Dr. Alba Guarné, Dr. Loydie Jerome-Majewska and Victoire Kpadé go beyond their work in the lab or the clinic to bring diversity and inclusion to the fields of science and health.

Image by Owen Egan / Joni Dufour

By Diana Kwon for FMHS Focus 

When Dr. Alba Guarné landed her first faculty position, she was surprised to discover that she was the only female research professor in the department. As a scientist-in-training, Guarné had been exposed to many colleagues who were women, so this was a stark contrast to what she had been used to. “All of a sudden, I felt alone in the room,” recalls Guarné, who has since come to McGill where she is a professor in McGill’s Department of Biochemistry and the inaugural associate dean for the newly formed School of Biomedical Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).

More women have been hired in her field over the years, but men continue to outnumber women. “The gender gap in science has improved over the years, but we still have a lot to do,” Guarné says. In addition, she adds, “There are also serious equity and diversity gaps that we should close.”

A great deal of work is needed to close these gaps—and Guarné is one of three women at McGill leading the charge to cultivate more representation in the future generations of scientists and clinicians.

Cracking the developmental code

“Have you ever wondered how you go from a single cell to a complex embryo?” Before encountering that question during a university lecture, Dr. Loydie Jerome-Majewska had not given much thought to this process. But that query piqued her interest and set her on the path that led to her current position as an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at McGill University, where she studies the molecular and genetic underpinnings of early human development.

Through her research, Jerome-Majewska has pinpointed a role in development for several genes that were previously not considered to be important in this process. This work has enabled her lab to create mouse models for several developmental disorders, such as DiGeorge syndrome (a condition also known as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome that can cause a wide range of defects, including congenital health problems, delayed growth and frequent infections), which they are now using to better understand these conditions and to identify potential interventions.

Jerome-Majewska is particularly interested in determining how errors occur during early development. By doing so, she hopes to identify ways to reduce the chances of them happening or reducing their effects. A growing body of evidence suggests that environmental factors, such as what a pregnant mother ingests, can play a significant role in how these mutations manifest in a developing embryo. Jerome-Majewska hopes to pinpoint these in order to find new treatments. “That’s my dream right now,” she says. “Going beyond just understanding why issues arise and figuring out how to prevent them.”

In addition to her research, Jerome-Majewska considers her trainees’ success as one of her biggest accomplishments. The majority of her former students have gone on to take various jobs in science, both in research and in other sectors, such as health care. “I’m delighted that they’ve pretty much all stayed in science,” Jerome-Majewska says. “I call that a win, because it’s not an easy field to stay in.”

Outside of the lab, Jerome-Majewska is involved in various advocacy-related efforts. She chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for the American Association for Anatomy. As part of this role, Jerome-Majewska is setting up a peer-support network for underrepresented and excluded individuals in science. “One of the big goals is to reduce isolation, to provide support, and then to provide professional development,” she explains. Jerome-Majewska has recently secured $100,000 per year in funding to carry out this effort over the next three years.

Jerome-Majewska is also a co-founder of the Canadian Black Scientist network, a group that provides mentorship, advocacy, and visibility to Black Canadians in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

At McGill, Jerome-Majewska is a co-convener of the Dr. Kenneth Melville Black Faculty and Staff Caucus (named for late FMHS leader Melville, BSc’26, MDCM’26, MSc’31), a group aimed at creating a supportive learning and working environment for Black faculty and staff. In that role, Jerome-Majewska is working with the other members of the group to set the agenda for implementing the anti-Black racism plan put forth by McGill’s Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal. “I’m super excited about the opportunity, because even though there aren’t a lot of Black faculty and staff at McGill, there are enough of us that we can make sure to make the plan a success,” says Jerome-Majewska.

Uncovering the molecular underpinnings of life

What attracted Dr. Alba Guarné to biochemistry was a desire to understand life at the molecular level. She was fascinated by the fact that two meters of DNA can be packed into the nucleus of a cell, which measures about five micrometers, and that complex processes such as DNA replication and repair are able to transpire in such a compact space. Guarné has dedicated her career to understanding how proteins copy and repair DNA. She joined McGill’s Department of Biochemistry as a professor in 2017, where she continues this work today.

In addition to studying protein-DNA interactions, Guarné and her lab are also investigating a remarkable transposon, sequences of DNA that move around within a genome, that shows unprecedented targeting specificity. Because transposons jump around on DNA, in bacteria, they are able to accelerate evolution by adding diversity to the genome. Guarné’s group is looking to harness the multiple targeting mechanisms of this transposon for genetic engineering purposes. “We are studying how it moves and how insertion sites are identified at the molecular level, so that we can use them as genetic engineering tools,” Guarné says.

The School of Biomedical Sciences, where Guarné is the first to take the helm, was established in 2020 and encompasses seven different departments (Anatomy and Cell Biology, Biochemistry, Biomedical Engineering, Human Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and Physiology) as well as the McGill Genome Centre and the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Research Centre.

According to Guarné, the School will provide both faculty and students with more chances to collaborate and to assess their research under a broad interdisciplinary umbrella, rather than through the lenses of their individual departments. Although joint research efforts across departments have existed in the past, Guarné is strengthening these ties. She also hopes to foster the development of students by providing them with comprehensive training—from basic science, to translational research, to studies in the clinic. “I want to make sure that we provide a training environment that prepares the leaders of the next generation,” Guarné says.

Guarné is also passionate about ensuring that there is inclusion, equity and representation in this future generation of researchers. In order for this to happen, she says, the scientific community will need to create environments that enable more people from underrepresented segments of society to grow into leadership roles. Within her own lab, Guarné has mentored many such trainees and is proud of her students’ successes. “One thing that I didn’t expect when I started my independent career was that mentoring new scientists could be so rewarding,” she says. “Being able to help somebody reach their potential, I think, is even better than any paper or work that you can publish.”

Increasing Black representation in medicine

It was a chance encounter that set Victoire Kpadé on the path to becoming a doctor. One summer, while working reception at a hotel, one of the guests had a medical emergency—and having been certified in first aid, Kpadé jumped in to help. “I was able to intervene, help this person, and keep them stable until the paramedics came,” Kpadé says. This experience was “exhilarating,” she adds. “That was the turning point in my undergrad where I decided to actually go forth and commit to the pre-med route.”

Kpadé is currently in her third year of medical school at McGill University. She is the first to pursue this career path in her family, who came to Canada from Togo as refugees in 1999. “Growing up, I never knew any Black people in medicine, specifically Black women,” Kpadé says. She adds that, on top of a paucity of role models who look like her, Black doctors still face roadblocks when it comes to being respected in the workplace. “I personally have been mistaken for support staff, and that has been the experience of a lot of my Black colleagues within medicine,” Kpadé says. In addition, another challenge is that “since there are so few of us, you often feel like you have to represent the entire community—it can get very heavy to have that added responsibility placed on you.”

Today Kpadé is involved in numerous efforts aimed at increasing Black representation in medicine. At McGill, she has been involved in developing an anti-racist, decolonized medical curriculum. Ultimately, Kpadé explains, the goal is to better equip future health professionals to serve the needs of the diverse Canadian population. Topics added to that curriculum include teaching how pathologies manifest on both light and dark skin tones, racism as a social determinant of health, and the history of racism in medicine. The goal is to have the updated curriculum ready for the Fall 2021 semester.

Kpadé is also working with the university to develop a Black student application program for its undergraduate medical education program. “It would have the same academic and non-academic requirements,” Kpadé explains. “It would really just be an additional stream to remove some of the biases that may be present at the admissions level, and a program for Black applicants to feel welcomed at McGill.”

In addition to this work, Kpadé spent the last year as the Quebec regional director for the Black Medical Students’ Association of Canada. In this role, she was able to connect the around 50 Black medical students in schools across Quebec. “It has been very powerful to get to know other students across the province and foster a sense of community,” Kpadé says. “We’re all very different individuals but are able to relate to and support one another as we navigate the medical field.”

Kpadé hopes that the projects she is working on now will have a long-lasting impact. Career-wise, she plans to pursue family medicine. “Family medicine allows you to treat not only the person but a community as a whole, which fits well into my advocacy goals.”

March 3 2021