Molly Shoichet Named 2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Laureate

Professor Molly Shoichet (ChemE, IBBME) has been named the 2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science laureate for North America for her pioneering work on the development of biomaterials for medical uses, one of the highest international awards of the research world.  This prize is awarded annually to five female researchers – one from each continent – in recognition of their outstanding contributions to research, the strength of their commitment to their profession and their impact on society.

Professor Shoichet’s list of professional accomplishments is extremely impressive.  She is a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, making her the only person to be elected to all three of our country’s science academies.  She is also a keen advocate for science communication and outreach, and is currently the senior advisor on science and engineering engagement to U of T President Meric Gertler.

The key to Professor Shoichet’s success is the highly interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of her lab’s work.  Combining polymer chemistry, biology, medicine and engineering, he research focuses on creating new materials that can be used to solve tricky medical problems.

One example is the treatment of spinal cord injuries.  The spinal cord is protected by a blood barrier that does not allow drugs taken orally or by injection to penetrate to where they are needed.  Professor Shoichet’s group has developed a jelly-like material called a hydrogel, which is runny enough to inject through a needle but forms a malleable gel once it sets.  Hydrogels can be used to inject slow-release drugs or stem cells directly to the site of injury in the spinal cord, and allows them to stay in place and be protected while they do their job.  This technology also holds great promise for the treatment of other nervous system injuries such as stroke or blindness.

Another target of Professor Shoichet’s work is reducing the terrible side-effects of the harsh drugs used in cancer treatment.  If the drugs can be delivered only to the cancer cells instead of being administered to the whole body, treatment would become more effective and patients’ quality of life would significantly improve.  Professor Shoichet’s approach is to create polymer nano-beads that carry the drugs to a tumour through the blood system.  The beads are small enough to enter cancerous vasculature but large enough not to pass through healthy vasculature.

“We are extremely proud of Professor Shoichet and delighted that she is being recognized with this very prestigious award,” says ChemE Department Chair Grant Allen.  “She is truly at the leading edge of the application of chemistry, engineering and biology to make a positive impact on human health.  She continues to inspire all of us and provide outstanding education for the next generation.”

Professor Shoichet will travel to Paris next week for the awards ceremony.  Learn more about the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science program.

In celebration of International Women’s Day this Sunday, March 8, read about other outstanding female engineers.

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