Canadian researcher Molly Shoichet wins L'Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science Award

A University of Toronto researcher has won a prestigious award recognizing the top women in science around the world.

Molly Shoichet is a polymer scientist and engineer who takes a "pioneering approach" that could lead to "truly miraculous cures" for problems like spinal cord injuries that paralyze people, says an announcement from the L'Oreal Foundation naming her a winner of the 2015 For Women In Science Awards.

Shoichet is one of five women around the world being honoured with the awards this year, which each come with a $139,633 grant. They will be presented at a ceremony in Paris on March 18.

The awards, given out annually since 2008 aim to identify and support top women scientists, recognize their scientific accomplishments, and increase their visibility. One of the program's goals is to encourage young women to pursue careers in science and engineering.

One of Shoichet's biggest scientific achievements is inventing a new way to deliver drugs to the spinal cord and brain to prevent damage and promote recovery after injuries such as a stroke.

But she's not stopping there. Her ​"pioneering approach" is generating new materials to regenerate nerve tissue damaged by problems such as strokes and spinal cord injuries, L'Oreal says.

Shoichet's goal is to overcome a major hurdle "that could lead to truly miraculous cures" by keeping stem cells alive long enough to integrate into the nervous system using new, high-tech materials, the company adds.

She's also developing new materials in which to package existing drugs to make sure they get to the right place at the right time.

Shoichet describes her lab as the "FedEx of drug and cell delivery."

"We don't put what's in the package," she told CBC News. "We make the package and we make sure what's in the package gets where it needs to be when it needs to be there."

For example, the way they're typically delivered, chemotherapy drugs to kill cancer do a lot of collateral damage to healthy cells – one of the reasons they cause so many side effects. Shoichet said her research team is trying to package the drugs in such a way that they get directly to the cancer cells.

One material invented in her lab is similar to jello that can be infused with drugs injected using a syringe directly on top of the brain or spinal cord to treat conditions such as a stroke. Delivering drugs to those areas are normally difficult because of a mechanism designed to protect the brain from toxins. The protective blood-brain barrier stops drugs that people swallow as a pill, for example,from getting to the brain and spinal cord.

Delivering the drug by syringe has been shown to stimulate stem cells in the brains, helping people recover, Shoichet says.

Women still underrepresented

Shoichet said the For Women in Science award's recognition of women pushing the boundaries of science is fantastic, and represents the international community trying to tackle a problem together — the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. According to 2014 statistics from UNESCO, women make up 30 per cent of the world's researchers.

Shoichet says that in many parts of the world, that's because men and boys are valued more, and women don't have the opportunity to get an education.

In Canada, she said, girls are lucky to grow up in a more supportive environment. She says she thinks the main barriers here are a lack of encouragement from peers and parents.

According Statistics Canada, in 2011, just 39 per cent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 in science, technology, engineering and math were women, even though women made up 59 per cent of university graduates overall.

Jennifer Logie, a Ph.D. student in Shoichet's lab, said Shoichet is more than a professor and an amazing researcher.

"She’s a mother, she has a social life as well," Logie said. "I think it's important to have those role models to show, especially younger girls, that its possible to have everything, in that sense, and still go into a career like science engineering.”

This year's For Women in Science awards are focused on the physical sciences, where women are particularly underrepresented.

The other four winners this year are:

- Rajaa Cherkaoui El Moursli, a high energy and nuclear physicist and Mohammed V professor at Agdal University, Rabat, Morocco.

- Yi Xie, an inorganic chemist and professor at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, China.

- Dame Carol Robinson, a physical chemist specializing in mass spectrometry and a professor at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

- Thaisa Storchi Bergmann, a physics and astronomy professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande Do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

The award-winners are chosen from nominations around the world by an international jury of 13 "eminent" scientists including a Canadian, University of Toronto chemistry professor Mitchell Winnick. One award is given to a scientist from each of five world regions: Africa and the Arab states, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America. So far, 87 women have received the award, including two who went on to win a Nobel Prize.