Feb 11, 2024

Think Big: Dr. Gingras' Journey from Curiosity to Leadership

Event News, Research Highlights

Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science

AC Gringas Banner in pink and blue
By Saya Sedighi

Dr. Anne-Claude Gingras is the Vice President of Research at Sinai Health, and the Director of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI). She holds the Canada Research Chair in Functional Proteomics and is a Senior Investigator at LTRI. She is also a Full Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto and the co-director of the Network Biology Collaborative Centre. Her research is centred on studying signalling pathways through systematic approaches and the development of quantitative proteomics technologies. Her team has discovered new protein complexes and signalling components, enriching our understanding of perturbations associated with cancer and rare diseases.

Additionally, she has played a pivotal role in Canada's response to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing high-throughput and functional serology assays. Anne-Claude currently mentors 19 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in her lab. In celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we interviewed Dr. Gingras to explore the moments that sparked her passion for science, the challenges she has overcome as a woman in her scientific career, her strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion at LTRI in her role as the new director of the institute, and her approach to mentorship. 

Early Years and Academic Path

Dr. Gingras traces the ignition of her passion for science back to her early childhood, a time when her curiosity was nurtured by her parents. Though her parents did not pursue a university education, her father's enthusiasm for chemistry deeply influenced her. They provided her with little kits for experiments and a Meccano set, allowing her to explore and build from a young age. This hands-on experimentation laid the foundation for her scientific curiosity. Her journey into science, however, was not without its challenges. Growing up in a rural area with limited exposure to scientific research and academia, Anne-Claude faced barriers not directly related to gender but rather to her socio-economic background. 

"You just had no exposure. You had no idea what is possible." 

The local public school, being the most accessible option, offered a modest academic environment. Yet, it was an opportunity during her high school years that expanded her horizon: she was selected to attend a lecture by Marc Garneau, also born in Quebec City, and the first Canadian astronaut. This experience encouraged Anne-Claude to think beyond her immediate environment. 

"That made me think that it doesn’t matter where you come from; you can essentially think bigger."

Choosing to pursue biochemistry in her undergraduate studies, Anne-Claude's financial situation necessitated finding a summer job. Fortunately, a connection through a friend led to a position in a laboratory to change mouse cages. This job, far from her previous job in retail, opened the door to her first research opportunity and the subsequent successful application for an NSERC USRA. The support and mentorship she received from her undergraduate supervisor and his wife during this period not only solidified her interest in science but also fostered lasting professional relationships.

Reflecting on her career, Anne-Claude fondly remembers the project that marked a significant milestone in her journey as a scientist. The project, which revolved around her first publication during her PhD at McGill University, holds a special place in her heart. Under the mentorship of the renowned scientist Dr. Nahum Sonenberg, Anne-Claude was to wrap up the work of a graduate student who recently cloned some new proteins with unclear functions and was on his way to his post-doctoral adventure. 

"It was really fast-paced. I was sequencing the 5’ UTR of that new protein without having a bench; I was pouring my gels on the floor. It worked by some kind of miracle and everybody in the lab was super supportive."

With support from the lab technician, her labmates, and her mentor, she navigated the complexities of the experiments, and the collaborative effort led to the successful submission of the paper to Nature three months into her PhD. This paper helped transform the understanding of mRNA translation regulation, but beyond the scientific breakthroughs, it was the journey that mattered most. She learned the value of hard work, the importance of community in science, and the excitement of pushing the boundaries of knowledge. 

"It was challenging, but it also taught me that if you put your head down and you really try to think beyond the current theme about the problem, you can do a lot." 

Barriers and challenges

Throughout the interview, Anne-Claude shared the unique challenges she faced as a woman in STEM, particularly during the 90s, a time when the landscape was markedly different from today. She recounted an era when sexual harassment was rampant and culturally normalized within the academic and scientific communities. Meetings and professional gatherings were environments where inappropriate advances were almost anticipated.

 "A woman in STEM in the 90s had different challenges. I would say harassment of a sexual nature was super widespread everywhere."

Despite these pervasive challenges, Anne-Claude considers herself fortunate for her experiences in more supportive and respectful lab environments. Her advisors throughout her undergraduate, Ph.D., and post-doctoral phases were commendably indifferent to gender, focusing instead on the passion and capabilities of their mentees. She highlighted that the issues she faced were not isolated but part of a broader, systemic problem that disadvantaged women, with varying degrees of severity. The lack of protective measures and recourse for those subjected to harassment was a glaring issue, with complaints often going unaddressed. However, she acknowledges the positive shifts brought about by movements like Me Too, which have begun to alter norms and increase awareness within academic and professional spheres.

"The Me Too movement has changed things."

Another challenge she pointed out is the difference in how men and women promote themselves and their work. Throughout her career, she observed that societal upbringing and inherent biases within professional systems, including STEM, often reward behaviours typically associated with men, leaving women's achievements underrepresented or undervalued. This discrepancy, she noted, is rooted in deeper cultural and systemic biases that still persist, despite efforts to address them.

"Women's voices are not as loud, and women tend not to brag as much."

Anne-Claude believes that while there is a conscious effort to mitigate these biases and promote gender equality, the challenge of self-promotion and visibility for women in STEM remains significant. She stressed that overcoming these biases requires a collective effort to recognize and value contributions based on merit rather than gendered perceptions of success.

"I see that people are making a huge effort to avoid bias, but this is a tough bias to avoid."

Anne-Claude highlighted a fundamental issue that young girls face on their path to a career in science: lack of confidence. This uncertainty about their capabilities often stems from societal expectations and the underrepresentation of women in certain scientific fields, such as engineering, computer science, physics, and math. She pointed out that, despite their potential, girls are frequently nudged towards professions perceived as more traditional or fitting for them, such as medicine, rather than encouraged to pursue careers in STEM. The root of the problem, as she sees it, lies in the scarcity of female role models in these domains. Without visible examples of women who have succeeded in these fields, young girls may struggle to envision themselves following a similar path. This lack of representation reinforces the notion that careers in quantitative sciences are less attainable for women, further discouraging their participation.

"I think part of it is the lack of self-confidence, thinking they can’t do it. I know several girls who totally could have done it.”

Leadership and Impact 

In the interview, Anne-Claude also discussed the proactive steps being taken at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI) to enhance diversity and inclusivity within the team and the wider institute. Recognizing the need for an updated approach, she mentioned that the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) policy at the LTRI is due for renewal as part of its strategic plan for research. A key initiative she highlighted is the inclusion of trainees on search committees, a move aimed at broadening the diversity of perspectives beyond gender to encompass a wider range of voices, including those of different ages and racial backgrounds.

"The more voices you have, the more people with different experiences you include, the richer the discussion, and then the decisions that get made are in a way that is more understanding of the particular challenges that people might face." 

Anne-Claude emphasized the value of this diversity in enriching discussions and decision-making processes, ensuring that they are more reflective of the community's varied experiences and challenges. To further this goal, she is working on revamping the LTRI executive and ensuring that every search committee for new faculty members includes a postdoctoral researcher. This inclusion is strategic, allowing for an assessment of candidates' research quality and their ability to engage effectively with trainees. However, she also pointed out the importance of meaningful engagement over mere representation. She argued against the inclusion of students in certain committees where their participation might not be impactful, stressing the necessity of ensuring that all members are both qualified and able to contribute meaningfully to the discussions at hand.

"It is one thing to add representation, but meaningful engagement is what I’m looking for."

For the recruitment of the new Deputy Director of Discovery Research, a role pivotal in reimagining engagement with trainees, the selection process involved input from a post-doc and a graduate student, chosen through the research training center, along with an early career investigator. This structure was designed to ensure that the recruitment process is aligned with the institute's commitment to engaging with and supporting the next generation of scientists. Anne-Claude emphasized the importance of supporting women and girls in science by addressing the fundamental challenge of balancing a scientific career with family life. She identified the lack of support for families, particularly for women who choose to become mothers, as a critical barrier that the scientific community needs to address more effectively. Drawing a comparison with Switzerland, where daycare facilities are available on campus, she highlighted the absence of such supportive infrastructure in Canada, leaving individuals to find their own solutions to manage work-life balance.

"I think you need to support families and provide a path for women who decide to become mothers."

Anne-Claude advocates for a system that empowers individuals to successfully raise a family while pursuing a career in science. She points out the significant attrition rates among women at various stages of their academic careers, from undergraduate studies through to postdoctoral work, largely due to the incompatibility of the job with their broader life aspirations. To counter this, she suggests providing better incentives and support systems that would facilitate a more holistic approach to career and family life, thereby ensuring a richer pool of talented women who progress beyond entry-level academic positions to leadership roles.

"It should be such that you really empower women to work in ways that enable them to raise a family well, see their kids, and have a support system that's always there."

The scarcity of women in senior leadership levels within research faculties, according to Anne-Claude, not only reflects the systemic barriers that women face but also contributes to the exhaustion of those who do reach such positions due to the disproportionate responsibilities they bear. Addressing this issue requires meaningful career paths for individuals who aspire to a balanced life outside of the traditional academic trajectory.

"Many women decide not to stay, and I think for me as a leader, that's currently the biggest challenge."

In her vision for a more inclusive and supportive scientific community, Anne-Claude underscores the need for initiatives like on-site daycare facilities, flexible policies, and government lobbying to align grant systems with the realities of maternal responsibilities. Such systemic changes, she believes, would make academic careers more viable and appealing for women who wish to combine professional achievements with family life, ultimately enriching the scientific community with a diverse range of perspectives and experiences.

"For me, I would like to figure out if there are ways to decrease some of the barriers so that people can make different choices if they want to."

Mentorship and empowerment

In her professional journey, Anne-Claude profoundly values the advice given by her mentor Dr. Nahum Sonenberg: "Be kind." This guidance has significantly shaped her approach to her scientific career. 

Reflecting on her evolution since starting her PhD, she acknowledges a transformation, recognizing that the essence of science lies in collaboration and the paramount importance of human connections.

"I think science is a collaborative journey, and it is one where people are the most important asset. The collaborators you have, your students, your PI, and being kind and respectful to everybody are really, really critical."

Reflecting on her experiences with her Ph.D. and postdoc advisors, Anne-Claude describes a laissez-faire style of lab management that, while lacking in direct organization and structure, provided her with the autonomy she needed to thrive. This environment encouraged independent hypothesis formulation and was open to discussions, suiting her self-motivated nature and desire for independence. However, she also acknowledges the downside of this approach: a lack of guidance on matters she hadn't considered, revealing a gap in her mentorship experience.

"I was able to reach out to them whenever I needed, and that worked great for me. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I received much guidance. There were things I wouldn’t think about, and nobody would tell me."

This realization influenced Anne-Claude's own mentoring style, highlighting the importance of adaptability and responsiveness to the needs of her trainees. She strives for a balanced approach that offers support and freedom, recognizing the detrimental effects of micromanagement on growth and learning. She believes in empowering her mentees, allowing them to experience and learn from their failures while ensuring she is available to help them recover and progress.

"You have to let them grow, which means you have to let them fall sometimes, provided you are there to help them get back up. Hopefully, my mentoring style is such that people feel comfortable enough to tell me when they have made a mistake or when they are lost, and we can find ways to overcome whatever it is."

On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Anne-Claude shared an empowering message with both the current and aspiring generations of women scientists: "Believe in yourself. You can do it." She urges them to set their sights high, encouraging them to aim for the greatest extent of their ambitions. Her message is rooted in a conviction of progress, highlighting the significant strides made in the field over the past decades. 

Saya S Author

Author’s note: When I had the opportunity to select a speaker to write about their journey in science, without hesitation, I knew I wanted to write about my supervisor. I often watch Anne-Claude leave her office at 8 p.m., too tired to even walk to the end of the hallway. Yet, she comes back the next day at 8 a.m. for her meetings. She works harder than anyone I have ever met and is incredibly passionate, patient, and kind. She makes me believe in the possibilities of bigger dreams than what I can imagine. Not only is she a very brilliant scientist, but she is also a fantastic mentor who is always available to help in any way you need. She always makes time for her students, even if it means skipping lunch or going home really late. It was my absolute honour to write about her and her journey. I hope this piece inspires future generations of scientists to never give up on their dreams, even if they sound crazy. As Anne-Claude would always say, "Think big; whatever you set your mind to, you can achieve."