Inspiring Future STEM Superheroes

Dr. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova in the lab.

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.


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.

Dr. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova

Q: What does your role as ambassador involve?

A: What I want to do with the ambassadorship is start two initiatives. One is so that girls can see women in STEM in Kentucky. When we were at the IF/THEN summit, they took a 3D model of all of us and they are going to make the largest exhibition of statues of all women, 125 life-size statues of women. Isn’t that amazing? AAAS and Lyda Hill realized there are not enough statues of women, so they decided to change that and why not women in STEM? We do not know where the exhibit will be, but girls in Kentucky might never be able to see it if they cannot travel to that place. What I want to do is have every woman in STEM at UK have an interactive display, online and in a museum, where young girls and boys can interact with the display and say, ‘I would like to hear more about this person. Let’s bring this physicist to my school. Let’s bring this geologist to my school,’ so that they can see, yes, you can do what you want to do.

The other project relates to my love of art and chemistry. For me it’s important to marry your passions. I know there are a lot of young students out there who love different things like sports and art and they also love science, but they often see those things as separate. So I would like to work with AAAS to organize a national SciArt contest and have students submit works that show their science with their art. They could bake a cake in the form of a spaceship, they could knit sharks, rap about artificial intelligence or choreograph a dance to show how infectious diseases spread. It can be whatever they like, so long as they see that science is not something that’s separate from the rest of their lives.

Q: What opportunities unique to pharmacy do you see for aspiring young scientists?

A: In pharmacy, we are trying to improve human health, so there are many opportunities, from being at the forefront of the discovery process for new medicine to being with patients. Right now, there are a lot of people who are sick who need medicine, but everyone does not have access to medicine as easily as others, depending on where you live or how much money you have, so there are opportunities to be creative and find new ways to reach patients. There are opportunities to understand diseases, because if you want to cure a disease, you need to understand the disease and there are many we do not understand well at all. There are opportunities to understand how diseases spread and how we can prevent that. I am more focused on discovery and the development of new medicine, but there is a whole spectrum of career paths you can take, that’s one of the beauties of the pharmacy career. There’s a quote I really like…I was at a training session at the American Pharmacists Association and I was really touched by two statues that they have there. One says, “From making medicine,” and the other says, “To making medicine work,” and to me that summarizes the opportunities in pharmacy, from the lab all the way to working with patients.

Q: What challenges or opportunities have you faced as a woman in the field?

A: I am a chemist and there are not many women chemists but I see that as an opportunity to be a trailblazer. My challenges were not in terms of being a woman, they were much more in terms of, I need to learn a new language, I need to move away from my family. These were the things that were hard for me as a woman but they were not because I was a woman. I always believed because there was Wonder Woman, that even if there were more men, a woman was there. My mom told me, ‘If you work hard you can do whatever you want,’ so I was lucky as a young girl because she never let me doubt my potential. I have had this mentality since I was a child and I think that’s why it’s important to go to young girls and make them believe that they can do anything. There are a lot of women pharmacists, but on the basic science side of it, there are fewer women than men. That’s why we have this IF/THEN program to change that.

As far as opportunities, I have traveled to many countries with my career, which is one of the things I really like about it, because I get to see my science in the big picture. I have been to South Africa and seen how they approach tuberculosis there. I have been to China, Australia, Egypt, Israel and many other places and seen how people think about health differently. Health is a global thing, so it’s an amazing opportunity for those of us in pharmaceutical sciences to see, so when we are doing our work we are not just thinking about us but thinking about everybody on the planet.

Q: How do you see pharmacy as a promising, fulfilling career for young women?

A: I don’t think there’s anything more fulfilling than helping another human being. That’s why this IF/THEN program is great, because you are helping young girls, but with the pharmacy career, you are helping society. You are making a difference for the patient and for their whole family and all the people who love them. If you can help someone’s health be better, you can help everyone around them be happier. I was on a panel on infectious diseases one day with the Department of Defense. There was one person missing a leg, one person missing an arm and one person who was not missing limbs but her husband was a severely wounded soldier. I asked them if I could take their picture. I had spent the whole study section with them, and I brought that picture back to my students and I said, ‘See, when you are working at your bench and you are not sure what you are working for, you are working for them, to help them so that more soldiers do not lose arms or legs because of infectious diseases.’ I still have that picture in my office. When you are working to save the lives of other human beings, there’s nothing more rewarding.

Q: What do you want readers to know most about the work you are doing?

A: First, I must say I think it’s important for deans and department chairs to support faculty to do outreach, because we cannot enrich the pipeline if we don’t reach out to students when they are young. I think outreach and public engagement should be part of our evaluation criteria during our annual reviews. But on a more heartfelt matter, I believe everyone is given a superpower when they are born, but too often, people do not find their superpower and just go through life without really doing what they could do best. That’s the message I think is most important for people to hear. If we help a girl find her superpower, then there are no limits to what she can create and discover. She can become the super-shero who creates the new medicine, or cures the disease, or finds a novel way to reach patients. I truly believe pharmacists pursue pharmacy to help people, so I think it’s important for all of us in pharmacy to take a look in the mirror and really ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing to help the next generation?’

Athena Ponushis is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.