“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.

Women in STEM: Katharine Hayhoe

The atmospheric scientist advocates against climate change denial and bridges religion and science

Women in STEM: Katharine Hayhoe

Katharine Hayhoe is an expert on climate change modeling and public policy; she works as a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is perhaps best known to the wider world as a passionate advocate for action against climate change and an expositor of scientific fact.

She began her scientific career with a double major in Physics and Astronomy at U of T, but soon saw an opportunity to use her skillset in the field of climate science.

Like the best science communicators, Hayhoe does not hold anything back when it comes to the details of models and hypotheses. In a recent CNN interview, she was asked about the role of climate change in forming the hurricane trifecta that struck the US and Caribbean last year: Irma, Harvey, and Maria. Hayhoe explained that the back-to-back hurricanes were simply a statistical anomaly, but that their ferocity could be tied directly to rising sea levels and warmer global temperatures — a trend that is expected to continue.

Hayhoe is perhaps unique among other scientific advocates in that she engages with matters of religion and faith as often as she does science. She is an evangelical Christian, and her husband is a pastor and professor. The couple have written a book together, titled A Climate for Change, about how Christians can reconcile, understand, and ultimately align climate change action with their faith.

Hayhoe’s unique knowledge of both spiritual and scientific matters enables her to educate those who might see science as antagonistic to religion.

“I believe we are called, first of all, to love each other, and second of all, to act,” she said. Today, Hayhoe is found on the front lines fighting for climate change awareness and government legislation to combat it.

She is on Twitter and runs a YouTube channel in conjunction with PBS Digital Studios called Global Weirding. Named in 2014 as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People, Hayhoe will be shaping the public perception of climate science for a long time.

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: Lynn Margulis

Founder of the endosymbiosis theory championed our understanding of biological life

Women in STEM: Lynn Margulis

A strong-willed, independent thinker, Lynn Margulis is among the most celebrated names in twentieth century science. Her most prominent accomplishment is the evolutionary theory stating that symbiosis led to the development of the eukaryotic cell.

According to her theory, bacterial cells were ingested by other bacterial cells at some point in cellular evolution. They then developed a co-dependent relationship and eventually integrated as one cell. The results of this process are the mitochondrial and plastid organelles. This symbiosis engendered one of the largest evolutionary leaps: the formation of eukaryotic cells.

Margulis’ theories on evolution were, at best, accepted with a healthy amount of skepticism, if not outright rejected by her peers. The article first proclaiming these discoveries was famously rejected multiple times prior to its publication. Later, validated by genetic evidence, her symbiotic theory gained greater credence and became accepted into convention.

Her work symbolized the best qualities of science itself: that evidence can overcome the dogmatic beliefs people hold about their heroes. In this case, Darwin’s renowned theories were being retouched and moulded to better fit the observed evidence. Her work was contrasted to ‘neo-Darwinist’ theories where speciation — the divergence of species from their common ancestors — was thought to occur by accumulation of random mutations. With symbiosis, Margulis provided a clarifying glimpse toward an additional route of speciation that, together with mutational accumulation, more accurately reflects the evolution of life on Earth.

Margulis was a complex character and often considered controversial. The tenacity that had advanced her work despite little support early in her career may be partially responsible for this impression.

“I don’t consider my ideas controversial, I consider them right,” Margulis once said. These words symbolized her resolute mode of pursuing research, yet they also indicated the stubbornness with which her less successful works have come to be associated.

Despite the recognition and reverence that she was afforded, her ideas on the relationship of HIV to AIDS, on the import of nuclear transfer as evolutionary agent, and on the origin of the sperm were regularly thought of as inaccurate and misguided.

Also controversial was her association with the Gaia hypothesis. Developed in collaboration with Dr. James Lovelock, her goal was to establish a reciprocal relationship between organisms and the environment in maintaining life on earth. Though evidence for the hypothesis is disputed, it has become a cornerstone upon which many studies on the homeostatic cycle of organisms in their environment have been built.

The controversies and opposition she faced are perhaps symptoms of someone who dares to question the status quo. Margulis was willing to challenge prior beliefs and for this, along with her significant contributions to our understanding of life, she is a champion of science.

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.