WCH hosts inaugural Women of Gairdner event

By Amanda Etty

On October 26th, 2022, Women’s College Hospital (WCH) in collaboration with the Gairdner Foundation hosted Women of Gairdner, a panel event featuring Gairdner laureates Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Deborah J. Cook. These renowned scientists shared insights into their unique career paths, their work and the challenges they have faced, as well as the need for greater equity within the health sciences.

The event specifically aimed to inspire students from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities. To this end, 10 Toronto-based high schools selected intrepid STEM-focused students to attend Women of Gairdner. They were joined by youth from community organizations and mentorship programs, as well as undergraduate students. The WCH auditorium was energized by the presence of these bright young minds!

Canada Gairdner Wightman Award recipient Dr. Deborah J. Cook spoke about how far women in science have come, as well as the importance of fostering organizational culture and what we can do to change organizational culture. She called for greater mentorship, support, befriending, advocacy, sponsorship and amplification.

Our next speaker, Dr. Katalin Karikó, Canada Gairdner International Award recipient, explained her discovery of the mRNA and then delved into her career, starting as a young biology enthusiast in Hungary through to career achievements and rejections. Dr. Karikó’s life lessons are a study in perseverance. And her advice for aspiring STEM students? Love your work, be modest, learn to handle stress, believe in yourself, get out of your comfort zone and learn from somebody.

The laureates were then joined by Dr. Rulan Parekh, WCH’s VP of Academics, and two WCH summer students, high schooler Sruti Prabakaran and undergraduate Ella Nugent. Sruti and Ella spoke with Dr. Cook and Dr. Karikó about their careers, including setbacks, memorable achievements and best advice.

Following the panel portion of the event, invited students had the opportunity to take part in a related educational activity and networking event, where students got to know each other, as well as the WCH researchers and scientists in attendance. The educational activity was hosted by Nadia McLaren, Manager, Indigenous Health Education, at the Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health, and Suzanne Charles Watson, Director of Anti-Racism, Equity and Social Accountability, who encouraged students to work collaboratively to create vision boards using images and words that represent science.

Women of Gairdner successfully fostered greater community connections and enhanced interest in STEM, particularly among the young attendees from diverse backgrounds. While this was the first year organizing Women of Gairdner, we are excited for it to become an annual event. As an organization founded on the belief that equity enables both healthcare excellence and revolutionary advancements, WCH is committed to mentoring the next generation of health scientists and clinicians who will help us shape the future of healthcare.

Thank you to everyone who made this inaugural event a success. And especially to our students in attendance – healthcare and science, more generally, needs more young people like you!