When Asel Sartbaeva took her daughter Melinda to be vaccinated two days after her birth in 2010 she had little inkling the visit would change her research programme forever. She observed the doctor taking the vaccine from the fridge and was told if it was warmed up before being administered it would spoil.
Sartbaeva had already secured a University Research Fellowship so she could study zeolites, naturally-occurring porous minerals used as catalysts in producing petrol, washing powders and radioactive clean-ups. Soon after, on moving to the University of Bath’s Department of Chemistry as a Research Fellow, her curiosity led to experimentation with silica to see if it could be used to preserve the proteins found in vaccines – doing away with the need for refrigeration.
“The beauty of the University Research Fellowship is that it gave me the freedom to explore a crazy idea,” she says. “Some of the professors I talked to told me it was rubbish, don’t waste your time. Now it is obvious in hindsight but back then I didn’t know. If I was a post-doc I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”
Between 2011 and 2019, Sartbaeva benefited from grants worth £956,000 from the Royal Society. She has developed a silica coating which prevents vaccines degrading at room temperature. It could simplify the distribution and reduce the cost of vaccination for millions of people, especially in hard-to-reach communities. Now her eight-person team, including one student funded by the Royal Society, is working on an injectable device and is in the early stages of considering a spin-out company.
From her fellowship induction day she remembers questions over whether the awards could be used to work on something other than the projects the successful candidates applied with. “We were told that because the Royal Society backs individuals they don’t really mind exactly what we are doing as long as the quality of the science we produce is of a high standard. There was no pressure to do exactly what we said we would.”
Sartbaeva, who grew up in Kyrgyzstan and for whom English is a third language, also took advantage of Royal Society courses in media training, entrepreneurship and patenting. She credits the renown of the University Research Fellowship for the conference speaking invitations she has received. Now Sartbaeva is producing films for primary school children that explain experimental chemistry and processes such as crystallisation and polymerisation. Her original project on zeolites is still running too.