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Women in STEM: Mehnaz Ahmed

Recent Master's graduate discusses representations in media and challenges of academia

Women in STEM: Mehnaz Ahmed

This year, Mehnaz Ahmed completed her Master of Science at U of T’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. In addition to conducting scientific research, Ahmed has participated in Dove’s Project #ShowUs, an advocacy project that aims to better represent women and non-binary individuals by creating a library of stock photography for use in advertising and media, and was a mentor to undergraduate students like me. 

The hidden challenges of academia

As a graduate student, Ahmed investigated the relationship between the activity of an enzyme — named peripheral glutathione peroxidase — and the cognitive performance of individuals at an early stage of vascular dementia. Vascular dementia is a neurological disorder caused by impaired blood flow to the brain.

She described the challenges she faced as internal ones. “In essence doubting myself and wondering if I would ever be successful in research or in science overall,” she wrote in an email to me.

What helped her overcome these obstacles, she wrote, was changing her perspective: “redefining what success [means] to [her] in terms of establishing a certain work-life balance.”

But striking a work-life balance is a challenge on its own.

To reach this balance, she planned for “things to look forward to after a long period of working,” which helped prevent feelings of burnout or demotivation, which can stem from long-term work.

Having completed her Master’s degree, Ahmed is in the process of choosing a path that will enable her to pursue a fulfilling career.

She is motivated “to build a life that is worth living according to [her].” Ahmed also believes that “material items will [neither] make [her] happy at the end of the day,” nor contribute to her efforts to make positive change in the world.

Mentorship as a tool for growth

Ahmed was also my Senior Peer Mentor in U of T’s “First in the Family” program, which connects first-generation university students to mentors, with the aim of easing the new students into university life. We eventually fostered a close friendship.

“[Being a mentor] gave me the validation that I had important knowledge to share and reminded me that I had overcome the same difficulties my mentees had and I was able to hopefully serve as a source of support,” wrote Ahmed.

Ahmed’s own mentor, Dr. Krista Lanctôt, a Senior Scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, played an important role in her development.

Ahmed noted that having a female supervisor and mentor is crucial as she “was able to see that conducting productive research was possible while still living a fulfilling life outside of the lab and juggling a family as well.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re doing a lot better than you think.”

Dove created the Project #ShowUs initiative alongside Getty Images and Girlgaze to create a stock photo library of women and non-binary individuals.

Ahmed was photographed for the project by Alia Youssef, who had previously captured Ahmed’s image for Youssef’s “The Sisters Project,” which strives to dismantle discriminatory beliefs against Muslim women.

Participating in Project #ShowUs was important, wrote Ahmed, as it reinforces “the notion that these images of beauty in all forms must first start with appreciating the perspectives of women.”

The importance of a diverse representation of people in the media was noted by Ahmed, who added that “not all women and Muslim women are similar and they can often be painted with the same monolithic brush. The more representation there is, the more people will be comfortable being themselves.”

Ahmed added that the particular stereotype of Muslim women being reserved has sometimes been a challenge for her.

“There have been instances when I describe potential career trajectories [to others] where I can’t help but feel a tiny instance of being judged, in terms of not conforming to what others may perceive me as,” she wrote. This has sometimes created a pressure for her to perform to a certain standard, to challenge these expectations.

Ahmed’s advice for women pursuing STEM is to believe in yourself, be curious, and be resilient.

“Whatever is meant for you will not pass you.”

Wikipedia’s lack of representation

Addressing the systemic gender bias that pervades the free online encyclopedia

Wikipedia’s lack of representation

Wikipedia is not only one of the most popular websites on the internet, but it has also become a commonly consulted educational reference for enthusiasts and experts alike. The site is at once the starting point of scholarly research and the ending point of everyday research.

But “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” suffers from systemic gender bias.

“Everyone goes there, so making sure the encyclopedia is a fair representative of the world is a great thing,” wrote Farah Qaiser to The Varsity. Qaiser is a U of T graduate student who has organized multiple Wikipedia edit-a-thons to boost representation on the website.

A number of student groups, including Women in Chemistry Toronto, Toronto Science Policy Network, and Women Of Colour in STEAMM Canada, have helped organize Wikipedia edit-a-thons in partnership with U of T Libraries. Each workshop session teaches participants the basics of editing Wikipedia pages and lets participants build on and create new Wikipedia pages. The most recent Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon at Gerstein Science Information Centre added 2,560 words on Wikipedia pages for Canadian female scientists.

Representation is important because it leads to recognition and acceptance. It’s especially important on Wikipedia because of its role as a central junction for obtaining information. Thus, editing Wikipedia has become the newest frontier in balanced representation.

A 2018 study by the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia, found that only 5.2–13.6 per cent of Wikimedia project contributors are women. Women also make fewer edits, which has resulted in fewer female administrators — gatekeeping positions with privileges like the ability to block others from editing.

There is also an overwhelming focus on English Wikipedia. A 2011 study by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 76 per cent of all Wikipedia users make edits to English Wikipedia. Focusing on regional languages not only pushes for greater diversity in contributors, but also in relevant content.

“While it shouldn’t matter who edits Wikipedia, their biases matter,” wrote Qaiser. “It’s reflected in facts like only 17.67 per cent of English Wikipedia biographies are about women. That’s a very tiny number.”

Wikipedia is an open-access community. Everyone and anyone with access to the internet can edit and create articles. However, the editorial community is still predominantly male. According to Alex Jung, U of T’s Wikipedian-in-residence, one of the reasons for this predominance is a culture of gatekeeping and pushback toward women.

“Female editors have anecdotally reported that they face targeted editing on Wikipedia,” wrote Qaiser. For example, Dr. Jess Wade, British physicist, challenged herself to create one Wikipedia page a day to recognize the achievements of female scientists.

This February, Wade wrote her 500th entry. Qaiser said that as Wade became vocal about her efforts, her pages have been specifically targeted for editing.

Another reason for Wikipedia’s gender bias problem is a lack of sources. Wikipedia is merely reflective of a larger trend of underrepresentation. There simply aren’t many sources on women and marginalized communities. To counter this, Jung advocates searching harder for sources that tell untold stories.

UNESCO recently organized #WIKI4WOMEN on March 8, International Women’s Day. It advocated for a public effort to help share the stories of extraordinary women.

Editing Wikipedia can also be done any time from the comfort of one’s home and is very easy to do because of the user-friendly visual editor that Wikipedia uses. “It’s like editing a Word document,” said Qaiser. Jung is currently working on a guide to editing Wikipedia, available soon on the U of T Libraries’ website.

Contributing could even be as simple as uploading images. “There are a lot of pages on professors at U of T, but none of them have pictures,” noted Qaiser. “It’s as simple as taking a photograph of them — with their permission of course — and uploading it onto Wikipedia.”

“This is the time to be a woman in STEM”

WISE U of T hosts inaugural International Women’s Day Gala

“This is the time to be a woman in STEM”

U of T’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) chapter hosted their inaugural International Women’s Day Gala on March 10 to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The gala included a keynote speech and panel discussion by female entrepreneurs in STEM, as well as multiple student performances.

Janelle Hinds was the gala’s keynote speaker. She is a former McMaster University engineering student and founder of Helping Hands, an app that connects high school students with volunteer opportunities.

The gala also featured panel discussion led by Ami Shah, CEO and co-founder of Peekapak, an online education tool used to develop social-emotional learning skills in children, and Jenise Lee, founder and CEO of PurPicks, a review platform for organic beauty and skincare products.

In her keynote speech, Hinds described the constant doubt she receives from men as a female engineer and entrepreneur.

“I was one of the first people on my campus to start making android apps. When I did, I had some guys come up to me… [and say] ‘If you can do it, it must be so easy,’” said Hinds. “It really made me realize why women in science and engineering societies are so important. Throughout our days as women, we’re going to constantly… get guys who don’t recognize the strength and power we have.”

During the panel discussion, Lee spoke on a similar topic, saying that she wished she had learned earlier in life that she was capable of launching her own company. 

“When you see a job posting… apply with confidence. If you don’t apply, we won’t see your resume. You don’t know that you’re not better than most of the candidates,” said Lee.

Ami Shah told the women in the room that they should not be afraid of going after opportunities. “If you’re smart and capable and driven, all these companies are looking to make change,” she said. “I think really it’s showing up and showing what you’re capable of and taking those opportunities.”

The gala also featured dance performances from the Vic Dance Team and Ryerson dance students Hannah Stein and Rumi Jeraj. U of T students Victoria Hue and Brian Nghiem gave musical performances, while Sanna Wani, Roya Abedi, and Gabrielle Pearce performed spoken word pieces.

“Events like U of T’s International Women’s Day Gala are incredibly powerful—it is empowering to be surrounded by women who are looking to find ways to make the world a more just place for women,” wrote Lee to The Varsity. She described the gala as “full of strong, vulnerable, smart and capable women who are going to be tomorrow’s leaders.”

Lina Elfaki, WISE Vice-President of Outreach, said that she hopes the gala has inspired people to advocate for women in STEM and helped women realize their own strength.

“International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to not only recognize all the women’s struggles, from gender violence to the wage gap to abuse, but also to celebrate all our accomplishments towards gender equality,” said Elfaki.

Echoing Elfaki’s sentiments, WISE President Syeda Anjum stated that she hopes the event will inspire people to get involved in the WISE community and realize that there is a community out there for them.

In conversation with Dr. Janet Rossant

U of T stem cell researcher is an internationally recognized woman in science

In conversation with Dr. Janet Rossant

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 RossantI 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?

JRThere 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?

JRI 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.

Women in STEM: Diana Kraskouskaya

Chemist and UTM alumnus aims to bring innovation to drug discovery

Women in STEM: Diana Kraskouskaya

Dr. Diana Kraskouskaya completed her PhD in medicinal chemistry at UTM. Her research focuses on developing small molecule receptors and sensors that would fluoresce in the presence of a phosphorylated protein.

Some protein targets are phosphorylated — by the addition of a phosphate group — on certain sites which can either activate or deactivate protein function.

By developing synthetic complexes that are able to recognize the presence or absence of phosphorylated regulatory sequences on proteins, researchers would be able to determine whether or not certain proteins are activated. Generally, activated sites are associated with a diseased state.

“For example, over phosphorylated JAK2 protein [or] over phosphorylated STAT3 protein — those are usually a bad sign in terms of the disease prognosis,” said Kraskouskaya. “So, these chemosensors could ultimately be [used for] diagnostic purposes.”

Since completing her PhD, Kraskousyaka’s role has transitioned — she is now the Senior Research Associate in the Gunning Group and the CEO and co-founder of Dalriada Therapeutics. Dalriada Therapeutics is a U of T spin-out company focused on developing small molecules for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes. The startup investigates the role and applications of DT1, a class of small molecule inhibitors, in the treatment and diagnosis of diseases such as aggressive blood and brain cancers.

“I’m still very involved in the scientific process but now I’m equally involved in the commercialization aspect of it,” said Kraskouskaya on the transition from her PhD studies to her present career.

According to Kraskouskaya, DT1 was discovered by the Gunning Group and it is by far the most promising drug candidate because it interacts with cancer targets via a unique mechanism. DT1 has been found to target aggressive blood and brain cancers in cell-based studies and animal models.

“Our small molecules show significant promise in certain diseases,” said Kraskouskaya. “There [is] definitely a lot of potential that our company will be able to bring much more effective therapies and less toxic therapies for cancer to the clinic.”

Kraskouskaya is a part of the innovate drug discovery space in academia. She notes that the space has a lot of potential. Unlike industrial pharmaceutical companies, academic groups can take on high-risk approaches to drug discovery and develop novel therapies for fighting more aggressive diseases.

However, Kraskouskaya points out that there should be more opportunities for academic groups to take their discoveries to the commercialization stage. “There probably should be more drive and more resources available to the students both at undergraduate and graduate levels to inspire them [to] pursue entrepreneurship careers in drug discovery and development,” she said.

She is hopeful that the UTM Centre for Medicinal Chemistry, launched in 2016, will mend this gap.  

“It will definitely be a game changing institute in Canada because it will provide resources to do cutting edge research in drug discovery at an academic level,” said Kraskouskaya.

She hopes graduate and undergraduate students alike will be driven to take an active role in the development of promising therapies and technologies in the pharmaceutical field.

This article is published as part of a series of profiles in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

Editor’s Note (February 18): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dalriada Therapeutics is funded by U of T. U of T does not fund Dalriada Therapeutics.

Women in STEM: Christina Lampe-Önnerud

Chemist and entrepreneur spearheads innovation in the battery industry

Women in STEM: Christina Lampe-Önnerud

Though not widely known in pop culture, Dr. Christina Lampe-Önnerud is a Swedish chemist, battery inventor, entrepreneur, and an important part of a growing industry.

She has made several appearances at innovation conferences to talk about entrepreneurship, her research, and her goals. Among her achievements include the invention of ‘lego-block’-like battery cells that, when connected together, can provide immense power for a variety of services.

Lampe-Önnerud hopes to create an overall system that uses energy efficiently but in a way that is practical. She describes it as being able to self-prescribe the use of energy one would need in order to accomplish different tasks throughout the day. This would allow control over the amount of time the battery lasts for or, in the case of automobiles, the distance travelled.

She is also a founder of Boston Power, a Massachusetts-based company that manufactures and markets internationally-used lithium-ion batteries for transportation, utility energy storage, and portable power. She also founded Candenza Innovation Inc. in 2012, which “is poised to become a world leader in battery architecture, performance, and safety, with a mission to solve big problems through innovation in technology.”

With at least 20 years of experience in the battery industry and two companies under her belt, she has built a solid reputation among her peers and continues to push innovation to new levels.

Lampe-Önnerud is a leader in her field who has inspired many women across the globe. As both an inventor and an entrepreneur, she has taken many great risks — like quitting her consulting job at a technology firm to start her own company — to pursue her goals of revitalizing the way we use energy as a society.

Due to her efforts, Lampe-Önnerud now holds partnerships with the likes of HP and ASUS in battery development and holds over 80 patents to her name.

This article is published as part of a series of profiles in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

Women in STEM: Hedy Lamarr

The actress developed the Secret Communication System that helped win a war

Women in STEM: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr was an extremely beautiful American-Austrian film actress of the twentieth century. While she lived through both World Wars and starred in a myriad of films, I prefer to remember her as a scientist who left a mark in the field of technology.

During an era when women were not actively involved in science, technology, engineering, or math, Lamarr co-invented a technique that is regularly used as the framework for the vast majority of wireless communication in our present day.

She fled from marriage and political tensions in Austria to the US, immediately becoming a Hollywood sensation.

During the 1940s, Lamarr patented the Secret Communication System, which prevented enemies from blocking radio-controlled missile signals during World War II. It began as a signaling device designed to change radio frequencies and was later developed into an efficient system that stopped enemies from decoding messages. This eventually became a catalyst in the development of technology dedicated to providing security of military and social communications.

Lamarr’s system was crucial in US military attempts to defeat the Nazis. Though she was the first female to receive the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, which is often referred to as the Oscar of invention, her remarkable and impactful innovation went unnoticed by the scientific community for decades.

Nowadays, her technology is incorporated into Bluetooth technology and WiFi, but still, her name is not widely known.

I believe Lamarr and her work should be highlighted and honoured. She should not only be admired for her beauty and talent but also, more importantly, for her intelligence and dedication to science. She is an incredible inspiration because she strived and succeeded during a time when science was dominated by men and when women were seen as inferior in the realm of intellect and education.

Lamarr has inspired me in many ways: to become the best version of myself and to never give up or feel limited by the societal norms and pressures around me.

I learned about Lamarr in high school and was struck by her brilliance. Figures like her are people I wish I had known about during my childhood — they are influential role models who demonstrate that a girl’s appearance does not matter as much as her abilities, intelligence, and achievements.

This article is published as part of a series of profiles in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

Women in STEM: Fioralba Taullaj

UTM PhD candidate studies adamantane-based synthesis to aid drug development

Women in STEM: Fioralba Taullaj

Fioralba Taullaj is a PhD candidate in inorganic chemistry working under Professor Ulrich Fekl at UTM. Taullaj’s research focuses on a molecule known as adamantane — the simplest unit of a diamond.

“I work on basically creating tools for the synthesis of different molecules that contain adamantane and specifically trying to [selectively] activate different positions on it,” said Taullaj.

Adamantane is a bridged compound that consists of hydrogen-carbon bonds. It is connected through three rings that form a cage-like structure. This compound was first isolated from petroleum in the 1930s and it has shown promise in antiviral drugs due to its biocompatibility and structural rigidity.

Biocompatibility is an advantage because it means that when a drug containing an adamantane derivate — especially one for a chronic disease — is ingested in excess, accumulation is unlikely and non-toxic. Flu vaccines, for example, include derivatives of adamantane. Adamantane’s lipophilicity, which is its affinity for fats and oils, makes it an ideal candidate for modifying existing molecules that constitute drugs and make them more effective and stable.

In addition, according to Taullaj, adamantane-based molecules can be used to target proteins and can also be manipulated to permeate certain biological barriers.  

Currently, there are seven drugs on the market that include adamantane moieties. On the other hand, adamantane can also be polymerized to form a single layer of diamond for use in materials or catalysis.  

According to Taullaj, the potential applications of adamantane are vast and promising, but the tools for this kind of synthesis are limited.

“For me, it’s about getting over that hurdle so I can give people the tools to solve all these problems with something that could be extremely promising,” said Taullaj.

To synthesize such molecules, Taullaj uses glovebox techniques because intermediates to final products are highly unstable when exposed to air.

Her day-to-day work includes creating inorganic adamantyl derivatives that can then be potentially used in various complexes, and then possibly be incorporated into novel therapeutics.  

“It’s this new tool we haven’t explored that could provide a lot of different solutions to problems we already have,” said Taullaj.

This article is published as part of a series of profiles in honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.