Canadian women researchers make their mark

International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a time to celebrate the talented researchers and entrepreneurs who are inspiring the next generation.

In Voltaire’s story Candide, which has been made into a film and musical, most everyone remembers that, after having searched the world over for wisdom, Candide returns home and, leaving his mistress in the kitchen to bake pies, concludes that the path to happiness lies in “cultivating one’s garden” where he works with a group of his friends. The garden and teamwork are the keys to prosperity.   

We think less frequently of Voltaire’s story, Le Crocheteur borgne, in which a one-eyed beggar is consoled by the fact that he only sees half the evil in the world. Yet he also sees only half the good. Like Candide, who did not include women as active contributors to the success of the garden, the beggar knew a world where the contribution of women was largely restricted. 

Today, Catalyst, the global non-profit that helps build workplaces that work for women, has published statistics illustrating the impressive success of businesses that include women on boards and in the C-suite. The numbers are clear. They tell us that the boards of the 10 most profitable companies in the Fortune 500 include women and 82.% of the top 50 had at least one female director. Yet, how many of us can name more than a handful of women board directors?   

As we celebrate February 11, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we ask the same question about women researchers. It is appropriate and timely to focus on a few stories of women who have added, and who continue to add significantly to research and innovation through their personal work, and who have undertaken to create the conditions which will encourage the participation of others. If we want to succeed today, we need to recognize the extraordinary achievements of women in science and enterprise.   

Let me introduce you to Dr. Leyla Soleymani who is working on wearable sensors, continuous glucose monitoring for diabetics, and is developing a cardiac patch which will be used by astronauts. She has contributed to the establishment of companies to produce medical devices and antimicrobial nanoparticle films that ensure surfaces remain free of contagious pathogens. Each time Leyla completes a project, she consults her list of ideas and starts on the next. In between, she has taken on the role of Associate Vice-President of Research at McMaster University, assisting students and colleagues in their work. 

Her colleague at McMaster, Dr. Sheila Singh, is a pediatric neurosurgeon who focuses her research on cancer and is best known for her truly significant laboratory discoveries that will save lives. She has also been instrumental in founding companies such as Empirica Therapeutics and spinoffs such as Century Canada Labs, which have international connections and offer opportunities for her former students to carry on her vision. 

Dr. Priti Wanjara works for the National Research Council where she looks at problems: from designing economical and environmental solutions to manufacturing. They include repairing aluminum cathodes used to extract zinc for use in protective coatings on cars to developing the 3-D printers that may one day be used in outer space. Back on Earth, she proposes innovative designs that will make manufacturing plants more efficient and profitable. 

At the University of British Columbia, Dr. Gail Murphy, a computer science professor and Vice-President of Research & Innovation, is cofounder and chief scientist at Task Top Technologies Inc. She works on improving software to enable companies to keep up to date with evolving technologies and demands of the workplace. Gail puts her colleagues first and always promotes their work and helps connect discovery and innovation with the application of new knowledge. 

As a professor in the Chemistry Department and Dean of Science at Carleton University, Dr. Maria De Rosa, leads the Aptamer Lab for the Discovery and Development of Emerging Research where she works on synthetic nucleic acids, folding them into 3D nanoscale structures. Her research applies this knowledge to plant genetics and Parkinson’s Disease. At the same time, she actively supports her students and fellow colleagues, making possible their discoveries and encouraging innovative applications. 

These women are but a small sample of the extraordinary women researchers who contribute to the discoveries and innovations that will improve the health and economic development of our country.  They are not only committed to their own work, but also to nurturing the next generation of researchers and supporting their colleagues in their work. It is an honour and privilege to recognize them on February 11. And I do so knowing full well that they are but a few of the many researchers, innovators and leaders who merit recognition and inclusion among those we celebrate and those we will invite to serve on the boards of businesses and industry that will in turn become even more successful for having included them. We will all benefit when we are truly inclusive and open both eyes to the possibilities of greater good. 

Roseann O’Reilly Runte is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a non-profit corporation that invests in research infrastructure at Canadian universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research institutions.  

This article was originally published in the Hill Times Innovation issue on February 5, 2024.