Prestigious Killam Prize for engineering awarded to female scientist second year in a row

Though there continues to be a shortage of women in science, technology, engineering and math professions (STEM), this is the second consecutive year a prestigious scientific prize has been awarded to a woman.

Molly Shoichet was announced as the winner of the Killam Award, a prize that recognizes the work of scientists, writers, researchers and doctors. In total, five awards of $100,000 each are given in social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, health sciences and engineering.  Last year, Elizabeth Edwards won the prize.

Shoichet doesn't do the type of engineering most people associate with that word. Rather, she works on tissue and polymer engineering at the University of Toronto, doing research that she hopes will one day lead to treating those who experience physical challenges due to a stroke or even blindness.

"I like to describe our research a bit like the FedEx of drug and cell delivery," she said. "If you have something that you want to deliver, you have to put it in a package, and you have to get it where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. So we do the same thing with therapeutics and stem cells."

An example is her collaborative work with another research team lead by Derek van der Kooy, also at the University of Toronto. His team discovered stem cells in the human eye. Now it's Shoichet and her team's job to see if they can deliver those cells and keep them alive.

"We're trying to stop that disease and reverse it," Shoichet said. 

Women in STEM

Shoichet said that, while she's faced some challenges along the way, she's never let that prevent her from doing what she wanted to do. However, "over the years, I've become more acutely aware of, 'Wait a second. I'm the only woman in this room," she said. 

As such, Shoichet is actively encouraging girls to pursue science, but believes there's been some improvement.

"We see more women entering engineering than we have in the past, so we are making inroads towards that," Shoichet said. "It's still male-dominated in engineering, but I think we're making progress and encouraging more women to go into the field so that there are more women to hire and promote in the field."

According to Engineers Canada, in 2015 only 17 per cent of newly licensed engineers were women. There is a drive now by the organization called 30 by 30: getting that number up to 30 per cent by 2030.

At the University of Toronto, the number of first-year female students in the engineering programs is up to 40 per cent, a record for the school. Other universities are also trying to push toward getting more women in the field: The Lassonde School of Engineering at York University in Toronto launched a $1.5-million program to be the first university in the country with a 50/50 gender balance.

As for Shoichet, she's pleased to continue with the work that she hopes will one day change the lives of people with degenerative diseases.

"That's the big goal: to make a difference for people," Shoichet said. "It's what drives me every day."