On October 25th, 2023, Women’s College Hospital (WCH) in partnership with the Gairdner Foundation, hosted the second annual Women of Gairdner event, a panel event featuring Gairdner Laureates, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh, Dr. Bonnie L. Bassler and Dr. Lynne E Maquat. With the goal of inspiring young minds to pursue health sciences, more than 70 high school students from diverse backgrounds and communities were in attendance. They came to listen to inspiring talks from powerful women in science, engage in networking opportunities with WCH healthcare experts and to learn about the global health impact of scientific contributions.
“The more diverse our backgrounds, experience and viewpoints, the better we’re equipped to explore new realms of study, tackle disparities and approach problem-solving with an equity-focused lens,” says Dr. Rulan Parekh, vice president of Academics at WCH, during her opening remarks. “This is what we need in healthcare to keep moving forward. This is why we need events like today.”
In a field where only six per cent of practicing neurosurgeons are female, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh is redefining what it means to be a woman in STEM. As the Dan Family Chair in the Neurosurgery Division at the University of Toronto, she is the first woman in Canada to be named neurosurgery chair. “I’ve never operated with a surgeon who is more senior than me,” she said. “In other words, I’ve never had a female surgeon teaching neurosurgery.” With 80 per cent of women in neurosurgery reporting a lack of mentorship, Dr. Zadeh dreams of seeing a world with more women entering the field.
Dr. Bonnie L. Bassler transformed the field of microbiology focusing on bacterial communication – a process now called quorum sensing. “I majored in biochemistry and plucked up the courage to ask my professor if I could work in his lab,” she said. “This is important for women – you need to ask. I asked and never looked back.” Dr. Bassler’s findings have opened the door to groundbreaking opportunities for biological solutions to the world’s most urgent challenges in health, food, energy and the environment. “It is amazing to be the first person in the universe to have an idea and to make the discovery.”
Dr. Lynne E. Maquat received the International Gairdner Award for her discovery of the mechanism that destroys mutant messenger mRNAs in human cells, known as nonsense-mediated mRNA decay. Like Dr. Bassler, she fueled her passion in science when she asked her professor to work in his biology lab. “I was shaking in my boots when I asked him,” she said. Dr. Maquat would later advance our understanding of the molecular basis of human diseases, paving the way for “personalized” or “precision” medicine tailored to each patient’s specific disease mutation. She emphasized the importance of being humble and constantly curious. “Having trained students and postdocs for many years, it is much easier to work with someone who fears they don’t know enough than thinks they know more than they do,” she said.
After the presentations, the laureates participated in a Q&A session, taking questions from both the audience and the moderators, Nya Blades and Mechaela Alfonso, who were both recent WCH summer students.
“I found the Q&A portion to be valuable because they offered practical advice and insights on the equity challenges experienced by women in research and medicine, including those faced by the laureates themselves,” said Nya. “The highlight of the event was listening to the laureates explain their failures, successes, and overall career journeys. This inspired me because I realized that our career journeys are not linear, and setbacks can be useful!”
Following the Q&A, students had the opportunity to connect with the laureates, as well as WCH scientists and healthcare professionals. With 18 networkers, ranging from family physicians to PhD students, counsellors and nurses, students got to know each other and learn from experts in research and medicine.
As an organization founded on the belief that equity fosters healthcare excellence and drives groundbreaking achievements, we are dedicated to guiding aspiring health scientists and clinicians at every level of education.
The second inaugural Women of Gairdner event was a resounding success and we’re excited for next year. Thank you to everyone who made this event possible – especially the students – the next generation of scientists and researchers!