Women have — often quietly and anonymously — contributed to scientific innovation since time immemorial. When Marie Curie became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903, the achievement marked a significant turning point for women, representing global acknowledgement of their contributions. Since then, women scientists have made remarkable progress and many of the obstacles women have uniquely faced have been reduced with each successive generation. While difficulties such as lingering gender stereotypes remain, and women continue to be under-represented in STEM fields, many do occupy prominent positions, including in chemistry and chemical engineering. 

History and current trends underline the need for women who are passionate about science, who speak out and aspire to bring about progressive change in society, to be acknowledged and celebrated. Their stories, struggles and successes should be shared as a way to help empower aspiring young female scientists in Canada and around the world. The Canadian Chemical News has reached out to six remarkable women — all leaders in the chemical sciences  — whose stories should not only serve to inspire budding young female scientists but their male counterparts as well. Clearly, becoming a world-class scientist is no longer dependent upon one’s gender. 

Agent of change 

Parisa Ariya

Parisa Ariya is a James McGill professor of Chemistry and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and chair, Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill University. Ariya is also the associate editor of Geochemical Journal.

As a child, Parisa Ariya recalls her mother’s extensive library, which instilled a love of reading as well as a perpetual curiosity. Encouraged by a feminist father and an aunt to be an “unapologetic woman,” Ariya put into motion her desire to serve community, society and act as an agent of change. 

As an academic, she has made significant contributions to the fields of atmospheric chemistry, climate change, sustainable technology and environmental health. The impacts of her research have been widely highlighted in scientific journals as well as United Nations Environmental Protection reports. Ariya has indeed become an agent of change, helping craft Canadian and international policies such as the Joint EU panel on Climate Change, the Arctic Contamination Program Assessment, the Canada Clean Air Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. As well, surface technologies developed by her lab to reduce or eliminate the emission of airborne pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, trace metals and aerosols, have been integrated into industrial plants within Canada.

Ariya encourages other women to push themselves as they embark upon their careers, even though some areas may be daunting. Challenging fields like chemistry require dedication but choosing a career you are passionate about makes the work enjoyable, especially if you aspire to improve the lives of others, she says. “We should always contribute to society to make it better; a life without giving is not a life that is well lived.” 

Battling antibiotic resistance­

Karine Auclair

Karine Auclair is an associate professor, McGill University Department of Chemistry. She uses chemical tools to study and manipulate biological systems, with special interest in antibiotic resistance, enzymes and green chemistry biocatalysis.

As a high school graduate, Karine Auclair had initially intended to study chemistry abroad. However, a mix-up in the mail, resulting in a lost student visa, forced Auclair to remain close to home. This seemingly unfortunate event led her to her first mentor, François-Xavier Garneau at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Auclair recalls: “he took me under his wing, encouraged me to become a professor and guided me along. We became very good friends and remained so until he passed away.” She met her second mentor, John C. Vederas, while completing her PhD in bioorganic chemistry at the University of Alberta.

Auclair’s current research at McGill takes advantage of chemical tools to manipulate biological systems. “Antibiotic resistance is the worst threat to our health system and we must act before it becomes detrimental to modern medicine.” Among her successes, Auclair has demonstrated novel and selective activation of prodrugs, compounds that are pharmaceutically inactive until they are metabolized within a patient’s body, at which point they become active. In addition to her research interests, as well as teaching, Auclair loves the outdoors and especially competitive horse jumping. Auclair has worked hard to ensure she maintains a balance between work and her personal life. “The most important challenge facing women are unconscious biases against them,” Auclair says. “Aim very high and allow yourself to go for your dream job.”

The art of chemistry

Jillian Buriak

Jillian Buriak received her PhD from the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France. She became a tenured associate professor at Purdue University in Indiana in 2001 then joined the University of Alberta and the National Institute for Nanotechnology as a full professor two years later. Buriak is the Canada Research Chair (Tier I) of Nanomaterials for Energy.

As an ambitious young student at Harvard University, Jillian Buriak began her education as a math major, “loving its beauty,” but eventually found herself at a crossroads. Inspired by her first and only female chemistry professor at Harvard, Cynthia Friend, Buriak realized her true passion was chemistry. “Knowing what the world is made of and how things fit together, coupled with the hands-on nature of laboratory work, made it seem more like art and science.”

While pursuing her PhD in homogeneous catalysis, Buriak noticed the early stirrings of nanoscience and materials chemistry in the literature and transitioned to the field during her post-doctoral placement at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Since establishing her own research group, Buriak has become a true innovator. Applications of her research range from tackling the world’s greatest challenges in renewable energy through the development of novel and inexpensive photovoltaic materials to solving complex problems in medicine such as tissue regeneration with self-assembling polymers. Her multidisciplinary research has resulted in more than 9,000 citations. Buriak also plays a prominent role in publishing, most recently becoming editor-in-chief of the American Chemical Society’s Chemistry of Materials in 2013.  

Buriak emphasizes the importance of courage and aiming high and pushing outside one’s comfort zone where “we are forced to climb a steep learning curve, which is a healthy way to challenge ourselves and will ultimately help to achieve our goals.” 

Helping students achieve purpose

Laurel Shafer

Laurel Schafer undertook graduate studies at the University of Victoria, followed by a two-year NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship at University of California, Berkeley. She began her independent career at the University of British Columbia in 2001, becoming a professor in 2012. Schafer is a leader in the field of catalyst discovery and a Canada Research Chair in Catalyst Development, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an associate editor for the American Chemical Society journal, Organometallics.
From an early age, Laurel Schafer was surrounded by strong women. On the family farm near Wellesley, Ont. she observed her grandmother carrying out the daily chores, while admiring her mother’s dedication to everything she took on at work, home or in her local district. There were no limitations, Schafer realized, on what women could do, whether it was performing demanding physical labour or making decisions that impacted family and community.
As she built her career as a chemist, Schafer’s mantra became, “just because you don’t see it being done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” Her tenacity and willingness to seek the unknown fuelled creative and original research, developing novel organometallic catalysts to carry out difficult transformations in small molecule organic chemistry. One of Schafer’s complexes is commercially available while others show promise for potential translation to a broad range of user groups. Although proud of her research, Laurel’s legacy, she feels, is one that is defined by her students. “My goal is to help each student realize their full potential and move forward with purpose and focus. Students that graduate with well-honed tools to build a successful career are the focus of my program.” 

Inventive curiosity 

Molly Shoichet

Molly Shoichet is an award-winning, biomedical engineer and professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry as well as the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering, with a cross-appointment to the Faculty of Medicine. Shoichet holds the Tier I Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering.

As a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Molly Shoichet’s original plan to undertake a medical degree took a swift turn during an advanced organic chemistry lab. The task? To synthesize a polymer. This small moment sparked a lifelong interest that led to, rather than a medical degree, a B.Sc. in chemistry. “I thought that polymers were very interesting and took several courses at MIT to enhance my knowledge. This led to research projects and then to a PhD in polymer science and engineering,” says Shoichet. Despite her passion for chemistry, her fascination for medicine continued unabated. She entered the field of regenerative medicine, working in such biotechnology labs as CytoTherapeutics (now Stem Cells Inc.) in California and advancing the frontiers of materials science and medicine.

In her current work, Shoichet and her team use polymers as scaffolds for human cells and tissues. “We invent materials that promote tissue healing and regeneration when combined with therapeutics or cells,” Shoichet says. “This is important for personalized medicine and drug screening. Our legacy will be our inventive curiosity.” In addition to her substantial contributions as a researcher, Shoichet is also passionate about science communication and has co-founded Research2Reality, a social media campaign that showcases innovative research in Canada. “Our challenge is to engage girls and boys, young women and men, to explore and create new solutions to old problems.” Her best advice to aspiring scientists: “There are many opportunities to make a difference. Make sure to ‘lean in’ and take your seat at the table.”  

Materials maven

Françoise Winnik

Françoise Winnik is a professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Department of Chemistry, Université de Montréal. She is also editor-in-chief of the American Chemical Society journal Langmuir and principal investigator at the International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics National Institute for Materials Science in Japan. Winnik is a distinguished professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Department of Chemistry, University of Helsinki, Finland.

Born in France at a time when the expectations of women were modest, Françoise Winnik attributes her ambition and much of her success to her parents. “When I went to school there was the possibility of taking typing classes. My mother was adamant that her daughter would not become a secretary — that she would never learn to type,” says Winnik. “I still haven’t quite mastered it,” she says jokingly.

For Winnik, a successful career in chemistry has required not just ambition but intelligence, creativity, ingenuity, balance and, above all, flexibility. Never one to shy away from new challenges, perhaps one of Winnik’s strongest qualities is her ability to adapt. Initially trained as an organic chemist, Winnik went on to complete postdoctoral studies in medical genetics at the University of Toronto then became interested in polymer chemistry during her time with Xerox Research Centre of Canada. Since entering academia in 1993, Winnik has become a leading expert in amphiphilic materials and their self-assembly for the synthesis and characterization of stimuli-responsive polymers and is investigating biomedical applications such as in vivo imaging of nanoparticles. “A researcher sees interesting problems and works to solve them,” Winnik says. “Over the course of an entire career, one will work on several topics that collectively­ will make an impact.”