Advice and inspiration from three GlycoNet women scientists who are on the frontline of change

By Ali Chou

In her lab in Edmonton, Alberta, Dr. Lori West, a GlycoNet Investigator, is overseeing the analysis of biological samples from pediatric heart transplant patients and preparing to send the results to a team of collaborators. They are carbohydrate chemists, and they create and modify tools to better understand the structure of blood-type related sugars. These sugars hold the answers to important questions, among them how infants can survive after receiving an incompatible organ transplant— a procedure that involves the recipient and donor having different blood types.

In another room in the West lab, Morgan Sosniuk, a fourth-year undergraduate student from the network, is pacing back and forth, anxiously waiting for the results from the flow cytometer, an instrument that she uses to measure blood group-related antibodies. Unlike the conventional assay to detect blood group antibodies, which only identifies the main A, B, and O blood groups, Sosniuk’s method will identify antibodies to the more intricate subtypes within each blood group. This will allow her to monitor patients’ blood group antibody changes after an incompatible organ transplantation. Since high school, she has been focusing on developing this high-precision medical test. The test’s simplicity will facilitate its integration into the already complex transplantation pipeline.

A few provinces to the east in Toronto, Ontario, Natalie Bamford, a doctoral student and a GlycoNet trainee, is also hard at work. In Dr. Lynne Howell’s lab at SickKids Hospital. Natalie sits steadily in front of a polarized light microscope with a 48-well plate, each well containing different chemical solutions. Patiently checking each plate through the lens, she is trying to see if a specific protein from a fungal pathogen has formed a crystal in any of the wells. If it has, it will significantly help the scientific community understand the structure and the properties of the protein, which could lead to it being used as a therapeutic agent against fungal infections.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, and to shed light on the benefits of GlycoNet’s network-based approach to research, we brought together these three women of science to discuss a wide range of subjects. They shared their experiences with mentoring and training, talked about some of the challenges they face as women in scientific fields, and discussed their perspective on the value of bridging geography through networking in order to advance scientific research.

Curiosity is genderless

When speaking about what motivated them to pursue careers in science, they all point to one common denominator: curiosity.

As a child, West, who has been an investigator with GlycoNet since 2015, remembers pondering questions about the nature of science and wanting to understand how things worked. This curiosity led her to pediatrics. It was the same tireless, inquisitive mind that later made her a pioneer in her field when she proposed a dramatic change in transplantation procedures, which successfully led to heart transplants being performed in infants from mismatched donors. This allowed a much higher likelihood that a donor could be found for these highly vulnerable babies. Previously, the mismatched heart transplant procedure had not been considered a viable option, since having a mismatched donor and recipient increases the risk of the rapid organ rejection that could lead to death. Thinking back on her accomplishments, West suggests that if you want to find solutions that can improve patients’ quality of life, sometimes, “you have to challenge the way things are taught to you, and establish new paradigms.”

Mentored by West, Sosniuk joined GlycoNet’s trainee program a year ago. As soon as she started her current research project, she knew the road ahead would be filled with its share of obstacles. Sosniuk is challenging the way clinicians traditionally identify blood type-related antibodies. Detecting and identifying these antibodies is required prior to any transplant surgery to ensure the best donor-recipient matching or, in the case of mismatched transplants, to allow accurate monitoring and guide effective interventions if required. However, at a time when medical science is leveraging technology to reinvent how things are done, the method currently used to identify these antibodies is the same as the one used since the early 1900s. Sosniuk is working to bring this process into the 21st century, aiming to make the procedure more accurate while modernizing it. She recalls that her main motivation has always been being able to address questions that no one has been able to answer yet. “I’m not only trying to solve puzzles, but as a scientist, I am also privileged to be asking questions people haven’t asked before,” says Sosniuk, who knows that answers to those questions could improve the lives of many.

More mentors, role models, and sponsors for women

Bamford recalls her experience as a first-year undergraduate student; she, like most newcomers to university, found herself in an introductory class of more than a thousand students. “We were all told that we were one in a thousand,” she chuckles. “Did that imply a low chance of success?” she wonders. Two years later, Bamford started thinking about doing research during the summer. With the “0.1% success theory” lingering in her mind, she emailed five professors she wanted to work for, presuming they would not reply. After all, they probably got at least 999 other emails from students who also wanted to get their first experience in a lab. Why would they pick her? To her surprise, she received four responses. “If you’re willing to push yourself, be open-minded, and find positive support, you can really do more than you think you can.” Bamford says. Now working in Howell’s lab, she is surrounded by successful female role-models who are not only her supervisors, but have become her peers.

While Bamford was finishing her undergraduate studies, Sosniuk was still in high school. The two, who were years away from meeting, shared a curiosity that would ultimately lead them to a career in science. Sosniuk always knew she wanted to be a scientist and do research. Her young age did not temper her ambition. However, the fact that she did not encounter or even see many women in the positions she aspired to holding, was a concern. Reflecting back, Sosniuk explains that her own experience helped her see the need to have female representation at every stage of a career path in research. Making women role models visible is critical. If young women do not see themselves reflected in the field, they may abandon the pursuit of a career in research at a time when equity, diversity and inclusion are more important than ever.

Interestingly, during the conversation, West, the most experienced scientist in the group, brought up the need for women to find not only mentors, but also sponsors. What’s the difference you ask? Sponsors do not only coach and guide the way mentors do. Their job is to open doors, advocate for someone they believe in, and provide that person with opportunities.

Showing how diversity is a game-changer

Diversity is emerging into public dialogue at many levels. This topic seems to be on everybody’s mind and lips. The scientific community is no exception.

“I’m glad to see that Canada is leading the way when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) by including new policies in the system, from government regulations to granting agencies’ funding strategies.” West says. To raise public awareness of the importance of EDI, the scientific community must lead by example.

Publicly acknowledging the successes of a diverse group of individuals can also lead to a better understanding of why diversity matters. Bamford explains that, “Role models already exist, but they need to be highlighted more. Having more diverse people shown in public outlets and invited to talk at conferences are critical steps to raise awareness of EDI. It will also increase diversity over time.”

West gives an example of a successful conference that welcomed women bringing their children along, and provided appropriate facilities and arrangements, as opposed to them having to secure childcare. This is a good example of a simple action all conference organizers can take to remove a systemic barrier for many women and empower them to attend these events, which are important networking and learning opportunities.

One last piece of advice

As the conversation draws to an end, West shares one final bit of advice: “We need to encourage girls and women to be confident. If girls and women are interested in science, we need to support their growth, enthusiasm, and their participation in science. It is especially important to be confident about what you know and what you do, while acknowledging what you don’t know and remaining open to continuous learning.”

Sosniuk’s parting words are focused on passion. “My advice is to be passionate about what you’re doing, and to find something where the passion is natural. If you’re falling in love with the type of research you’re doing and with the environment you’re apart of, everything else falls into place more naturally, and you’ll want to put in the hard work. It will be very rewarding because it’s something you love.”

Last but not least, Bamford speaks in a fearless and determined tone. “Coming this long way, my advice is to simply go for the things you want to pursue. Push past your boundaries, and remember, if you immerse yourself in a supportive environment, you will succeed.”

As we hang up the phone, these three scientists will go back to their lab benches, microscopes and data. From Newfoundland to British Columbia, other women just like them will continue to move beyond working in the shadows to advance medical research. If we ask you what advice you would give to young women who are considering pursuing a career in research, what would you tell them?

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