March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day in which we celebrate the great achievements of women in the world in addition to recognizing that gender parity has not yet been reached worldwide. In Canada, women account for almost half (39%) of university graduates with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degree, however, only 22% work in the field1,2. This article will profile some of the outstanding female scientists working in the cancer research field here at Queen’s University.
Dr. Harriet Feilotter is an associate professor in the Department of Pathology & Molecular Medicine as well as Laboratory Director of Molecular Genetics and Service Chief of Laboratory Genetics at Kingston General Hospital. Feilotter runs both a basic science and a clinical lab. Her research lab aims to optimize detection and quality control of putative biomarkers for diseases so they can hopefully be applied in a clinical setting. Feilotter began her science career here at Queen’s, being inspired by Biology professor Dr. Virginia Walker. “Almost all of my professors were male but the most influential professor was Virginia Walker. She was so enthusiastic about science and completely lit a fire under me to pursue molecular genetics”. While Feilotter feels that the human genetics field is well-populated with women and has never felt her gender affected how her work was viewed, she has experienced some prejudice. “I’ve had someone say ‘I don’t know how you can be a mother and a scientist – but I guess if you just do an average job at both, you can get it done’. Women need to figure out that balance, and we’re effective at it”. The most valuable lesson she’s learned over her career is to listen. “I’ve learned how to listen to what other people are trying to say, even when I have a burning idea I want to get out. That took me a long time to learn. It’s quite easy to be dismissed as a female voice unless you have a thoughtful approach to how you’re going to lead things.” Feilotter advises to young women interested in pursuing a career in science, “There are no barriers. You may perceive them as barriers, but if you excel at what you’re doing, you will be supported in science. I don’t see women being kept down, but I see women tripping themselves up, for example, exhibiting impostor syndrome. If you want to do it, if you believe in yourself, you can do it.”
Dr. Anne Petitjean is an associate professor and researcher in the Department of Chemistry. Her research currently focuses on the development of small molecules that can be used to target a specific folding pattern of DNA related to cancer progression. Petitjean grew up in France, and from a young age was interested in science. “From age 8 I had a passion for research. I also loved art. For me, chemistry was the common feature. Chemistry lends itself well to artistic expression and creativity; you’re creating a mini sculpture in your flask, you hold the design.” When applying for her PhD she reached out to Nobel laureate Dr. Jean-Marie Lehn despite having little confidence of being accepted into his lab. “I’m a shy person but there was this unconscious sense of what I could achieve. I sent message after message, and even called six times the morning that my application was due; I thought to myself, what are you doing bugging a Nobel laureate six times in the same morning?” Dr. Lehn ultimately accepted her into his lab where she published 15 papers from her PhD work. “This changed my path completely. My unconscious just took over – there must be some aspect of brain that knows more about what we should be doing.” Petitjean’s advice: follow your heart and be yourself. “If you follow your heart, you’ll get where you need to go. Be true to yourself and it will take you somewhere where you’re happy. You may not fit the frame where you envision being but twisting yourself and trying to force yourself to it, it will break.”
Dr. Leda Raptis is a professor in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences and a researcher in the Division of Cancer Biology & Genetics at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute. Originally from Greece, Raptis grew up in an environment where family members and teachers discouraged women from pursuing a science career. “My mother would ask ‘why study since you’re going to get married and quit?’ and my father always said that women aren’t good in mathematics”. But Raptis was good at math, often getting the top mark on her exams. When she went to her father with this he said “you’re a woman, but you have a man’s brain”. She went on to attend university, being only one of a dozen women in a class of 400. Raptis faced gender discrimination throughout her university career, one of the worst offenses being when a male professor attempted to kiss her when she approached him for a reference for graduate studies. In 2010, after establishing a successful career in cancer research, she found a lump in her breast – grade 3 breast cancer. Her tenacity for research is exemplified by the fact that she continued to research as much as she could throughout physically draining chemotherapy treatments. After two mastectomies she has been cancer-free and has developed a focus on breast cancer research in her lab. “Often times, when women fail, they give up. Keep going. There are going to be setbacks, again and again, but you must do your darndest”.
Dr. Harriet Richardson is an associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences and an epidemiologist in the Division of Cancer Care and Epidemiology at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute. Originally studying the incidence of human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, Richardson now studies the role of environmental factors on breast cancer risk as well as interventions to prevent the occurrence of breast cancer. Richardson’s mother was an academic and an active feminist. “When I was young, she used to take my brother and I to Women’s Rights demonstrations in London, England and Montreal. I was pressured to have a career first and then think about starting a family. To quote my mother, ‘Over my dead body will you have a baby before you finish your PhD!’”. Richardson’s early HPV work was a stepping stone that led to the approval of the HPV vaccine and she has also been involved in a landmark breast cancer prevention trial; however, her proudest moment in science is in the role of a mentor to her students (who are all smarter than she is, she says). “Knowing that I might have a small role in inspiring the next generation of Canadian epidemiologists and clinical scientists is incredibly rewarding.” Richardson’s advice, “Find supportive research environments to work in and try to build collaborations with people you like. Know that finding a life balance will always be a struggle, and you have to work at it every day. And although it sounds a cliché, try not to sweat the small stuff and treat everyone with respect and compassion.”
Dr. Madhuri Koti is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences and a researcher in the Division of Cancer Biology & Genetics at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute. Her research focuses on the immune response to chemotherapy in cancer. Koti originally trained to be a veterinarian, earning her DVM in India. “As a young girl I wanted to be a doctor. If I couldn’t be a human doctor, I’d be a veterinary doctor”. While Koti felt no societal pressures to pursue a more “traditionally feminine” career, she did recognize that veterinary school was not popular among women in India, being one of only six women in a class of 76. Near the end of her veterinary training she gained an interest in immunology and went on to earn a PhD in immunology from the University of Guelph. Koti has since focused her research efforts on ovarian cancer as the immune response plays a large role in that cancer. “It’s important to work towards your dreams and never give up on them. You have to be honest to yourself. Be critical. Believe.”
- Hango, D. Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university. Stat Can. 2013; 75-006-X: 1-11.
- Dionne-Simar D, Galarneau D, and LaRochelle-Côté S. Women in scientific occupations in Canada. Stat Can. 2016; 75-006-X: 1-13.
This article was written by Jen Power, a M.Sc candidate in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, and part of the Collaborative Graduate Program in Cancer Research at Queen’s University.