The Gairdner/L’Oréal-UNESCO Forum on Diversity and Excellence in Science took place at the MaRS Centre on September 30.

The conference was hosted in part by the Gairdner Foundation, which aims to recognize “international excellence in fundamental research that impacts human health.”

“Many groups are underrepresented in research, including women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, and socially disadvantaged populations,” said Dr. Janet Rossant, a professor at U of T’s Departments of Molecular Genetics and Obstetrics & Gynaecology, in an interview with The Varsity. Rossant is also the president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation, and chief of research emeritus at the SickKids Research Institute.

“This is an ongoing conversation and ongoing discussion that we have to have across many aspects of our lives today.”

Stories from the front line

A panel discussion named “Diversity in STEMM- Stories from the Frontline” included Dr. Eugenia Duodu, Dr. Quarraisha Abdool Karim, and Dr. Janet Smylie, and was moderated by Dr. Imogen Coe.

“We need to be having those conversations about those kinds of uncomfortable things in order to move forward,” said Coe, a professor at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Science, and an advocate for equity in STEM.

Smylie is a professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and also serves as the director of the Well Living House, which focuses on bettering health outcomes for Indigenous children and families.

Her talk focused on the importance of a balance of power, specifically highlighting the importance of finding an individual balance in one’s life.

Duodu received her PhD in chemistry from U of T and is the chief executive officer of Visions of Science, a charitable organization which uses STEM as a way to empower youth from low-income areas in Toronto.

She spoke about a time where she was not invited to a competition that her colleagues were invited to. “It was really interesting that there was this kind of assumption that this is not something that I would [want to] be a part of,” she said.

Karim is the associate scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, a research centre focused on studying HIV. She is also a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Centre.

She discussed how her activism work tied into the medical work she was doing. “That anti-apartheid activism era in my life gave me an opportunity to respect all forms of knowledge,” she said.

She further elaborated that it enabled her “to understand, even in communities where literacy levels are low and people may not have degrees, [that] they have important knowledge that could be tapped into.”

Afternoon STEM talks

The afternoon session included eight talks about STEM topics with L’Oréal-UNESCO scientists Dr. Eugenia Kumacheva, Dr. Vanessa D’Costa, Dr. Janet Rossant, Dr. Nausheen Sadiq, Dr. Victoria Arbour, Dr. Molly Shoichet, Dr. Kate (Hyun) Lee, and Karim.

The concept of arsenic in rice was discussed in Sadiq’s talk, who is a research chemist at Brooks Applied Labs and a L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science fellow. The reasoning behind this, Sadiq said, is that “in Canada, there is no set limit for arsenic in food.”

A focus of Sadiq’s PhD research was on arsenic levels in rice. A type of rice she looked at was rice cereal, which is often eaten by babies, which has relatively high amounts of arsenic.

“If you take [one thing] away from today, from me speaking,” said Sadiq jokingly, “it’s please wash your rice.”