“We get these girls excited about science, but it brings out the passion in us too,” says Ruba Halaoui, right, about the Young Women in Bio programs she helps organize with Sylvia Andrzejewski.

Sylvia Andrzejewski and Ruba Halaoui share their passion for science with the researchers of the future

Sylvia Andrzejewski and Ruba Halaoui are not waiting until they’ve completed their PhDs at the Goodman Cancer Research Centre (GCRC) to begin inspiring the generation that could follow them into the lab.

Andrzejewski and Halaoui are members of the Young Women in Bio (YWIB) program, orchestrated by Women in Bio (WIB). When Andrzejewski and Halaoui lead an YWIB event in Montreal, a group of 14 and 15-year old girls greet them with smiles and questions: about what kinds of careers exist in science, what it is like to be a graduate student, and even how to choose a good supervisor. “It’s a good girl power club,” Andrzejewski said.

“We do lots of really fun experiments, and they get really excited about science,” Andrzejewski said. Ruba showed them cells under a microscope, while Andrzejewski helped the teens isolate the stringy, visible DNA in banana peel cells.

“You can see their eyes light up,” Andrzejewski said. “It’s the kind of thing I wish I had when I was young.”

“The YWIB program is a great opportunity to show girls what they can be,” Halaoui said. “We just kind of want to open up and show them other opportunities.”

WIB has twelve chapters, including one Canadian chapter in Montreal. (McGill’s Faculty of Medicine, the academic home of the GCRC, was one of the Montreal chapter’s founding sponsors according to the WIB website.) In addition to workshops for potential future members, the organization offers networking and encouragement to people just beginning their career. Meeting other inspiring women in the field is important, Halaoui noted. “Especially in academia, you find fewer women PIs. (About a quarter of the GCRC’s principal investigators are women.)

Both Andrzejewski and Halaoui were always interested in science, and each have made their way to the GCRC for their graduate studies. Andrzejewski is doing her PhD about the role mitochondria play in breast cancer metastasis in Dr. Julie St-Pierre’s lab, with additional guidance from Dr. Peter Siegel. Halaoui is a PhD student in Dr. Luke McCaffrey’s lab, working on cell polarity and early breast cancer progression. Both said the community of the GCRC has helped them move forward with their studies. 

“The open concept of it all – you can easily go to a neighbouring lab and ask them for something for a product or for their advice about a technique,” she said. “If you have a question that your supervisor is not an expert in, you can ask another supervisor to help you,” Halaoui said.

Through the Young Women in Bio, they get to pay forward some of the help they’ve received. Although they have the packed schedules of any graduate student, making some time to head out and meet with young aspiring scientists is rejuvenating. “It’s relaxing for us, and it reminds us why we’re doing this,” Halaoui said. “We’re sharing our passion, which is priceless for us,” Andrzejewski added. “And their excitement is contagious.” 

Andrzejewski received a travel award during her master’s degree, also at the GCRC, heading to D.C. for a conference. Travel awards are one of the many internal funding mechanisms the GCRC offers to students. These awards help talented young scientists like Andrzejewski and Halaoui to advance their careers.

Want to give back to the GCRC?  Find out more here.