International Day of Women and Girls in Science
International Day of Women and Girls in Science

February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

The future of health care depends on women in science. Women in science are the reason for breakthroughs; they are the reason for discovery, change and advancements in the fields of medicine, research, patient care and beyond. Sunnybrook is proud of the many female-identifying team members who are making strides in the various facets of STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine).

Below, meet just a few of the incredible women who are making strides around the hospital and Sunnybrook Research Institute.

Manija Rahimi, senior medical laboratory technologist 

For Manija Rahimi, a senior medical laboratory technologist at Sunnybrook, the COVID-19 pandemic created a distinct ‘before and after’ in her line of work.

Manija works in the Shared Hospital Lab (SHL), which has become one of the largest COVID-19 testing labs in the province. The lab, which is a partnership between Sunnybrook, North York General Hospital, Michael Garron Hospital and the Scarborough Health Network, processes tests from six different hospitals across the region, as well as several COVID assessment centres.

“By the end of 2019, we were testing a maximum of 100 respiratory virus tests a day,” she says. “Now, early in 2022, we have capacity to test around 15,000 COVID and respiratory tests daily.”

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The onset of the pandemic brought swift and significant change to the SHL, which had to adjust to the rapidly increasing COVID-19 testing demands. Manija says staffing in the lab has quadrupled since March 2020 and, in order to process as many COVID-19 tests as possible, was staffed 24 hours a day.

“Staying up to date with constant changes because of the pandemic, plus long working hours, and strenuous night shifts took a toll on me,” says Manija. “Everyone had to deal with COVID-19, but having it so heavily impact my work life as well was a huge change to accept.”

While it was exhausting, Manija says the pandemic made her love her job even more because she saw the kind of impact she and her colleagues can have on patient care.

“Medical scientists and lab techs can be overlooked in the health-care industry. However, it does not stop me from loving my profession because I get to see the firsthand impact we have on patient care,” she says. “Microbiology is never boring; there’s so many new and amazing things to learn.”

But when she looks back on the pandemic, Manija says what she will remember most is being part of a great team of people who were willing to do everything they could to meet the challenge in front of them.

“Working with my amazing colleagues has kept me going through the pandemic. I am grateful to work with some of the most determined, intelligent and supportive health-care staff out there.”

Story by Lindsay Smith. Photography by Kevin Van Paassen

Amal Ga’al, medical student

Despite being a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto, Amal Ga’al hadn’t always planned to become doctor.

“It never really crossed my mind,” she says. Instead, she pictured a career spent combating social issues. “Growing up in lower income communities made an impact on me and strengthened my commitment to community service and addressing inequality.”

That’s what led Amal to studying economics and global affairs at Yale University, then to working in the non-profit sector, managing HIV/AIDS projects in Africa with the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

While doing this work, Amal saw how systems work to hold down those most affected by the disease. Poverty, lack of education and barriers to employment all contribute to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, she says, noting similarities with COVID-19.

“There’s so much that is really driving how pandemics are experienced in different communities and different neighbourhoods,” she says.

With these observations and with her work experience, Amal saw the connection between inequity and health, and she began to realize the impact she could have if she pursued a career in medicine.

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“I want to merge the social and community with the biomedical,” she says of her career plans.

In pursuit of this goal, Amal has surrounded herself with likeminded students and physicians by joining the Black Medical Student Association and SPARK, the Sunnybrook Program to Access Research Knowledge for Black and Indigenous Medical Students.

Through these programs, Amal has helped to address vaccine hesitancy, is working to better understand barriers to COVID care, and is confronting the lack of physician representation in the Black community, to name a few things. She has been looking at the big picture to make real, positive, lasting changes, and she is just getting started.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Well, a few people will manage to break through barriers and climb the ladder,’” she says. “It’s about disrupting the systems and addressing the fact that they’re structured in a way that doesn’t allow everyone to come along for the journey. It’s about opening the door and keeping it open for people coming behind you.”

Story by Kaitlin Jingco. Photography by Doug Nicholson

Dr. Amy Yu, stroke neurologist and researcher

Dr. Amy Yu loves taking care of people; that’s why she chose a career in medicine.

And as a researcher, she aims to have an impact on more people, beyond her own patients.

“My research is driven by the question: How can we make sure that the care for patients with stroke is the same regardless of where the patient is treated or who is caring for them?” Dr. Yu says.

Dr. Yu is leading a team looking at data from hospitals across Ontario to understand the care of people who had a stroke. In 2020, Dr. Yu received a $1.3 million grant from Canadian Institutes of Health Research for her research. The goal is to provide information that will inform the implementation of endovascular thrombectomy, a clot removal procedure, and improve stroke care and outcomes of patients, no matter where they receive care.

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There’s such a breadth of opportunity in science careers, Dr. Yu says.

“Follow what interests and motivates you. What questions do you want to answer? Don’t go by what you think you are supposed to do.”

While her own research is population-data driven, she says no one part of science or research is better than another.

“My work with patients sparks the questions I want to answer in order to make the health system better,” she says. “Your path depends on what problem you are looking to solve.

“The answer could be in a lab with beakers, or under a microscope, or in the hospital ward, or in the data from a collection of hospitals: use your curiosity and follow the path to the answer.”

Dr. Yu says she was lucky to have many strong women role models in her life, starting with her mom.

“We are a first-generation immigrant family. My mother worked so hard. She never had to tell me to work hard for my dreams because she modeled that for me every day.”

Dr. Yu now hopes she is modeling that same determination and work ethic for her two daughters.

“My hope is that my children find something that they are passionate about like I did,” Dr. Yu said. “They still have lots of time to find that passion.”

Story by Alexis Dobranowski. Photography by Kevin Van Paassen

Roula Markoulakis, scientist

When Roula Markoulakis was in graduate school, she noticed students with mental health concerns had unique challenges accessing accommodations and succeeding in their education. It inspired her to focus her PhD research on accessibility for post-secondary students, which eventually brought her to Sunnybrook’s Research Institute (SRI).

Roula is a scientist with Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project (FNP), a program that helps youth and families navigate the mental health system. One of the projects she and the team are working on is youth engagement in FNP’s work. The goal is to allow youth to co-design FNP supports to encourage other youth to use and benefit from navigation services.

“It’s a much more comprehensive approach, to involve youth in the design and utilization of the navigation process at FNP,” she says. “We wanted to explore the best ways to engage youth in navigation services.”

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It’s fulfilling work, finding methods to help youth become better engaged in their care so they can experience the benefits of high-quality, consistent care throughout their adolescence. And Roula says she has a front-row seat to how the research can benefit clients.

“I’m in a position at SRI where I have that direct connection to a front-line team that’s working with clients and I’m able to see the impact of the research almost in real time,” she says.

Navigation is a relatively new field in health care — especially for addictions and mental health supports — and it can be challenging to determine the effectiveness of the supports for youth and families, but Roula says her research provides an opportunity to help develop that knowledge.

“We’re understanding how the model of navigation works and carving out a role for it in the system,” she says. “It’s really exciting that we’re contributing and doing a lot of work [at Sunnybrook] to guide other navigation programs across the country and internationally.”

Roula says the youth and families who participate in the research keep her motivated, working toward improving the mental health system for those who need care.

“I feel privileged to have this opportunity to make a positive change in the lives of youth and their families.”

Story by Lindsay Smith. Photography by Kevin Van Paassen