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Glenda Fernandez (left) and Melissa Cheung, photographed at Novo Nordisk Canada’s Mississauga headquarters, are removing barriers for the next generation of women in science.Lucy Lu

Marie Krogh may not be a household name, but her legacy inspires women in science to this day.

Global pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, which was founded in 1923 in Denmark, owes part of its legacy to this brilliant woman. While the company, which specializes in diabetes care, was founded by scientist and Nobel laureate August Krogh, it was his wife, Marie, who urged him to obtain the rights to insulin manufacturing from Canada.

A physician with a doctorate in medicine, Marie Krogh was just the fourth woman to obtain an advanced medical degree in Denmark. She had Type 2 diabetes, as did many of her patients, and her early advocacy led to the introduction of insulin to Denmark and the founding of a pharmaceutical powerhouse that now employs 46,000 people in 80 countries.

While Dr. Krogh is seldom recognized for her work – she quietly published a 1915 study about how gases diffuse through the lungs, which is now the basis for a common lung function test – the women who work for Novo Nordisk Canada today know her story.

“She had patients who were suffering from diabetes, and she took it on,” says Glenda Fernandez, senior manager of quality assurance and product safety with Novo Nordisk Canada. “I think that as women, we take on these quests. You feel her presence when you talk to women in quality assurance. There are so many women like her who work for this company.”

Ms. Fernandez has worked at Novo Nordisk Canada for 40 years. She says reading a book as a child about another pioneering female researcher, Marie Curie, inspired her to study science.

Sylvia Chan Remillard, senior medical science liaison at Novo Nordisk Canada, sees in Marie’s story the importance of support from family.

“It says a lot about her husband. I don’t think many husbands of that time would do that,” Dr. Chan Remillard says of August Krogh taking his wife’s advice to work with insulin.

“When I think about Marie, I think of my husband. I’ve never taken a second seat to him, he has always been one of my biggest champions,” says the Calgary-based mother of two.

An early insulin advocate, Danish physician and researcher Marie Krogh (1874 – 1943) is a pivotal figure in the history of diabetes treatment.Novo Nordisk History and Art Collection

Overcoming barriers

It’s been a century since Marie Krogh’s pioneering efforts in science, but barriers still exist for women in science today.

For Melissa Cheung, strategic operations manager, the challenges began from day one of her life. When she was born, her father called his parents in Hong Kong to have them bestow a name on her. “When they heard I was a female, they hung up on him. And so when we talk about women having to work twice as hard, it’s a message I’ve been given since I was a child.”

But Dr. Cheung was encouraged by her immediate family. “Thank goodness I was born to parents who didn’t subscribe to these stereotypes,” she says.

While doing her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, she applied to many research labs to get experience. “I decided to be honest and vulnerable. I wrote that I had loved science since I was a kid, please give me a shot to be part of your lab.” Those words caught the eye of one professor, Dr. Rod Bremner, who gave her a chance, and that led to the research experience she needed to apply to graduate school and eventually complete a PhD.

Dr. Chan Remillard did her PhD in nutrition and food sciences but then pivoted into an industrial postdoc at an environmental engineering company – a shift both in the science, but also from a women-filled industry to a male-dominated one.

Prior to joining Novo Nordisk, the company she worked for at the time hired an external engineering firm whose employees treated her “like a 1950s housewife” and ordered her to do administrative tasks, she remembers.

“The engineers on my team eventually stood up to these people and said, ‘You can’t talk to her that way. That is not her role and she is a valued technical member of this team,’” says Dr. Chan Remillard.

Championing the power of difference

These days, Marie Krogh’s legacy lives on through Novo Nordisk’s commitment to supporting women in science. Ms. Fernandez points out that the company strives to be a leader in the diversity, equity and inclusion space.

“Our global company has always been very inclusive and our Canadian branch has really caught up to that,” she says. “In the last few years, I have seen more diversity here in gender and in race.”

As a woman and an immigrant who moved to Canada from Pakistan when she was a child, Ms. Fernandez says she’s experienced both racism and sexism throughout her life. “I’ve seen it all. As a person, I want to be seen as an individual, not just the colour of my skin or my gender. I’ve always stood up for that.”

She says she’s grateful to the many champions at work who have helped her take on new challenges and boosted her confidence. In particular, she recalls the first time she was given the task of handling a Health Canada inspection on her own. When she got the call from Health Canada that they were coming in, she went to see her director in a panic. “Glenda, you’ve got this!” he said simply, and that was all she needed.

Dr. Chan Remillard came to Novo Nordisk in 2017 at a time when she wondered how much of her outgoing personality she should display at work. She had been told by two female former managers that if she acted that way, people would not respect her and would find her “creepy.” Dr. Chan Remillard says this epitomized to her how women should be champions for each other instead of holding each other down.

At Novo Nordisk, she’s encouraged to be herself, says Dr. Chan Remillard. “I’ve realized that people want to work with me because of the positive energy I bring to projects.”

The next generation of pioneers

In order to encourage a new generation to pursue a career in science, Dr. Cheung serves as a mentor through the University of Toronto’s New College Career Mentorship Program. Few young people realize that not all science careers involve working in labs, she says, noting that she uses her scientific background in her role in strategic operations all the time.

“At the end of the day, when a woman looks ahead to her career, I want them to only consider whether or not they’re passionate about it and willing to work hard. I don’t want them to be limited by something as arbitrary as their gender,” she says.

As more young women embrace careers in science, it’s important there be more great companies where they can work and be supported, adds Ms. Fernandez.

“I’m glad that as [Novo Nordisk] has grown, we’ve been very cognizant of being diverse and inclusive and a great place to work for everyone.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Novo Nordisk. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.