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Medical research pioneer Molly Shoichet receives U of T's most distinguished rank

"An inspirational researcher and passionate innovator"

Mark Balson)

Nausea, vomiting, hair loss – these are just a few of the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy. Although the drugs are designed to kill cancerous cells and save lives, the potent chemicals destroy tissues and can damage the human body.

Professor Molly Shoichet (ChemE, IBBME) is leading a multidisciplinary team of researchers who are developing new ways to administer drugs that target only cancerous tissues, leaving the healthy ones intact. This week, Shoichet received one of the University of Toronto’s most prestigious titles: University Professor. The distinguished rank is given to just two per cent of tenured faculty, serving to highlight her outstanding contributions to research and teaching.

As a Canada Tier 1 Research Chair in Tissue Engineering, Shoichet’s research tackles a wide scope of medical-related challenges, from healing spinal cord injuries to blindness using stem cell therapy. The impact of her work extends beyond the laboratory, driven in part by her dedication to mentoring, teaching and motivating her students and colleagues.

“Professor Shoichet is an inspirational researcher and passionate innovator in biomedical engineering,” said Engineering Dean Cristina Amon. “On behalf of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, I offer my heartfelt congratulations for this richly-deserved recognition. We are all tremendously proud of her commitment to excellence and her pioneering discoveries.”

U of T Engineering’s Sydney Goodfellow spoke with Professor Shoichet about her passion for research and education.

With projects ranging from stem cell therapy to treatment of disease, what sort of impacts do you expect your research to have?

I have always thought that we, in academia, should focus on answering big questions and solving difficult problems. I like to think of our research as the interface of applied chemistry and applied biology. Ultimately, we aim to enhance tissue repair and functional recovery in diseases associated with stroke, spinal cord injury, blindness and breast cancer. We’re able to work in diverse fields due to the strength of our graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, technicians and collaborators.

Your diverse research has received attention around the world. Can you share some of the recent projects you and your team are working on?

Currently we are designing polymers – which are essentially long chains of hundreds or thousands of tiny molecules – for use in biology and medicine. We’re excited about many of our projects, like designing novel ways to deliver therapeutic biomaterials to the spinal cord, brain or eye; creating innovative hydrogels that allow us to grow cells in three-dimensional environments that mimic nature; and developing new methods for targeted drug delivery in cancer. From our lab at U of T, we have the privilege of collaborating with leading experts locally, as well as those in Canada and around the world.

As a University Professor and leader of a lab that has graduated more than 100 researchers in two decades, your dedication to teaching and education is clear. How do you balance the educational and research sides of your career?

Whether it’s for students in the classroom or scientists in the lab, I am fully dedicated to the academic mission of advancing knowledge. I really enjoy bringing research into the classroom and sparking imaginations.

I have received significant support from my colleagues in the Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry [department], which allows me to teach those subjects that I’m most adept at teaching, while providing me with the opportunity to devote meaningful time to research. As a mother of two teenage boys, I’m also blessed with a husband who supports my career aspirations. Balance is something that I strive for every day.

What motivates you to pursue your research?

I also love the pursuit of knowledge. I love working with the brilliant researchers in my lab, attempting to answer questions together – questions that have long gone unanswered, or even unasked. Discovery is fascinating and wonderful.

I also love learning about companies, their products and how they are making a difference in people’s lives.  The raison d’etre of biomedical engineering is the same: I aspire to advance our research knowledge towards new applications in medicine. While I understand that many stars must align for this to come to fruition, this is one of my great passions and a significant motivation.

If you could give yourself as a student a piece of career advice, what would it be?

I encourage students to pursue their dreams. If they spend their lives doing what they love, they will spend more time doing it and thus be more likely to succeed. I have been particularly blessed with opportunities and have worked hard to bring them to fruition.

Read more about Molly Shoichet's research.