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Molly Shoichet (right) is a professor at UofT who specialized in tissue engineering, particularly with respect to the nervous system and spinal chord. She’s been named the North American winner of the L’Oreal –UNESCO prize for women in science.

Roberta Baker/University of Toronto

A University of Toronto researcher known for applying engineering principles to medical problems has garnered a top international award for women in science.

Molly Shoichet, a professor of chemistry and biomaterials and biomedical engineering, was named a winner of the 100,000 euro ($140,000 Cdn) prize, which is co-sponsored by UNESCO and the cosmetics company L'Oréal. The prize is awarded annually to five female researchers, each representing a different geographic region. Prof. Shoichet is this year's North American winner, the first Canadian to claim the prize since 2009.

In a release, prize officials announced that Prof. Shoichet is being honoured for "for the development of new materials to regenerate damaged nerve tissue and for a new method that can deliver drugs directly to the spinal cord and brain."

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Prof. Shoichet, who is a recipient of several awards and fellowships within Canada, said she was "thrilled and a little surprised" to learn she had been selected for the international prize.

Such recognition for women scientists is important, she said, "because I think we need to galvanize our entire population, not just half of our population, to get the best and most creative minds to try to make the world a better place."

Prof. Shoichet was born and raised in Toronto, but pursued her post-secondary education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she earned her PhD in polymer science and engineering.

After working in industry, she came to the University of Toronto in 1995 and began tackling the problem of the blood-brain barrier, a tightly interwoven network of cells that protects the central nervous system from toxins but can also block helpful medications.

Prof. Shoichet's method involves delivering drugs in a gel-like polymer that can be injected directly into the cerebrospinal fluid and then remain near its injection point, where the therapy is most effective.

"What is unique about her contribution to the field is not only the outstanding science that her laboratory has produced, but her passion for the translation of the science to the clinic," said Antonios Mikos, director of the J.W. Cox Laboratory for Biomedical Engineering at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Prof. Shoichet is among the scientists collaborating on a proposal to the U.S. government, spearheaded by Prof. Mikos, for a new next-generation tissue engineering research centre.

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"She brings enormous expertise" to the effort, Prof. Mikos said.

Prof. Shoichet said she hoped to use the prize money to help younger female faculty members, who often juggle multiple roles, secure more time for their research.

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