The prize was established by the European Federations of Immunological Societies (EFIS) and the European Journal of Immunology (EJI) to acknowledge prominent European female group leaders in immunology.
Professor Katja Simon has revolutionised the field of autophagy, the process by which cells get rid of unnecessary or dysfunctional components. Her group discovered that autophagy maintains healthy red blood cells, stem cells and memory T cells, and promotes differentiation while preventing ageing of the hematopoietic system, responsible for producing cellular blood components.
"I am absolutely delighted to receive this prize. I have had an unusually slow career progression as a woman and mother in science, and this prize has made it clear that unusual career paths are possible.
"I am also delighted because Ita Askonas has been my mentor over several years when I worked at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine as a postdoc and young group leader. With her mentoring, she has not only encouraged me but also many other female scientists after her retirement.
"I am particularly grateful to her because through her influence at the Royal Society, she contributed to scrapping time elapsed between finishing a PhD and starting a fellowship as a criterion for eligibility. The MRC and Wellcome Trust followed suit and eventually scrapped this eligibility criterion as well. This was a major obstacle to my career and will hopefully change the future path of scientists that have taken breaks or had to slow down due to family or other commitments or are intending to do so."
Professor Simon has received the award in Amsterdam in September 2018 at the Fifth European Congress of Immunology (ECI 2018).
The EFIS-EJI Ita Askonas Prize was first awarded at the ECI 2009 in Berlin, to the Kennedy Institute's Director Professor Fiona Powrie.
Brigitte Askonas, widely known as Ita, was a leading figure in modern immunology, whose work made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the immune system as an intricate network of different cell types interacting and producing mediators to control their complex functions.