Less than a third of scientific researchers, and only 3 per cent of scientific Nobel Prize winners, are women. Danielle McRae is hoping to make a dent in those numbers.
The third-year Physical Chemistry PhD student was one of five Canadian researchers recently honoured through the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program, presented with the support of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. She received a L’Oréal Canada France-Canada Research Fund fellowship.
McRae’s research is focused on spectroscopy – the study of the interaction of light with materials – specifically working on nanoscale vibrational spectroscopy, looking to differentiate molecules that are only tens of nanometres apart – 5,000 times smaller than the average width of a human hair.
“I am using these techniques to investigate silver nanoparticles that I have synthesized in the lab,” she said. “My future projects will involve investigation of complex nanostructures and also microparticles released from cells.”
The most applicable part of her research is being able to find through using spectroscopy and microscopy the differences between cancerous and non-cancerous microparticles (exosomes) released by cells.
“This could have applications in cancer diagnosis,” she said.
Part of McRae’s fellowship recognizes the participation of women involved in France-Canada Research Fund cooperative scientific projects, funded this year in collaboration with Université Paris Sorbonne Universities. It also gives her the opportunity to be part of a new program launched by the L’Oréal Foundation in France in 2015, and earlier this year in Canada.
To counteract the drop off of female students in the sciences, For Girls in Science aims at improving the attractiveness of scientific vocations, especially for teenage girls.
This is something McRae has already focused her attention on, through her involvement with Girl Guides and Let’s Talk Science.
“There is progress being made, but there can always been more ways to encourage young females to become interested in the sciences,” said McRae, adding it helps this encouragement and inspiration comes from females already in the sciences.
The program presents an opportunity for McRae to lead sessions in UNESCO Associated Schools Network schools (Grades 8-12) and build partnerships and arrange outreach activities with organizations promoting girls in science.
“It’s getting a little easier for women to be part of the sciences. The numbers (females) in Chemistry are better and are even better in Biology,” she said. “But in Physics it is still pretty low.”