life quickly spiralled as misinformation spread and the pandemic became a topic of intense debate. It’s unsurprising that many scientists were anxious of the media spotlight.

But with all of this came a new opportunity for women scientists. The scale of the work needed to confront the challenges of the pandemic meant that scientists were now in huge demand. There was an unprecedented amount of funding and that made it easier to contribute and to get involved. Scientists were increasingly being given the tools and the platform to confidently speak with an engaged media and general public.

Sónia spoke about how this period was very significant for her career, and she thanked COG-UK and those around her for that.


Find out more about the Sanger Institute's involvement in COVID-19 surveillance

Visit the Sanger Institute's COVID-19 Science section

A lasting legacy?

With resource and global endeavour, the panellists at the event, and countless others referenced in the book and beyond, showed that they could move from receiving a sequence, to injecting a vaccine in human beings within a matter of months. They demonstrated that it was safe to complete science quickly, and that it needn’t take years to set up trials.

It was agreed that collaborative team science was at the heart of the pandemic response. There were no egos or questioning; everyone pulled together in equal measure. “The days of having a team investigator is over”, spoke one panellist, “It has to be ‘team science’ and we must maintain the openness of data sharing.” The Sanger Institute is proud of its ongoing commitment to sharing its data, as well as the resources, materials and publications it produces.

The panellists were united in noting the positive change in attitude and willingness from the scientific world to become a more inclusive environment. Everyone had a part to play.

And when it comes to inspiring young women in the scientific world to push on, or for those wondering whether to join it? The panellists stressed the importance of mentorship, empowerment and the idea that things will always work out in the end, even if that means picking yourself up and having another go.

Women have stepped up, and must continue finding the confidence to see themselves as mentors, to stand in front of the press and to speak at public engagement events.

Sónia concluded her time as a panellist at the event by noting, “Seeing so many women across the different Sanger teams standing out in their roles during this period, and then progressing on to more senior positions, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being part of this work. We – as women – need to be in that role for other young women.”


Panel Discussion with Dr Sónia Gonçalves (second from right). Image credit: LKotkas Photography, @lkotkas_photography

Find out more

The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium has over 500 members with a range of scientific and business expertise in genomics, bioinformatics, operations, clinical science and public health. ‘Women in COG’ is a supportive network created to share experiences and knowledge and to promote science careers to women and girls.