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International Women’s Day Q&A Spotlight on Marie Elliot

On International Women’s Day we salute Dr. Marie Elliot, IIDR member and associate professor in the Department of Biology at McMaster. Dr. Elliot was recently nominated for a 2017 Hamilton Women of Distinction Award in the Science, Technology and Trades category. The event, which takes place tomorrow at the Hamilton Convention Centre, celebrates the remarkable achievements of women in the Hamilton community and raises funds for the YWCA Hamilton.

In her IWD spotlight, Dr. Elliot talks about her research on Streptomyces bacteria and how this bacteria can help fight antibiotic resistance; how a personal mentoring story showed her the value of never giving up; and the importance of disrupting a common science stereotype.

What does your research focus on?

Work in my lab aims to answer fundamental questions related to bacterial gene regulation and bacterial development. Our work focuses on Streptomyces bacteria. These bacteria have an unusually complex life cycle and produce vast numbers of antibiotics that are used to treat bacterial infections. We are working to understand how antibiotic production is controlled in Streptomyces, and what factors impact Streptomyces growth, development and interaction with other microbes.

What are the real world applications of your research?

Antibiotic resistance is an enormous concern and new antibiotics, or alternatives to antibiotics, are desperately needed to help deal with this impending resistance crisis. While Streptomyces have historically been an excellent source of antibiotics, they also seem to have the potential to make far greater numbers of these compounds than anyone has ever seen. We are working to translate our understanding of antibiotic control to stimulate the production of new antibiotics that could be used to help combat resistant infections.

Our more basic work uses Streptomyces as a model system for understanding broad questions in bacterial development and communication. We can take what we have learned in these areas and begin to develop tools that allow us to manipulate bacterial growth and interactions with other organisms – this could be applied to everything from preventing bacterial infections and developing novel anti-infection strategies, to bioremediation.

What is the most rewarding part about being an IIDR member?

The IIDR is made up of an outstanding group of scientists who share common interests, but who have diverse and complementary skill sets. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with people in the IIDR. These collaborations have helped to move our science in directions that wouldn’t have been possible. I also really appreciate all of the work that is done to promote interactions between our trainees, and to recognize their efforts and successes.

What is your proudest accomplishment at the IIDR?

Watching the growth of everyone I’ve had the honour of working with in my lab and seeing them go on to successfully pursue a really diverse range of careers upon leaving my lab.

What is your advice for aspiring female scientists?

Believe in yourself. Be persistent. Identify what you want and be strategic in figuring out what you need to do to get there. Seek out mentors who will support you in helping you reach your goals.

Why should women and girls have an interest in science and/or pursue a career in science? Why is it important to encourage women and girls?

Anyone can be a scientist! Science is all about being curious about what is going on around you. I think a common stereotype of what a scientist looks like is an older man with wild hair. I think this stereotype can be a very subtle discouragement for women, like a soft little voice whispering in your ear letting you know that maybe you don’t belong. By actively encouraging women and girls, this can provide an effective counterbalance to that little voice, and can help to reassure them that they DO belong, and they have important contributions to make.

Why is female mentorship important?

Effective mentors can come in all forms! Female mentors in particular, have a unique understanding of some of the challenges that female scientists and academics can face, and can help to validate experiences.

Can you tell us a personal story about a female student you mentored? 

Outside of the students I’ve worked with in my lab, the one student who really stands out for me was an undergraduate student who took a third year course I was teaching a number of years ago. She really struggled with the evaluations but loved the material. She was a regular during my office hours and I got to know her quite well. She just passed the course but she was inspired to do better. She came back the following year and took the course again. She was again in my office every week – only this time, she was just clarifying things rather than trying to understand them and she ended up doing really well in the course.

Her passion for microbiology continued and she undertook a thesis project. I had the honour of being her co-supervisor. We met to discuss her work on a regular basis, and when it came to her final thesis presentation and written document, she did a truly outstanding job. We continued to correspond, and she ultimately ended up pursuing a Masters degree in the UK, and started Ph.D. work in Germany although I think she ultimately decided that it wasn’t for her. Even though she made the decision to change the direction of her career, I remain inspired by her strength and determination to pursue what she loved.

The theme for International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change” which encourages women to declare what bold action they will take to help drive gender parity. What do you currently do, or what will you do to “Be Bold for Change” in 2017?

I am a long-time supporter of the Fit Active Beautiful (FAB) Foundation, a local charity aimed at “helping young girls become strong women.” I want to continue to do what I can to assist with various FAB endeavours over the coming year.

The current political situation in the US is also inspiring me to do what I can to support women more broadly. I will aim to promote the excellent work done by women and nominate them for awards that will allow them to be recognized for their achievements. I will continue to support all trainees I interact with, and ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, and everyone is supported in working towards their personal and professional goals.

Also, after learning about some of the initiatives coming out of the YWCA, I would like to find out how I can contribute most effectively to these initiatives.

Look out for more Q&A spotlights on women at the IIDR throughout March and learn about their fascinating research, achievements, advice for women in science and what they’re doing to #BeBoldForChange in 2017.