Recently, The Varsity had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Janet Rossant, a Senior Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children and a professor in the Departments of Molecular Genetics and Obstetrics and Gynecology at U of T. In honour of International Women’s Day, Rossant discusses her research, public engagement in science, and what it means to be a woman in her field.
The Varsity: What is the focus of your research?
Janet Rossant: I am a developmental biologist, and I’ve been working on early development in the mouse embryo, trying to understand how different cell types develop from the fertilized egg. We particularly work on the first stages of development that form the blastocysts. Blastocysts contain pluripotent cells — cells which give rise to the entire organism — and they are used to make embryonic stem cells. Our work involves trying to understand the genes and pathways that lead to the formation of pluripotent cells in the embryo.
More recently, we have found that pluripotent cells can be formed from not only mice, but also human embryos. By reverting adult cells to pluripotent stem cells, we can model human disease and hopefully be able to treat them with stem cells. At SickKids, we create induced pluripotent stem cells from children with cystic fibrosis and make lung cells from them to try to determine how the cells respond to different drugs. In turn, the results help us define and refine the treatments that we would give the kids.
TV: How do you recommend early-career scientists get involved in public discussions to help inform the public on science?
JR: There are ways of getting involved at all stages of our careers. I think social media engagement is particularly important for young scientists. Try to get involved with some of the social media debates that are giving out false news and false hypotheses and try to counter those. Setting up Twitter feeds to share information from the scientific realm and encouraging people to engage with science is a great way to get involved. Even talking to your friends, parents, and family can help inform. For instance, with the anti-vaccine campaign, it is up to everyone who knows that this is wrong to speak up about it and choose the appropriate environments in which to do so.
The public needs to understand science as they are, in the end, the people who are going to tell the government to support us. If the public doesn’t support us, then the government won’t. So, there is an ongoing need to engage the public in what we do through as many different formats as we can.
TV: Do you have any advice for early-career female scientists?
JR: I would tell all early-career female scientists to just stick with it. The opportunities are there, and at least in North America, there is nothing stopping women. In a country like Canada where access is not the issue, it’s just a matter of staying the course and sticking with it. Finding mentors and a support network are important so that you can turn to them for advice going forward.
TV: Do you think mentorship plays a big role?
JR: There’s role modeling, mentorship, and supporting. Role modeling is just being who you are: represent the opportunities that are available and show that it is possible to keep going. Mentorship is much more hands-on and requires a lot more direct interaction to advise young people on the future. Finally, there is support, which mentorship also rolls over into. When I came to North America, I didn’t know anybody, so some senior scientists took me to meetings, introduced me to people, and made sure I got invited to events. They really supported me at a time when I needed it.
TV: Recently, the proactive pay equity legislation was passed to tackle the wage gap. Do you think the wage gap is a problem in the sciences?
JR: I think it has been and demonstrably still is in some places. If you look at academia, for example, and the relative pay of professors at different scales, usually the women are paid less than men. One of the reasons for this is that men are much better at going in and negotiating for pay raises than women are, so I think it’s important to not be afraid to ask for what you deserve. At the same time, it’s important to have a legislation that makes organizations look at their structure and make them aware of these unconscious biases.
TV: You were recently named one of the recipients of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women for Science Awards. What does this award signify to you?
JR: What’s interesting about this award is that it demonstrates that women can be leaders in the scientific realm and role models for the next generation. The award is representative of diversity. If we want public input in solving global problems, we must mind the diversity of expertise that’s out there and encourage people to join the conversation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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