Inventing the future of medicine: an interview with Dr Molly Shoichet

Written by RegMedNet

In this interview, L’OREAL-UNESCO Laureate Dr Molly Shoichet, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, Chemistry and Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, discusses her career to date and experiences as a woman working in STEM.

Inspired by upcoming International Women’s Day 2016, we are interviewing L’OREAL-UNESCO Laureate Dr Molly Shoichet, Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Chemistry and Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, on her career to date and experiences as a woman working in science.

University Professor Molly Shoichet
Professor Molly Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto and is Senior Advisor on Science & Engineering Engagement to President Gertler. She has published over 500 papers, patents and abstracts and given over 310 lectures worldwide. She currently leads a laboratory of 25 and has graduated 170 researchers. She founded two spin-off companies and is actively engaged in translational research. She is the only person to be a Fellow of Canada’s 3 National Academies of Science, Engineering, Health Sciences. Dr Shoichet is the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award Laureate, North America (2015). She holds the Order of Ontario and the QEII Diamond Jubilee Award. Dr Shoichet is University Professor, a distinction held by less than 2% of the faculty. She graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1987) and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Polymer Science and Engineering (1992).

Could you tell us a little about your career to date and what your current role entails?

I have a great job — I have the opportunity to lead a dynamic, multi-disciplinary research team where we use engineering and chemistry to answer questions in biology and medicine. We invent new materials to deliver cells and therapeutics to the brain, spinal cord and eye; we synthesize new polymers to selectively deliver drugs to cancer cells; we design new hydrogels in which to grow cells in 3D, thereby mimicking the way cells grow in us. In addition to advancing knowledge through research, we are excited to convert this knowledge into products and thus are pursuing the creation of a new company while also collaborating actively with industry.

Of course, I teach engineering students as well at the University of Toronto and am engaged in science engagement. For the latter, I co-Founded a national social media campaign, Research2Reality, with the goal of connecting today’s research to tomorrow’s reality; and I work with colleagues across the University of Toronto to provide events that engage the public in the wonders of science and engineering in places that are least expected. On May 3, 2016, we will co-host, Sounds of Science: the intersection of music, technology and medicine at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Music.

What are they key considerations for the selection, design and development of biomaterials for clinical applications?

As engineers, we create a set of design criteria and then work backwards to synthesize or formulate the optimal material for a given application. Of course the biomaterial has to non-toxic to cells and we are often looking for a biomaterial that has a short residence time — that is, a biomaterial that will degrade once injected in the body. We use our biomaterials to deliver cells and therapeutics to the central nervous system. For cell delivery, our goal is to enhance the survival of transplanted cells and to do this, we design our biomaterials with pro-survival factors. In the nervous system, we need our cells to survive and integrate into the neural circuitry. We use our biomaterials to enhance survival and integration. For therapeutic delivery, we design our biomaterials for controlled, local delivery to the brain or spinal cord. One challenge that we face is the blood—brain barrier, which limits most therapeutic proteins from getting into the brain. Thus, we’ve designed a strategy that allows us to circumvent this barrier and deliver therapeutics directly to the brain tissue.

Tissue engineering is a multidisciplinary field. Do you have any tips for succeeding in working across so many different teams and departments?

The key to success in tissue engineering/regenerative medicine is to work on multi-disciplinary teams and to work with super smart people. I enjoy collaboration and learning from others. It is great to work in these fields. It is important to bring something unique (and important) to a collaboration and to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. I am intellectually curious and this has served me well.

What do you consider your greatest research achievement to date?

We invent new materials that enable us to answer questions in biology and solve problems in medicine. Our greatest achievements are the inventions of these new materials. Most of these materials are hydrogels — water swollen materials — that we synthesize with the chemical and mechanical properties required to: grow cells in 3D constructs in the lab, enhance cell survival after transplantation, promote tissue repair with local delivery of biotherapeutics.

You have achieved many awards, including the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award for North America in 2015. How did it feel to be recognized not just as a scientist but a woman in science?

I am honoured to be included in the group of successful scientists around the world — scientists who have made significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge. By highlighting women who have made these significant contributions, L’Oreal and UNESCO have shone a light on many women whose advances may have been overlooked.

Have you ever in your career felt that you were at a disadvantage owing to your gender?

Yes. You see it almost every day.

You have significant experience of working in industry and academia. Did you notice any difference in opportunities available to women?

I saw many differences in academia versus industry, but I’m not sure I saw differences in opportunities available to women. We all live in the same society and are affected equally but subtleties of discrimination.

You are involved in any public outreach to promote women in science. Can you please tell us about what this involves, and moreover what more outreach could and should be done to promote equality in STEM?

I started a national social media campaign, Research2Reality, that highlights today’s research and connects it to tomorrow’s reality. It is designed to engage the public in research and give them better insight into how today’s research will shape tomorrow’s reality. In addition to this outreach activity, where we aim to balance gender representation, I am also Senior Advisor to President Meric Gertler of the University of Toronto on Science and Engineering Engagement. In this role, I seek to engage the public in the fascinating research at the University of Toronto and to highlight women and men doing this extraordinary work. I often recommend my female colleagues for opportunities and awards, thereby highlighting their important contributions.In

Are there any female colleagues you particularly look up to or are inspired by?

Yes. One of my closest collaborators, Prof Cindi Morshead, is creative and open-minded and wonderful to work with. Prof Freda Miller is an exceptional neuroscientist who is also inspiring.

What advice would you give to students, whether male or female, considering a career in STEM?

The opportunity to invent the future is enticing and intoxicating. Nothing in life just happens and nothing in life is easy. A career in STEM requires dedication — stay in the game, don’t drop out. The rewards for a career in STEM are what you make of them — if you’re creative and innovative, you will make a difference in the world. It is a fantastic opportunity that few other careers offer. We have big problems to solve, join us.

Career-wise, where do you hope to be in 5 years’ time, and what impact do you hope to have had on the field regenerative medicine and on supporting women in science?

We are very excited about advancing knowledge and translating this knowledge into products. Towards this ultimate goal, we are collaborating with industry on some of our inventions and starting a company based on other inventions. In 5 years, I hope that we will have achieved our goals of starting a company, raised the funds required to be successful and begun to produce products that will provide therapeutic benefit to people.

In 5 years, I am hopeful that there will be more opportunities for women in STEM and that we will achieve greater equality globally for women who seek careers.

Further reading