TORONTO — With a passion for asking questions, Prof. Molly Shoichet drives her team of researchers ever closer to cancer-curing drug delivery methods and stem cell cultivation to reverse blindness and disease.
“What we’re really excited about doing is trying to come up with solutions to these big unsolved problems. We do a lot of work with basic biologists, chemists, engineers and surgeons, to try and bring all of those fields together to answer those questions,” Shoichet told The Times of Israel.
As a professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry, chemistry and biomaterials, and biomedical engineering, Shoichet leads 25 researchers in her lab at the University of Toronto.
Explaining that the Shoichet lab’s slogan is “solving problems together,” Shoichet put her focus as cultivating young scientists’ ideas and passions and forming alliances between fields to make breakthrough advances.
Shoichet says her lab of graduate students and post-doctorate fellows is split, half working on cancer research and the other half focused on regenerative medicine related to the central nervous system’s brain, spinal cord and retina-related diseases.
“So the idea is, why don’t we replace [dying] cells, and see if we can stop the progression of the disease and restore vision,” said Shoichet.
Biologists design the stem cells while Shoichet and her teams figure out how to create the environment to most effectively incorporate them to survive and function properly. A challenge researchers face is not being able to grow and manipulate cancer cells in a petri dish as other types of cells are often manipulated. Typically in this type of research, mice which already have compromised immune systems are used to grow and study and work with the cells.
‘People are not two dimensional; we’re three dimensional… so it’s not surprising that sometimes you can’t grow cells in that environment’
Shoichet’s team has been figuring out better ways to do the work with polymers, creating hydrogels which are soft, dynamic and more human-like to grow cancer cells instead of using animal models.
“People are not two dimensional; we’re three dimensional… and so it’s not so surprising that sometimes you can’t grow cells in that [hard plastic] environment. Sometimes, or often, even when you do grow cells in that environment, it doesn’t give you enough information to be predictive of how cells are growing in us in tumors,” said Shoichet.
Dr. Grant Allen, chair of Shoichet’s Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry at the University of Toronto, describes her work advancing regenerative medicine as “exceptional.”
He called her a “superstar in terms of her ability,” publishing research at the highest level of their department and earning the title “University Professor,” which less than one in 50 faculty hold. Allen describes her latest honor, the Killam Research Fellowship, as the Canadian “precursor to the Nobel Prize” (which does not exist in engineering).
Stepping around perceived barriers is what Shoichet and her researchers work towards. Aside from the enjoyment of working with incredibly smart and creative people, Shoichet feels lucky to be able to run with the ideas she and they generate.
“If you have an idea and you can convince somebody that it’s a good idea, and that you have the skills to be successful in it [by writing a grant and getting it funded], then you get to explore it. So that’s what we’re doing, and that’s what’s really exciting.”
Utilizing passion and inspiring others
Shoichet’s interest in science as a young person was cultivated by supportive chemistry teachers, mentors and role models in various aspects of her life. She described her high school as “very science oriented,” with great teachers, but she knows encouragement from her family meant a lot.
At 89, Shoichet’s mother still works as a businesswoman, and Shoichet believes she was a major voice in encouraging Shoichet to become a professional. Shoichet felt emboldened to become independent watching the example of her mother. With two older brothers, Shoichet followed one, Brian, to MIT to study chemistry.
‘In science you’re valued for what you can contribute and for your knowledge’
“I think in science you’re valued for what you can contribute and for your knowledge. There are biases, unfortunately, everywhere — a lot of biases against women — but I think I’ve been able to surround myself by people who are supportive,” said Shoichet.
She has faced challenges from society’s biases against women, which she acknowledges come in her field and others. Shoichet says that it is not just limited to men having biases against women — she has seen even women show biases against other women. She notes studies find that female scientists are more likely to receive funding if their grants are submitted without stating if the applicant is a man or woman.
With a PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studying polymer science and engineering, she went on to work at a biotech company affiliated with Brown University. After lecturing there, Shoichet was pleased to return to her native Toronto and open a lab at the Donnelly Center for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto. Shoichet recognizes how lucky she is that her love of science happens to also provide a thriving career.
“I have two children and a husband, and it’s always challenging to have a career and family, but again they’ve been very supportive and I’ve had a lot of help,” she said.
Shoichet gets to blend parenthood and research when she heads back to Israel this summer, to cheer on her 16-year-old son playing for the Canadian junior soccer team at Maccabiah 2017. While there, she will visit the lab of another female collaborator, Ronit Satchi-Fainaro, at Tel Aviv University.
The two first met while Shoichet visited Israel, speaking at a joint symposium through the University of Toronto and Haifa’s Technion. The two women partnered just over a year ago through a grant opportunity between Tel Aviv University and University of Toronto.
Shoichet describes Satchi-Fainaro’s lab as having “expertise in imaging and in glioblastoma animal models of brain cancer,” and Shoichet’s team is working to deliver drugs to specific areas in the brain to impact brain cancer.
As the manager of a lab working on many major projects at one time, Shoichet does not see her gender as a barrier. Instead of directing or micromanaging her researchers, she describes her role as one cultivating team work, regardless of her or the researchers’ gender.
‘My goal is to train them to be independent creative thinkers’
“With PhD students and post docs, my goal is to train them to be independent creative thinkers,” said Shoichet, who notes how different academia is from scientific industry competition, too. “So if I’m telling [my team] what to do all the time, they’ll never achieve that goal. Also, if I’m telling them what to do, then I’m missing out on everything they can contribute.”
Knowing how subtle discouragement can be for girls who could be entering science or other professional careers, Shoichet hopes parents will encourage daughters the exact same way they would encourage sons.
In 2013, UNESCO found less than a third of women were in scientific research and development roles in the world. In Canada, there are more women in scientific fields, but the numbers remain low. Seeing so much opportunity for progress, Shoichet wants more women, but men, too, entering into scientific fields.
Allen said that when Shoichet started at University of Toronto, she was the third or fourth woman in their chemical department. Since then, she, as well as the current dean of Engineering — also a woman — have worked hard to bring more women into the department. Allen explained that chemical engineering often has more women, and by now, the ratio to men may be closer to 50-50. He calls University of Toronto’s engineering department, with about 40% women, “unparalleled across Canada.”
Seeing so much opportunity for progress, Shoichet would also like to see more men entering into scientific fields.
Allen knows Shoichet’s successes and genuine passion for science inspires others. He pointed to a company she founded, Research2Reality, as an example of her mission to explain the science to laypeople, broadening the scope of excitement in the field.
“I think if we want to change the world and we want to solve the big problems that we’re all trying to solve,” said Shoichet, “that we need the contributions of men and women.”