Science & Tech

Canadian wins international For Women in Science award

Biomedical engineering professor Molly Shoichet has been named this year’s L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science North American laureate
  • Mar 08, 2015
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If young women in Canada are looking for a new role model in science they needn’t look any further than the University of Toronto’s chemistry department.

Biomedical engineering professor Molly Shoichet has been named this year’s L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science North American laureate. The award honours five women in science each year from around the world and includes a $140,000 prize. Shoichet is at the leading edge of innovations in the field of tissue engineering and drug delivery.

“Our research is really at the intersection of chemistry and engineering, applied to biology and medicine. So in our lab we invent new material, and we have invented a material that really allows you to overcome a big challenge in the field which is to deliver stem cells and drugs to the central nervous system, the brain and the spinal cord,” she says.

The hydrogels Shoichet works with are a Jell-O like material that give stem cells or drugs a better chance to reach the injured area. The normal methods of getting drugs into the human body aren’t able to enter the brain or spinal cord because of the blood-brain-barrier, which protects those systems from foreign bodies.

These polymers allow drugs to access the injured part of the body and encourage existing stem cells to fix damaged tissue. Another area of Shoichet’s research could lead to targeted cancer treatments that give drugs access to specific cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unaffected.

Shoichet is quick to acknowledge the team of researchers she works with and explains when it comes to complex medical issues it’s essential to have men and women from all different fields of study involved.

“The problems we’re tackling … are really, really big challenges and it would be completely impossible to tackle them on our own.”

While studying at MIT, she says only about 23 percent of students at the school were women. Shoichet says for her, science seemed the natural career path because of her passion for the subject.

“I’ve been really privileged growing up in Canada where women are valued, growing up in an environment with parents and brothers who encouraged me to pursue my dreams and pursue a career in science.”

Science is still a male-dominated field, but Shoichet places the award’s importance first and foremost for excellence in science and then to highlight women in the field.

“I think [the award] is really to provide a little bit of a role model and shine a light on how women can really be successful in a career in science,” she says.

And although the number of women in the scientific field is growing Shoichet thinks it’s still important to actively encourage girls and women to pursue careers in research focused and technological fields.

“I think there are the subtleties of the everyday that I actually observe every day. I’m very aware of language, even personifying someone in a profession as he vs he or she. These are subtleties in language and in our everyday behaviour that help define for women and for men or for boys and girls what their future careers could be,” she says.

Continuing forward she believes it will be increasingly important to make sure women and men, from all different backgrounds are part of the conversation.

“We’re asking really big questions and these are multi-disciplinary questions and we can’t do it alone and if we don’t take advantage of the creativity of our full population we’re not going to be successful,” she says. “We need to attract creative minds from all parts of our population to really make a difference.”

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