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Five women in science who are shaping child health research at SickKids
14 minute read

Five women in science who are shaping child health research at SickKids


On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, learn about five women in diverse roles that support child health research at SickKids, and their insights on pursuing a career in science.

Researchers are inspired to enter science for many reasons. For some, it’s to learn more about a hereditary disease that runs in the family. For others, like Amy Wong, it’s a science teacher who looked like Albert Einstein.

Amy Wong is a scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and one of the many women in science that support and drive child health research at the hospital and SickKids Research Institute.

For International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we sat down with researchers like Amy, including principal investigators, a clinician-scientist, research assistant and research technologist, to learn more about the scope of their work at SickKids and their insights and advice on pursuing a career in science.

Amy Wong

Scientist, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology

Scientist wearing a lab coat in a lab setting.
Amy Wong, Scientist

Before starting her own lab in 2019, Wong completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the labs of Janet Rossant and James Ellis at SickKids. There, Wong was the first person to be able to make lung cells from human stem cells.

“We were able to make human lung cells without ever touching the lungs. We can take a piece of skin, reprogram it into stem cells, and then coax them to become lung cells,” she says.

Now as a Scientist in the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology program, Wong uses these samples to better understand how lung disease forms.

Can you tell me a little about your career and research?

I’ve been in the SickKids family for well over 10 years. I started here as a postdoc in 2009 and was very lucky to be mentored by a world-renown scientist, Dr. Janet Rossant, who really supported female scientists and understood the things that women in science face today. She understood that for many women pursuing a postdoc, they’re at an age where important life events happen, such as having children. She fully supported that, knowing that it would disrupt continuity of the research. I took time off to have two kids during my postdoc tenure and it did not negatively impact my career where it might have not too long ago. Janet also fully supported me in every way to build my career and exposure to other international researchers, so I was very fortunate to be involved in many collaborative projects to help build my name and my own research brand.

This help me tremendously in my career as I was able to start my own lab in 2019 here at SickKids. In addition to our cystic fibrosis research, my research lab uses human stem cell models to understand how the human lung forms. A lot of what we learn about human development has been extrapolated from animal models and this has helped us tremendously in understanding development and disease. But there are unique differences that cannot be replicated in animal models and so having human stem cell-derived organ models is critical to better understand how human diseases form and to identify therapies for patients.

What drew you to this career?

I had a Grade 9 biology teacher who looked exactly like Albert Einstein. It’s hard not to fall in love with science when you go to class and you feel like you’re being taught by Dr. Einstein! My love of research was born from an undergrad research project course. I loved how in research anything goes. You have a problem, and you figure out how to solve it. There are endless possibilities. Now in my lab, I’m adamant about having undergraduate research students to help spark that curiosity and passion for scientific discovery.

What is the most challenging thing about the work that you do?

Wearing multiple hats and knowing how to juggle it all and do it well! But it is part of the job and certainly I enjoy doing it, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. It is definitely rewarding when my students come to my office to share some exciting new data or when they send a message to show me a perfect staining of a lung tissue.

What advice do you have for girls interested in a career in science?

Perseverance. If you choose a career in research, you’re going to fail 99 per cent of the time. But when you succeed that one per cent of time, and you will, it is so much more rewarding and so much more impactful. It’s important that you learn from your failures. If you have patience and stay motivated, you will succeed.

Ranjeeta Jagoowani

Clinical Research Project Assistant, Division of Infectious Diseases

Headshot of Ranjeeta Jagoowani
Ranjeeta Jagoowani, Clinical Research Project Assistant

Ranjeeta Jagoowani is a Clinical Research Project Assistant who works with Dr. Upton Allen in the Division of Infectious Diseases. She is part of the seroMARK Project research team, which is conducting antibody testing and data collection to understand the prevalence of COVID-19 infection, immunity and risk factors among Black Canadians in Ontario. The study aims to inform potential policies as well as health and safety measures that can help reduce disease risk for Black Canadians.

“Our research mainly focuses on three COVID projects that deal with the Black Canadian population,” says Ranjeeta. “I work with community groups to recruit participants for our research and to also help address vaccine hesitancy.”

What drew you to this career?

I’ve always been interested in health care, and I have a background as a laboratory technician. I got a point where I wanted to start doing something a little different and take my career in a different level. I started working with Dr. Allen first by processing lab samples and then got more involved in some of the community work related to the seroMARK project, like recruiting research participants and informing community members about how they can get involved in our research.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

Community engagement is such an important part of our seroMARK research project. We’ve partnered with people from different board committees, churches, you name it. We’re reaching out to people in communities across Ontario, from Scarborough to Windsor. My role is helping to build trust among communities who may not typically be involved in research, which helps science to be more accessible as a whole.

There’s been a lot of word-of-mouth outreach around our project, and a lot of people who just want to be part of it. Knowing that all of these people are having an impact on the research and that we’re contributing to broader understanding of COVID-19 is really rewarding.

What advice do you have for girls interested in a career in science?

I’m one of those people who always wants to learn and grow, so my advice would be to get involved wherever you can. To get to that next level, you have to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and see how you can use your skills toward whatever goal you have. Know what you’re capable of and go out and find out what you can do with it. You never know what skills you pick up along the way will be beneficial in the long run.

Dr. Nicole McKinnon

Scientist Track-Investigator, Neurosciences & Mental Health and Physician, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU)

Dr. Nicole McKinnon, Scientist-Track Investigator

As a clinician-scientist, Dr. Nicole McKinnon splits her time between seeing patients at the hospital and working in her research lab. Her research in the Neurosciences & Mental Health program focuses on understanding how brain neurons communicate with one another and how networks of neurons change following cerebral ischemia, a condition where blood flow and oxygen are cut off from the brain, such as cardiac arrest, stroke and traumatic brain injuries. In the PICU, Dr. McKinnon’s work focuses on improving neurological outcomes of children who are recovering from critical illness and understanding the effects of sedative medications following brain injury.

What drew you to this career?

Paediatrics is a very interesting field to work in as a neuroscientist because of the ongoing brain development and brain plasticity that we see in young patients. For example, if a child has what we call a ‘brain insult,’ such as a stroke or severe seizures caused by epilepsy, their brain’s ability to better adapt and rewire itself means that they can often respond better to treatments and rehabilitation options than adults. As a clinician-scientist, a question I’m always asking is, how can we improve on a patient’s plasticity and give these patients their best outcomes?

What’s something that people might be surprised to learn about your job?

The bench-to-bedside relationship. I take many of the clinical questions I have from seeing patients down to the cellular level in the lab, replicating them into models so we can study them. I think it might surprise some people that you can take complex diseases and break them down to that basic level where we’re looking at cells and molecules.

What advice do you have for girls interested in a career in science?

There are so many ways to get to science, and just because you don’t have a Master’s in biochemistry doesn’t mean you can’t participate in science. Make decisions about what you pursue in science based on what excites you. Science has twists and turns, and it has days with experiments that don’t work, grants that get rejected and research that doesn’t get published. You need something that will drive you during those periods of time. Do what excites you and what you’re passionate about, and most importantly, don’t forget to be kind to yourself.

Monique Johnson

Laboratory Research Project Coordinator, Cell Biology, Hawkins Lab

Headshot of Monique Johnson
Monique Johnson, Laboratory Research Project Coordinator

Monique Johnson is a Laboratory Research Project Coordinator in the lab of Dr. Cynthia Hawkins, whose work takes her inside of the hospital in the pathology department where she develops and validates molecular diagnostic tests for subsets of brain tumours.

Monique says she has always been interested in science, but found her way into a research career through a combination of an interest in forensic science inspired by crime investigation shows and a family history of cancer. “Cancer runs in my family and a question in the back of my mind has always been, ‘why does this keep popping up?’” she says.

After finishing her master’s degree, Monique started working at SickKids as a research technologist, a role that assists in the design, testing and evaluation of research such as organizing data and conducting specialized tasks for experiments.

What is the most challenging thing about the work that you do?

People often don’t realize how much time and work it takes to go from the inception of a project to the end goal of a clinically validated test. This process can take years for completion from the first drafting of the grant proposal to the final sign-off and adoption into a lab. There are many points along the way for delays to get from the beginning to the end of a grant. You always want to get these tests developed and adopted into the lab as soon as possible so it can be beneficial to the patients we serve. 

What about the most rewarding?

It’s the opportunity to help. It’s rewarding to hear something I’ve supported allows a patient to have a positive result, even if the intervention is still in a research stage such as a clinical trial drug.

What words of advice do you have for girls interested in a career in science?

The more women we can get involved in science, the more insights and diversity we can bring in, which will help shape the future of science. Any girl who is thinking of pursuing science but doesn’t see themselves represented, I would still say go for it, because then you become the representation that someone else needs.

Jeehye Park

Scientist, Genetics & Genome Biology

Headshot of Jeehye Park
Jeehye Park, Scientist

Jeehye Park knew she wanted to be a scientist when she first learned about Dolly the Sheep, the first sheep to be cloned by researchers in 1996. “I was in high school when I learned about Dolly, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, biology is so cool. Maybe I can clone my dog,’” she says, and eventually went on to pursue a PhD in biology.

As a Scientist in the Genetics & Genome Biology program, Park’s research focuses on neurodegenerative diseases, specifically amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and seeks to identify therapeutic targets to treat ALS. In particular, she is interested in both adult-onset and childhood ALS and looking for signs of ALS in early stages of the disease. Park holds a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Molecular Genetics & Neurodegenerative Diseases. She says that being a CRC chairholder brings her greater opportunities to work with and mentor students in her lab.

What do you find rewarding about your work?

What we do and discover in the lab can help to potentially develop new treatments for patients. If I had another job, I would want to be a doctor, but early on, I knew I wanted to invest more of my time doing research because, although doctors have an amazing impact on their patients, I thought with research I could have an impact on a greater number of people.

What’s something that people might be surprised to learn about your job?

Any time we make a discovery it surprises me. When I was a graduate student or postdoc, I was often the one who got to see the discovery first, which was always exciting. But now it’s my students who get to see it first and I’m more excited for them when they tell me about it.

What advice do you have for girls interested in a career in science?

Have patience. Research takes a lot of time and effort. It might take a long time to get to where you want to be and get to a point where you can discover something new. You need patience to reach that goal.

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