U of T professor wins Women in Science Award

In recognition for her novel research, University of Toronto professor Dr. Molly Shoichet has been named the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science North American laureate for 2015. Shoichet was one of five award recipients worldwide, representing North America, and received a prize of just under $140,000.

This award has been given out annually since 2008 to support top women scientists and recognize their significant scientific accomplishments. One of the goals of this program is to encourage young women to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Incredible biomedical research conducted at The Shoichet Lab has the potential to change the way diseases are treated. Professor Molly Shoichet guides a group of 25 researchers to make breakthrough advancements in medicine at the intersection of engineering, chemistry, and biology.

Molly Shoichet courtesy of Molly Shoichet

COURTESY OF MOLLY SHOICHET

Shoichet’s work involves targeted delivery of stem cells to the spinal cord and the brain, using novel biodegradable hydrogel polymers. Polymers are long, chain-like structures made up of smaller, repeated molecules. The hydrogel polymers can be injected through a needle and then set almost immediately in the target area. This delivery system, invented in the lab, can be compared to a space suit that holds fragile stem cells inside a hydrogel. To enhance integration and promote survival of these stem cells, support cells are added into the hydrogel network. The next step is to refine the technique and then translate the science from the bench to the bedside by beginning clinical trials.

The Varsity spoke with Professor Molly Shoichet about the award, which she will be presented with during a ceremony in Paris on March 18.

The Varsity: What does it feel like to be part of the high recognition events for women in the science?

Molly Shoichet: This award recognizes excellence in science. It is a tremendous honour to have our science recognized. I feel privileged to work in Canada, at the University of Toronto, with great collaborators and exceptional students, post-doctoral fellows, technicians.

TV: What is the inspiration/motivation behind your work?

MS: We’re inspired to advance knowledge towards clinical application — to ultimately make a difference in people’s lives. We are tackling big questions in science and engineering and are motivated to make a difference.

TV: How will your research findings benefit patients and what is the next challenge that stands before implementation of these new methods in clinic?

MS: There are many stars that need to align in order for us to advance our research to the benefit of patients. We start with models, which advance our understanding and refine our science. We patent our inventions, providing opportunities for licensing or company formation. Ultimately, we need to partner with industry in order to advance beyond academic research toward product development and clinical trials.

TV: Where do you hope to take your research in the future?

MS: Our goal is to ultimately advance research to the clinic. We are pursuing several strategies ­— cell delivery to the back of the eye (the retina) to overcome blindness, cell and biomolecule delivery to the brain to overcome stroke, cell and biomolecule delivery to the spinal cord to overcome spinal cord injury, [and] drug delivery and drug screening applied to cancer. Through active collaboration, we are confident that we can make a difference.

TV: What piece of advice do you have for women thinking of pursuing a career in science?

MS: It’s a fantastic career. It allows you to be imaginative, creative and innovative. You have the opportunity to invent the future. Moreover, you can have a career and a family — they are not mutually exclusive. I have both and so can you. Make sure to choose a partner who values your career as much as you do.

TV: How do you manage to achieve a good balance between your personal and professional lives?

MS: I have a lot of help — I don’t do anything alone. Professionally, I work with leading international scientists and clinicians and have an amazing research group of creative and independent thinkers. I work with a great admin[istrative] staff as well, which enables me to tackle new projects. Personally, I have a great husband and additional support from my mom. I spend many hours working… but I also find time to spend with my sons and husband. There’s never a dull moment and very little down time, but I thrive on being busy. I also eat a lot of chocolate — [that’s the] secret to my success.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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