In a world where only 30% of researchers are women, the MS Society is proud to report that over 60% of our funded research in 2020 was led by female researchers.
Today marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It focuses on the recognition that gender equality within all fields of research is vital for the achievement of international goals in science, and advancements in the field of MS. The MS Society knows the effect of MS on women – 75% of Canadians living with MS are women.
Despite a number of barriers faced by women and girls in science, women are leading ground-breaking research. In fact, female scientists are integral and necessary to the work being done in finding a cure for MS. The MS Society sat down with researchers, Dr. Anastassia Voronova and Dr. Christina Wolfson, to hear about their work, their journey, and how we can continue to uplift women and girls to close the gender inequality gap in science for good.
Can you describe the work you do in the field of MS research?
Dr. Wolfson: I am an epidemiologist, but I am not the kind that studies infections. I study non-infectious diseases including MS. I seek to examine the pattern of diseases in the population. I want to know if a disease is more common in one country as opposed to another, more likely to affect men than women, and how they affect people of varying ages differently. Getting the answers to these questions might give clues to what causes a disease and help us to further understand diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Dr. Voronova: In my lab, we try to understand how stem cells build the brain of a growing fetus or baby so we can find ways to repair neurological issues in adults. We aim to “wake up” the existing adult stem cells in our brain and make them produce more brain cells that are lost to disease or injury. We hope our approach will be successful for the development of new therapies to help people with diseases that affect the brain like in MS.
Did you always know that you wanted to pursue a career in science?
W: I can’t say that I always wanted to pursue a career in science, but I was always pretty good at math in school. For a while, I wanted to be a medical doctor. In the end, I combined math and medicine for a career as an epidemiologist. I enjoy trying the solve the complicated puzzles of diseases. I am proud of my field and the many successes that have been the result of epidemiologic studies.
V: As a master’s student back in my home country, Estonia, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to spend two months at the University of Ottawa pursuing a collaborative project. It was during this trip that I was introduced to the wonderful spirit amongst Canadian scientists, and to a wealth of opportunities that were inaccessible to me before. As a result, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. degree in health sciences. Along my academic path in Canada, I met several trailblazing women scientists. They have served as a tremendous inspiration to me to become an independent female principal investigator in Canada. I’m a first-generation academic in my family, so my opportunities have been very special to me.
What advice do you have for girls considering a role in a scientific discipline?
W: Find a role model, someone who you admire and someone who you aspire to be like. As a student most of my teachers and professors were men and I think the one thing that was missing was a role model. Most women scientists that I know would be very happy to serve as a mentor for a young aspiring scientist.
V: Choose mentors that inspire you as a person, not just as a scientist. Mentors can offer valuable advice that extends beyond career conversations. It is those “life” conversations with my mentors that I cherish the most when I reflect on my training path.
Throughout your studies and career, have you noticed a change in attitude towards women in science?
W: Yes, but there is still some way to go. As a college student, I was the only woman in my physics class and for no good reason, the men thought I must be really smart to be in the same class as them. This was a bit terrifying as I was worried about making mistakes. There is a lot more awareness of these issues, though, and a lot of emphasis by both men and women to try and improve things.
V: My eyes to gender inequalities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) were first opened by my Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Ilona Skerjanc. Ilona is a relentless promoter of women in science, and I owe her much of my success as a female graduate student. Since then, I have noticed that male colleagues mentored by female supervisors are more aware of the remaining gender issues in STEM and are strong advocates of gender equality. I hope that as more successful female professors train both men and women in their labs, gender inequality will eventually become a thing of the past.
Do you have any final thoughts about women in science?
W: The success of women in science is not just the responsibility of women, it is also the responsibility of men. I have a son and his mom is a scientist, which is completely normal to him. He has his own children and to them, women scientists are nothing unusual either. This pattern will repeat itself around the world and soon enough women scientists will not be unusual.
V: As a young girl, it is hard to imagine the places you can go if you do not have strong role models around you. As you navigate through school or a professional environment, you will meet these role models, and your aspirations will undoubtedly grow. Do not underestimate the power of a supportive environment from your partner and friends that will be required for your growth. Choose your circle of unconditional supporters carefully to allow yourself to grow and reach new unanticipated heights.