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Eugenia Kumacheva. (Micheline Pelletier)
Eugenia Kumacheva. (Micheline Pelletier)

A celebrated career, started by a teacher Add to ...

Teachers play a vital role in making a career in science attractive to girls and young women, says Eugenia Kumacheva, the first Canadian recipient of a L’Oréal-UNESCO “For Women in Science” Award, in 2009, and president of the jury for L’Oréal Canada’s annual fellowship program. The University of Toronto chemistry professor, a married mother of two raised in the former Soviet Union, was set on literature, poetry or journalism – until a high-school chemistry teacher opened her mind to a life in science.

Q: What attitude do you see among girls toward science?

A: Cautious.

Q: How would you get them over that caution?

A: It has to start from teachers. More work has to be done to make it attractive. When you wash your hair with a detergent and then you cannot wash the detergent from your hair, there is science behind it. This is how I generally give my lectures. I start from something that is really interesting. You open a beer bottle and there’s condensed water on the bottle – it’s called beer sweating. Students are attracted to this. Then I start from basic thermodynamic equations explaining why this is happening.

Q: How did you become interested in science?

A: I had a very good chemistry teacher. I was involved in organizing our school parties. She said, “Why don’t you try to do something related to chemistry?” My friend and I went to the library and got books on chemistry demonstrations. We presented it in front of the class. I was 16-years-old. We were trapping smoke in a beaker and I was pretending to be smoking in front of the teacher. It was captivating. Five or six of us went into chemistry, mostly because of this teacher.

Q: What was it about this teacher that made a connection?

A: She was interesting. She was not going through the dry materials that are generally taught in the class. People think by association, they make analogies with the everyday world. It’s the first step. There’s a school in Vaughan, Ont., and a teacher who constantly brings his students to national and international competitions in chemistry. And they win. So what is special about these kids? There is a spark of interest that the teacher generates in his classes.

Q: What drew you to a life in research?

A: I like to invent, to solve problems, to go to the bottom of phenomena.

Q: Please describe your research.

A: Everything starts, what if? What if we do something that will lead us to this material? For example, how to make drug carriers that will target malignant cells, cancer cells, and will leave healthy cells intact. We’re coming up with the design of small particles that have specific molecules that will recognize only cancer cells and ignore healthy cells. They shrink because of the similar acidity of the cells, and release the drug. By doing this we are increasing the efficiency of drug delivery by 40 per cent, by 60 per cent, which means that the efficiency of curing cancer will be improved dramatically.

Q: Is science fun?

A: If you’re talking about fun as in enjoyment, yes, it is a lot of fun. I don’t like when people say, “it was hard work, it was not fun.” You have to work really hard to get this enjoyment.

Q: What is your advice to girls and women?

A: You have to realize how important it is for you to do science. Then you have to build your personal relations through this attitude. It is more difficult for women to do science than for men. We have to take care of our families. We have to make many sacrifices and sometimes relations do not withstand this sacrifice.

Q: Why should we care about the number of women in science careers?

A: Because women constitute about 50 per cent of the population of the world. So we are losing a very large number of potential scientists. And because this phenomenological, creative mind that women have can lead to wonderful things.

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