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Women in STEM: Civil engineering professor Marianne Hatzopoulou

How her interdisciplinary contributions could improve the quality of urban life

Women in STEM: Civil engineering professor Marianne Hatzopoulou

Associate Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou researches transportation and air quality at U of T’s Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering. She discussed her experience as a woman professor in the most male-dominated field in STEM to The Varsity, and why she believes that positive self-perception is crucial for women to succeed in STEM fields. 

What it means to be an engineer

Hatzopoulou’s research team looks at the generation of vehicle emissions, emission dispersal in urban areas, the effects of emissions on populations, and the population’s exposure to air pollution. 

The goal of her research is to advise new policymakers and government agencies to make informed decisions about investing in transportation. Her advisement helps reduce the emission of greenhouse gases associated with these investments, which could improve both air quality and public health in cities.

This interdisciplinary work is not classified as traditional civil engineering. 

Civil engineering is defined by the U of T program website as the “design, construction and maintenance of structures and infrastructure.” 

Following her completion of her Bachelor’s of Science in physics in 1999, she grew interested in research that was not at the time under the umbrella of physics research. This led her to study civil engineering, completing a Master of Science in 2001, and a Ph.D. in the field at U of T in 2008.

“[The way] I identify as being a civil engineer,” explained Professor Hatzopoulou, “Is the kind of questions that I am asking and to whom they are relevant.”

The reality of research

To Hatzopoulou, interdisciplinary research is essential to solving major problems in the world. “The questions the world is asking,” she said, “Are so complex that there is no single discipline that can actually answer those questions.” 

She has applied her research to solving everyday problems through an online tool named the Clean Ride Mapper

The Clean Ride Mapper is a map that allows cyclists to plan their routes and navigate Toronto with minimal exposure to air pollutants. 

The idea came from a need to disseminate research results. It originated from a map generated of sampling campaigns, which was then developed into a statistical model to spatially interpolate air pollution in different locations. 

“It wasn’t a research project,” she explained, “It’s really a dissemination project. It’s a way to disseminate research results in a way that’s meaningful for the public.” 

Research dissemination is essential according to Professor Hatzopoulou, as “people have the right” to access research. 

The power of perception

The most difficult gender-based challenge she has experienced is the perception of her as a woman in engineering. 

“Sometimes you’re the only one around the table participating in decision-making at any different level,” she explained. “It has nothing to do with your capability — it has to do with how people perceive you.”

“The challenge is always in the sense of making yourself heard, making sure that your opinions are actually weighed at the same level as anyone else’s opinion.”

The importance of woman role models

Throughout a 12-year academic career, Hatzopoulou had only one course with a woman professor.

While she was not mentored by a woman, she realizes the importance of woman interaction and support through her woman graduate students. 

“Being in academia,” she explained, “You constantly feel that you are not doing enough.”

What Hatzopoulou is describing is imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome was defined by the Scientific American as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” 

She reinforces the concept to her students, especially women, that the effects they may experience from imposter syndrome stem from flawed self-perception, rather than a lack of genuine ability. 

“It’s the sense that… most women constantly feel that they’re less able, and [it] has nothing to do with their abilities.”

Women, stressed Hatzopoulou, are “as able.”

Women in STEM: Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher

PhD candidate discusses challenges faced by women in physics, and what it means to be a scientist

Women in STEM: Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher

Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher is a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics in the lab of Dr. Sidhartha Goyal, specializing in biophysics. Bonsma-Fisher’s research focuses on applying physical concepts to solve biological problems. 

Unlocking science: knowledge behind closed doors

The way bacteria defend themselves against viruses is the focus of Bonsma-Fisher’s research.

“Just like us, bacteria can get sick from viruses,” wrote Bonsma-Fisher, “except that, for bacteria (which are just single cells), this often means imminent death.”

One of the ways that bacteria fight against illness is through the CRISPR-Cas system, an adaptive immune system. 

Bonsma-Fisher tries to “understand how CRISPR-Cas immune systems change the way populations look and behave” by “using mathematical tools from physics to create models of bacteria and viruses.”

An open source project she has been working on, in collaboration with over 30 colleagues internationally, is named phageParser.

As its source code is free to use and adapt for the public, Bonsma-Fisher hopes that the project “will make it easier for people to explore and use all the available information about CRISPR immune systems in known bacteria.”

“Science is largely funded by the public and should be accessible to the public,” she noted. “The problems we need science to help us solve are becoming so large and complex that not one person or group can do it alone.”

Fostering resilience through “failure” in research

A challenge highlighted by Bonsma-Fisher was accepting the inevitable delays and setbacks that happen in a research project. 

“It’s hard to look at months of work and realize it will never see daylight,” she explained, “but I try to look at slow or ‘failed’ projects as part of the process.” 

Bonsma-Fisher has since reframed these setbacks as learning experiences. “It’s like doing a homework assignment to learn something: trying something that doesn’t work or doesn’t have an obvious point is still not a waste of time.”

“I always learn things, and I think that learning to enjoy the slow process has made me a more resilient person and a better scientist,” added Bonsma-Fisher.

Subtle pressures facing women in STEM

Another challenge she has faced has been subtle forms of prejudice due to her gender.

“I have experienced many microaggressions over the years: each one by itself is hardly worth mentioning, but some people describe it as ‘death by a thousand cuts’ — eventually the never-ending low-level discomfort wears you down.”

Microaggressions are “subtle, often unintentional, [forms] of prejudice,” according to an article from Psychology Today

Examples of what she has experienced include “overhearing people saying sexist things or making sexist jokes and not being called out, having people say or imply that I experienced some aspect of my success because I’m a woman, [and] being asked on dates by male colleagues who were older or more senior than me.”

Another experience includes her repeated encounters of people who are “completely unaware” that systemic biases exist against women.

As a result of these experiences, she has felt pressured to change the way she dresses. She avoids appearing “too feminine” to blend in better with her male colleagues. 

“The feeling of not belonging is reinforced by things [that] imply that women are newcomers and outsiders in science,” she wrote, “even though this isn’t true.” 

Women who “stick it out in the face of hostility”

As she has progressed through her academic career, Bonsma-Fisher has noticed a drop in gender diversity. 

According to Bonsma-Fisher about a third of the students in her undergraduate program was comprised of women, while her graduate program only comprises about 10 per cent. 

“In terms of other underrepresented groups of ethnic, gender, and sexual identity,” she wrote, “my experience is that physics is woefully lacking.”

The issue of diversity in physics was discussed in an article by The Varsity, which noted the number of women in physics is lower than in biology or chemistry.  

A contributor to the imbalance, wrote Bonsma-Fisher, has been “a continual stream of microaggressions,” referring to a 2016 paper in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

“In a recent study, 74% of surveyed women undergraduate physics students had experienced sexual harassment in a physics context,” she further noted. “Faced with that kind of environment, why would anyone want to stick around?”

“These kinds of systemic biases are almost invisible to any individual woman in, say, a physics undergraduate program,” wrote Bonsma-Fisher, “but it can be very sobering (and it was for me) to learn that the system is subtly stacked against you, mostly in ways that will never be obvious to you.” 

Advice for students pursuing a career in STEM

When asked for advice for other students pursuing a career in STEM, she wrote that it’s difficult to give general guidance, as “what helps one person is often specific to their situation and might not help another.”

“But I think some things apply in general: the system does suck in a lot of ways, but there’s no one right way to do science and be successful.”

Rather than feeling out of place, she encourages students to remind themselves that “[their] perspective and unique experience is important and makes science better, and it’s okay to be yourself AND be a scientist.”

“I wish I knew then that there is no one kind of person who is meant to be a scientist, and also that “academic success” isn’t the only, or even best way to contribute to science.”

“I saw only a narrow path forward at that time that was basically just get good grades, go to a prestigious grad school, and write good papers. I would tell a younger me, ‘you belong in science,’” wrote Bonsma-Fisher.

Women in STEM: Gabriela Krivdova

PhD student on challenges in scientific research, positive trends for women in science

Women in STEM: Gabriela Krivdova

Gabriela Krivdova, a graduate student from U of T’s Department of Molecular Genetics, studies blood stem cells under the supervision of Dr. John Dick. Her research may improve our understanding of leukemia, a human cancer that affects our blood and bone marrow.

“Failed experiments and rejected hypotheses”

Krivdova studies what makes blood stem cells different from mature blood cells, such as red and white blood cells. Her lab also aims to uncover the similarities and differences between healthy and cancerous blood cells by applying lab techniques used by geneticists.

While Krivdova remembers always liking the study of biology and chemistry, she recalled that her path to PhD candidacy was specifically sparked by her interest in immunology and genetics, which she developed during her undergraduate studies.

Her fascination with how the immune system works, as well as the complexity of the molecular mechanisms within our cells, led her to complete a Master’s degree at U of T under the supervision of Dr. Kathi Hudak.

Her research with Hudak was a rewarding experience that further solidified her interest in molecular biology research, and led Krivdova to her current position as a PhD student in Dick’s lab.

The biggest challenge that Krivdova faced stems from the regular prospect of failure associated with scientific research.

“I learned to not become discouraged from failed experiments or rejected hypotheses,” she noted. She added that unexpected findings are often learning opportunities.

The change in perspectives of women in science  

“I must say that I am very lucky to be in the lab I am in and work with so many amazing people,” Krivdova wrote. “I have not felt or experienced any challenges associated with my gender.”

While Krivdova has not personally experienced gender-related challenges in the workplace, she considers female scientist Rosalind Franklin to be her greatest inspiration.

“There are many [inspirations that I have],” wrote Krivdova, “but Rosalind Franklin comes to my mind as she did some pioneering work on the molecular structure of DNA and viruses during the time when scientific discoveries were dominated by men.”

Franklin was a chemist whose work in developing X-ray diffraction photographs was vital in the discovery of DNA’s structure. However, molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick saw Franklin’s photographs of X-ray diffraction without her knowledge.

These photographs proved crucial to their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, but neither scientist acknowledged Franklin’s work in their announcement published in Nature.

Watson and Crick both went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 while Franklin remains officially uncredited.

Today, female scientists are more welcome in research. Krivdova noted how she’s been happy to see an increase in the number of female undergraduate and graduate students studying the sciences at U of T in recent years.

Krivdova has also seen a rise in gender and ethnic diversity in undergraduate laboratory classes which she instructs as a TA.

A piece of advice she would have given to herself as an undergraduate, she added, would be to focus on “the bigger picture in concepts,” and avoid dwelling on the little details of her coursework.

For women considering a career in scientific fields, Krivdova’s advice is to not give up and to continue pursuing their passions.

“Keep pursuing your interests,” she wrote. While there may be disappointments or failures along the way — whether it be from failed experiments or declined scholarships — her experience has shown that hard work pays off, and that there are always fascinating ideas to research as a scientist.

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 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.