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Interview with Molly Shoichet

Updated: Sep 9, 2020


đź“· Roberta Baker

Journalist: Romina Mahinpei


Interviewer: Welcome to SciSection. I’m Romina, your journalist for this week’s episode. We are here today with Dr. Molly Shoichet, Ontario’s first Chief Scientist and a professor of Chemical Engineering, Applied Chemistry, Biomaterials, and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Shoichet.


Dr. Shoichet: Well, it’s my real pleasure.


Interviewer: To start, we do have two rapid-fire questions so that our listeners can learn some facts about you. Firstly, who is one of your role models in the scientific community?


Dr. Shoichet: So, there are three really amazing women scientist who are incredible scientists and just incredible people: Barbara Sherwood Lollar who’s a geologist at the University of Toronto, Andrea Gez who’s an astrophysicist at UCLA, and Frances Arnold who a chemical engineer and Noble Prize winner at the California Institute of Technology.


Dr. Shoichet: So, there’s just been so many important discoveries, and not just discoveries but inventions. I do think it’s important to think about inventions, which I love to do, and inventing the future which I think is so inspiring for scientists everywhere.


Interviewer: Now, before we discuss all the amazing things you do today, could you give us a summary of your educational path and what your interests were during your studies?


Dr. Shoichet: Growing up, I was really interested in science and math in high school, and I had just fantastic and inspiring teachers at high school, which led me to study chemistry for my undergraduate degree at MIT. And during my chemistry studies, in one of the advanced chemistry labs, I made a polymer and I thought wow, that’s pretty cool. And so, while I had applied to medical school, I also applied to graduate school and ended up deferring medical school, going to graduate school. And then, I really liked to keep doors open, but at some point, I had to make a decision. And so, I ended up getting my PhD in Polymer Science, which is a very applied field.


Interviewer: For sure. And obviously, you’ve had such a fascinating journey and it seems like something you’ve been very interested in, but I’m just curious to know, did you face any challenges along that path?


Dr. Shoichet: Absolutely. I don’t think there’s anybody who has not faced challenges in their career. After I graduated, I worked at a small biotech company in the Greater Boston area, CytoTherapeutics, and then was able to find a position at the University of Toronto where I’ve been since 1995. So, I built my career at the University of Toronto, and you know there are scientific challenges. There are personal challenges. Everybody has self-doubt and your own internal challenges. So, lots and lots of challenges. But I’ve always tried to look at the world with the glass half-full versus half-empty and to try and find those silver linings. So, to find mentors and to find people who I can lean on when I need support to get through those challenges.


Interviewer: And now, moving on to what you do today, could you tell our listeners about your profession and your area of research?


Dr. Shoichet: Yeah, absolutely. So, our lab is really at that intersection of engineering, chemistry, and biology. So, we’re very motivated to answer questions in biology and solve problems in medicine, but we use chemistry and engineering to solve those problems. For example, half my lab is focused on regenerative medicine, and so that’s really trying to create an environment where transplant cells survive and integrate into the nervous system. We’re really trying to answer fundamental questions but at the same time apply them to diseases. And the other half of my lab is focused on cancer and there, what we’ve done is we’ve invented some new materials that we can use to mimic the environment in which those cells grow natively and then see if we can discover some new drugs.


Interviewer: It definitely is a very applied field, as you said, and it definitely seems like you guys are making a lot of interesting research. And speaking of research, I am also aware that you launched a project called Reserach2Reality to engage the public in the importance of research and showcase scientific research in Canada. So, that does bring me to ask you, why do you think it is important for the public to engage with research and science in general?


Dr. Shoichet: Well, I think for a couple of reasons. So, if you don’t know something exists, for example, it’s very difficult for you to value it. And we, in Canada, are very rich in terms of resources but also very rich in terms of knowledge and research and advanced knowledge. And so, I think we want to engage the public because we want them to know that it exists. But we also want them to come and participate and join us in this world. And so, Research2Reality is really meant as a way to bring people into our world. Really peak their interests in terms of what we do and then invite them to come in and learn some more. And I think, very practically, most research in Canada is funded by the federal or provincial government, and governments get their money from us, the taxpayers. So, it becomes really important for us, as taxpayers, to know that research exists. And really, if you think about the way we live today, whether it’s in medicine or tech, all of those things depend on research advances that we’ve made, some a couple of years ago, some longer. And so, I think it’s important to know what’s going on in research labs today because that’s going to be their tomorrow and I think it’s just exciting for them to have that opportunity to participate in what’s going on today and maybe invite them to help participate in defining tomorrow.


Interviewer: Definitely, it really is a valuable resource, and I really also hope that more people decide to engage with science and research in general. And through your project, you have (also) made science more accessible. But what other steps do you think should be taken to make science more accessible to the community?


Dr. Shoichet: Well, I think unfortunately a lot of people associate science with school and science is really about discovery. And science is about curiosity and asking questions and trying to solve problems no one’s ever solved before. So, it’s really actually exploratory, and it’s innovative and creative. Sometimes I think we think of the arts as creative but anybody who’s invented something new will understand the importance of creativity in science as well. Some of the other things we’ve done is we’ve used art as a way to bring people into our world. And I think more and more people are seeing the beauty in science through artwork. Well, unfortunately, with Covid-19 people aren’t traveling as much as they used to, but we’ve had a display of scientific art up at Pearson International Airport in Toronto for the past couple of years. And that’s just another way to engage people (in science). And I think what’s so exciting about some of that work is when you first look at it, you won’t know what it is, and you won’t even necessarily think it’s science. But as you get closer to it and you read the description, you might see something that looks like a snake and realize that actually those are cells at the back of our eyes. That’s actually a nice way to bring up curiosity in people and reflect the very essence of science.

Interviewer: And just because we are a bit short on time, I do have one final question for you. What advice would you give to undergraduate students listening to the show right now?


Dr. Shoichet: Well, the advice I would give undergraduate students is to first of all pursue the things that you really enjoy because the more you enjoy it, the more time you’re going to spend on it and the better you’ll become at that thing. So, you’ll be able to perfect that. And then I would encourage the undergraduate students to get some experience in research because it’s so much fun. I mean, it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also so much fun and it’s so exciting to be doing something new and then it just opens up so many different possibilities for you in the future.

Interviewer: For sure, and I hope our students do take that advice and really get involved in research because it is a very valuable resource. And that does bring us to the end of this interview. Dr. Shoichet, thank you once again for joining us today and highlighting the importance of science. And for everyone listening, make sure to check out SciSection’s podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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