Meet the Femmes of STEM

Meet the Femmes of STEM

Some say women are doing trail blazing work in science and are unapologetically demanding a seat at the table.

Donna Strickland is no exception. The Canadian scientist and professor was recently awarded the Nobel prize in physics, making her the first woman to be named a Nobel Laureate since 2015 and the third woman to win the award since 1963, after Maria Gieppert-Mayer.

This latest achievement is just one of the many seen in the last 400 years of Canadian women conquering science.

But no matter how long ago it’s been since women have found their calling in the sciences, one scientist will never forget the moment she fell in love with the craft.

Harriet Feilotter is a scientist and researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and a professor in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine.

Her earliest memory of being fascinated by science was in high school biology class. 

“We were dissecting fetal pigs to learn about anatomy.  At the end of the class, there was a specimen left over- and I begged to be allowed to take it home,” Feilotter said. “I stored it in our home fridge for later.  I forgot all about it, and it stayed there until my poor mom cleaned out the fridge more than a month later.”

Thanks to the frozen pig, Feilotter now runs the clinic genetics laboratory and does research and genetic testing for her patients. Her obsession is genomics and understanding the secrets of human genome.

However, for another female scientist, many things have changed since she attended high school.

Monique Johnson, a research technologist at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, said things are better now than when she attended high school, due to the push for women in STEM seen today.

For Johnson, limitations still exist for black female scientists as they “try to go higher up with the experiences” they have gained.

“I had my doubts growing up mainly because I didn’t see a lot of black women in forensics,” Johnson said. “I remember the looks I would get when I told people what I was studying.”

Johnson notes that she feels empowered to be a woman who is also a scientist, but even more empowered being a black woman who is a scientist.

Her focus is in diagnostic cancer research. Today, Johnson is busy developing, optimizing, validating and running assays that can be used to detect mutations in the brain.  

Although Johnson didn’t have much representation growing up or advice when she first entered the sciences, things are quite different today now that women are openly encouraging each other to pursue their dreams no matter what barriers stand in the way. 

That’s why another scientist makes it a point to give advice to young girls who want to be scientists but aren't sure they have what it takes.

Elizabeth McCready, associate professor in the department of pathology and molecular medicine and head of molecular cytogenetic at McMaster University in Hamilton, has some simple words geared to young women because she believes that to succeed in science it is important to work hard towards any goal that you set.

“Dreams that are worth having are also worth fighting for,” McCready said.

Today McCready is researching the detection of chromosome aberrations associated with developmental and neuropsychiatric disorders, molecular oncology, and in reproductive genetics. She is also teaching the next generation of scientists all about genetics.  

As these women look back on their achievements and how far they've come, they show no sign of slowing down and plan on continuing with their research while encouraging young women to reach their goals.

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