Celebrated on , the International Day of Women and Girls in Science recognizes the role of women and girls in science, not only as beneficiaries, but also as agents of change.
With a background in science, Parkinson Canada’s President and CEO, Karen Lee, received her PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from the University of Ottawa. Karen is a leader and strong role model for women in science. Known for connecting researchers to the community, Karen’s passion for neuroscience is bolstered by a commitment to gender equality within the sector and beyond.
This month we are proud to highlight the stories of some of the remarkable women whose research is supported by Parkinson Canada.
Pooja Gandhi is a speech-language pathologist and PhD candidate at the University Health Network. She hopes her research into an exercise-based therapy called ‘effortful swallowing,’ a well-established stroke rehabilitation therapy, will also help people living with Parkinson’s.
By first x-raying people’s throats as they are swallowing to see what physiological impairments are occurring and then putting participants through a course to strengthen their throat muscles and increase tongue pressure, she will be able to measure the progress.
If effortful swallowing is as effective as Gandhi hopes, it will help to prevent aspiration, enabling people to eat and drink normally and enjoy social functions.
Pooja says her journey in science has been ‘driven by women.’ “It started with my mother, who urged me to pursue my dreams.”
She was also influenced by seeing her late grandfather struggle to eat and drink as his Parkinson’s progressed.
“As I began my journey in science, I realized that what excited me most was its application in clinical settings; speech pathology emerged as an obvious choice.”
Pooja is quick to credit female mentors who have had a meaningful impact in her career, including her PhD supervisor Dr. Catriona Steele and close mentor Dr. Emily Plowman, in helping her be a better clinician and researcher.
“These women have helped my professional growth by demonstrating the importance of being a strong collaborator and an effective communicator,” she says. “They taught me always to keep the best interests of our patients and those we work with at the heart of our work. Moving forward, I hope to do the same, providing meaningful mentorship and support for others in my shoes as they find their feet in this field.”
Dr. Silke Appel-Cresswell
At the University of British Columbia and with her colleagues at the University of Calgary, Dr. Silke Appel-Cresswell, a neurologist and associate professor, uses high-resolution screening tools to study the bacteria in the guts of people with Parkinson’s. This colony of bacteria, fungi and viruses is known as the microbiota.
Dr. Appel-Cresswell has always been interested in nutrition and the potential for lifestyle interventions such as diet and exercise to delay the onset of diseases like Parkinson’s. She is a founding member of the BC Brain Wellness Program, which establishes clinically relevant lifestyle approaches to complement medical treatment.
The trillions of micro-organisms living in our gastrointestinal tracts may be significant contributors to Parkinson’s, with particular strains driving inflammation or allowing too many toxic proteins to move from the gut to the brain.
“From the evidence we have so far, it seems that the microbiota in people with Parkinson’s are different from those in people who do not have Parkinson’s,” she says.
If she can confirm mechanisms that link gut bacteria and Parkinson’s, her work could lead to treatments that address gut dysfunction. The research could also lead to recommended changes in diet and nutrition, such Mediterranean-type diets or probiotics.
Appel-Cresswell’s multi-faceted personal mission to prevent neurodegenerative diseases as a clinician and a researcher makes for a purposeful and satisfying career. However, it is one that demands long hours, and she admits that it is often challenging to achieve a healthy work-life balance.
Appel-Cresswell took part in research on gender and funding success that demonstrated an ongoing imbalance in research potential between men and women. The findings showed that at the start of their careers, research potential between men and women is equal, but it diverged after the early career stage. Why?
“I think it’s several things, from overall gender bias to the fact that women are often taken off-track during the crucial years when they are trying to get tenure or build up a grant trajectory, which often coincides with starting a family,” says Silke. Although there is now more awareness of the competing demands of career and family, she believes there is more work to be done.
“It’s important to have supportive networks, both female and male mentors who actively promote you. We need to close that leadership gap that perpetuates the underrepresentation of women in senior positions. It’s also critical to have supports to combat the real danger of burnout.”
Janelle Drouin-Ouellet, PhD
Neurobiologist Janelle Drouin-Ouellet has known since the age of 16 that she wanted to be a researcher in the medical field. She came to Parkinson’s research through her fascination with cell-based replacement therapy. Her focus, and the research for which she received the John McEown Parkinson Canada New Investigator Award, is to provide an accurate way of studying age as a risk factor for Parkinson’s.
The technique, called neuronal reprogramming, that Janelle has helped develop, converts skin cells into brain cells, and the aging signature of those cells stays the same as that of the donor.
Having a variety of “aged” brain cells will enable her to study how survival systems within brain cells begin declining with aging, and the reasons mitochondria are malfunctioning, causing brain cells that produce dopamine to die.
Using nearly 40 different lines of patient cells that produce dopamine, the brain chemical crucial in Parkinson’s, Drouin-Ouellet will expose them to different potential causes of the disease, from pesticides to a specific protein that causes brain cells to die. Her goal? To ultimately develop personalized treatments.
Janelle has been inspired by two women supervisors whom she views as role models in her life and work.
“They made such a difference in how I approach science and to my belief that I don’t have to be limited by my gender.”
Now that she is running her own lab, she pays forward her experiences to the female colleagues under her supervision.
“I try to provide a safe environment in the lab, where being a woman is not yet another hurdle to overcome. Here, it’s an equal environment.”
Parkinson Canada is committed to encouraging and empowering women in STEM careers and supports the initiative embodied in UNESCO‘s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.