Photo credit: Sylvie Li, NSERC/CRSNG

Molly Shoichet, MCIC is a University of Toronto chemical engineer who specializes in the study of polymers for drug delivery and tissue regeneration. Shoichet recently spoke with CIC News editor Sharon Oosthoek in advance of her plenary presentation at the CCEC conference in October.

At the risk of sounding like I’m putting you on a psychiatrist’s couch, what was it about your young experiences that set you up to be a world-leading researcher in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine?

I feel very blessed to have grown up in a family that encouraged me to pursue what I was good at, and encouraged questioning. I really liked science and I excelled at it. So, I grew up thinking I was going to be a medical doctor. At that time, there were not a lot of female pediatricians, but my mom found an amazing one who also became a bit of a role model for me.

I have two older brothers. Brian is a very successful professor at the University of California, San Francisco and Richard is equally successful running our family business. Brian and I went to a high school that encouraged us to go for it – the Toronto French School. We had many opportunities to do different things. I can’t hold a note, yet I sang with the choir. I love to swim, but I’m not that fast and yet I was on the swim team.

Brian and I had the same amazing chemistry teacher who influenced us so much that we both studied chemistry at MIT. The courses, the environment and the people were amazing. Since there were not a lot of required courses, I got to take many electives.

I made a polymer in an advanced organic chemistry course and I thought this is so cool, so I went on to take a course in chemical engineering, and another in mechanical engineering. And that’s when, even though I’d gotten into medical school, I decided to defer it and get a PhD in polymer science.

You spent six-months as Ontario’s first, and so far only, chief scientist. When Premier Doug Ford came to power and fired you in July 2018, some commentators suggested it was a Sisyphean task anyway. What is your take?

Well, I never pretended I could represent all of science, but that was not my role – rather, it was to bring evidence-based decision-making into government. I found that there was already a group engaged in this effort, so we didn’t waste time and were able to immediately work with like-minded individuals to get things done and begin to change processes and methodologies, which, even though I like the word, is not Sisyphean.

My other role was to work to restore trust in science. To this end, in six months, I gave 40 public seminars. It was also a great opportunity to help make government more transparent. I’ve often wondered why people don’t trust science. I think that it’s because science is complicated and always changing, and then this is confused with misinformation often amplified by celebrities.

It’s hard to know how much difference I made in my six months, but I am still grateful for the opportunity.  I think we would have been well-served over the past 16 months had we had a chief scientist in Ontario.

In 2015, you co-founded Research2Reality to showcase Canadian scientific research with layman-friendly blog posts and videos. You also curated the “Artful Science” exhibit at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. Not the kind of thing you might expect a chemical engineer to do. So why did you?

The question I was asking myself was how do we understand and celebrate what’s going on in our own backyard? We have internationally renowned researchers in so many areas in Canada – artificial intelligence, machine learning, biotech and biomanufacturing, regenerative medicine. Very few people know these researchers exist, yet these are the people who are inventing our future and these technologies are already affecting our lives.

People do understand the importance of innovation in terms of our future and economy. Our Prime Minister has talked about it. Even Doug Ford now talks about the importance of innovation.

And yet nobody really knows what it is. When you think about government funding, it has to reflect what the people want. If nobody knows what’s going on in research labs, how can they value it?

We wanted to bring people into our world and get them excited. Science is hard. I’ve spent my entire adult life working in science and I’m still learning every single day, which, by the way, is what I love about my job.

There’s no way we can teach you everything about a subject in a two-minute video, but maybe we can get you excited enough to learn more.

It’s the same thing with the Artful Science exhibit at Pearson. The data intensive work we do makes really beautiful pictures. I hope they spark people to ask questions because that is what science is all about. If people ask, ‘I wonder what that is?’ then we’ve achieved success and when they get closer, they can read the answer. Of course, the images and their descriptions don’t tell you everything you need to know about cancer biology or data analytics, but they bring you into our world and spark curiosity. That’s what we’re trying to do with these projects.

You have published over 650 papers, patents and abstracts and have given over 420 lectures worldwide. You lead a lab of 30. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

That’s like asking me, ‘Who is your favourite child?’ It’s impossible to answer. I love to work with brilliant people, whether they are undergrads or professors. I love the opportunity to work and think and question and overcome challenges.

I want to take our technologies and turn them into a reality. We’ve licenced a bunch of our patents and I’ve started a bunch of companies. But it takes a lot to take technology and bring it to a place where it can help people. There are a lot of stars that have to align.

What keeps you up at night?

How to get those stars to align.

What is your super power?

I think my strength as chief scientist was bringing people together to solve challenges. It’s the same as a researcher when you’re working on regenerative medicine for spinal cord injury, stroke or blindness. How do we take our discoveries and make a real difference in people’s lives?

So, I’d have to say my super power is bringing the right people together and working really hard. My other super power is acknowledging my own limitations. I don’t pretend to have all the answers nor to carry a tune.