Dr. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova, newly selected to be part of the AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors Program, is a medicinal chemist encouraging girls to become STEM Wonder Women.
By Athena Ponushis
Dr. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova grew up in Québec City, watching superheroes on television. There were many men and one woman. Garneau-Tsodikova wanted to be Wonder Woman. And she wanted to save the children she saw on commercials who needed humanitarian aid. Sitting in her high school chemistry class, she found her superpower: science. Through chemistry, she could create new molecules that could create new medicine that could help those children.
Garneau-Tsodikova became a medicinal chemist, earning her Ph.D. at the University of Alberta, where she taught her students chemistry and her students taught her English. As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, she studied mechanistic enzymology and biochemistry. She now works as a professor and assistant dean for research at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Her lab focuses on infectious diseases, where she seeks to understand resistance mechanisms in bacterial and fungal pathogens to combat resistance with chemicals.
Garneau-Tsodikova was selected to be an ambassador in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) IF/THEN Ambassadors Program, which strives to inspire girls in middle school to consider STEM careers. Here, she opens up about how she hopes to help girls find their power and to inspire others in pharmacy to play a part in empowering the next generation, too.
Q: How does your story resonate with young girls, inspiring them to pursue STEM careers?
A: I come from a family that didn’t have much money—we ate a lot of pasta with butter—but I am from Canada so that did not affect me the way it would affect girls in the United States. In Canada, it does not matter if you are rich or poor, you go to the same school. When I came to the U.S., I watched a documentary called “Waiting for Superman” about the education system here, and I learned if you are from a poor family you don’t go to the same school as if you were from a rich family. I realized that if I grew up here, I would not have had access to everything I had access to when I was a girl, so I need to change that. I started the Sci Cats (Science Cultivates Academically Talented Students) outreach program, where graduate students, Pharm.D. students and faculty go to K-12 schools to do hands-on experiments with children in schools around Lexington that don’t have much financial support for science. And IF/THEN gives me an opportunity to further this message: It doesn’t matter where you are from, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, your situation as a child should not dictate how impactful you are going to be in the future, that you can make an impact no matter where you come from.
I was excited to learn in my chemistry class that I could create new molecules and they could potentially help the children I was seeing on TV, so I became a medicinal chemist because I found my superpower, I could be Wonder Woman. Girls have to find their superpowers so they can change the world in their own way. I love art and I love chemistry. I found art in chemistry; instead of using notes to create music, you use atoms to create molecules, instead of movement to create choreography, you mix chemicals so they can dance together and partner up and make new molecules. I think it’s important for girls to realize they do not have to relinquish something they like to do something else that they like. They can do it all at once, they just have to find the right STEM career that combines all of their passions.
Q: How were you selected to be an ambassador?
A: I was a previous AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, so when AAAS partnered with Lyda Hill Philanthropies to create IF/THEN, helping girls find their talents and fall in love with STEM, I got an email from AAAS and I applied. I submitted a video about a science festival I organized with the help of colleagues and students called Everything Is Science, and that’s the same name, EIS, as the resistance enzyme I work with to try to combat tuberculosis, but the festival was all about explaining how science is all around us. IF/THEN selected 125 women and I was extremely fortunate to be named an ambassador. One thing that was really amazing, at the summit for the IF/THEN program, we met the girls who looked at our applications and helped select the ambassadors with AAAS and Lyda Hill. It was great to meet the young girls who are excited about STEM and selected us. We are all from different STEM careers, backgrounds and ethnicities, so it makes for a good group of women.