In 2015, UNESCO and UN Women established an annual day – February 11 – to honour the contributions of women and girls to science and make a call to “smash stereotypes, defy gender biases and defeat discrimination that hold women and girls back in Science, Tech, Engineering and Math [STEM].”

This International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Institute for Better Health (IBH) celebrates the incredible past, present and future contributions of team members who identify as women, as well as advocating for more equity and diversity in STEM.

At IBH, we work with many strong, smart, inspiring women – leaders, scientists, staff and learners – who are laying the foundation for a more equitable, healthier future. Our colleagues are encouraging future generations of girls and women to take their place at the forefront of innovation and scientific discovery.

Read on to learn more about four team members at IBH, as they weigh in on their career trajectories, obstacles they’ve navigated and best advice.

Crystal Williams, Manager, Research Programs

Crystal Williams has worked in research administration for more than a decade with a diverse background in academic and applied health research and a specific interest in addressing health disparities and promoting health equity in underserved populations. In her role at IBH, she oversees the research project and portfolio management support service provided to IBH Science faculty and research programs across Trillium Health Partners (THP) by the Research Project Management (RPM) team.

On finding inspiration

“Years ago, I watched a close family member experience systemic barriers in our healthcare system; their symptoms were misdiagnosed, dismissed and ignored for more than a year. Only through self-advocacy and persistence did they eventually obtain an accurate diagnosis. This eventually led to a pathway on an interventional research study, which ultimately helped to improve their long-term quality of life. This experience not only reconfirmed the discrimination and bias in our health care system, but it also piqued my interest into the impact of research and innovation.”

On navigating obstacles

“I’ve experienced racial discrimination, microaggressions and gaslighting in my career. You don’t ever really overcome these things  ̶  you learn how to navigate these spaces with strength, confidence and resilience, as well as building strong networks of mentors and allies that support and advocate for you. You continue to lead with integrity, professionalism, excellence and keep all your ‘receipts.’”

On great career advice

“Don’t be afraid to leverage your unique lived experiences and perspectives. Keep pushing forward, recognize your impact amidst the barriers you’re facing. Get over the ‘imposter syndrome’ – you deserve to be here; finally, use your privilege to advocate for all equity deserving groups.”

On her greatest sources of pride

“Personally, I am so proud of my teenage daughter. She is fierce, driven, intellectually curious, and keeps me grounded on the importance of embracing change, thinking creatively, challenging the status quo and being environmentally sustainable. Her ambition to explore a career in pharmacology, reminds me of the importance of continuing to breakdown barriers for women of colour in STEM.

“Professionally, I’m proud of my contributions to the growth and evolution of the RPM team. Over the past four years, this team has tripled in size, and has been leveraged to support many projects and initiatives beyond the scope of research and has diversified in expertise, specifically in creating a new role to center community voices and lived experiences in research. A key enabler to the success has been the dedication and support of the team in creating a culture of co-design and solution-based thinking, and the relationships built with research portfolios.”

Ibukun Abejirinde, Scientist, Learning Health Systems

Dr. Ibukun Abejirinde is a Scientist at IBH, where she conducts applied health research that will contribute to realizing our goals as a Learning Health System. She’s a medical doctor and global health professional by training and has been involved in implementation and evaluation research projects in up to 14 countries including coordinating implementation research for the World Health Organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is curious about why health systems fail and the role of digitally enabled models of care to optimize timely access to quality health services particularly for marginalized populations. She is also an Assistant Professor (Status) at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and a 2022 AMS Fellow in Compassion and Artificial Intelligence.

On what sparked her interest in science

“It’s hard to name any one individual as my growth has been made possible by a wide range of people  ̶  supervisors, mentors, colleagues, patients and people with lived experience who I have engaged with in my work. The journey of my inquiry into solving for better health care, however, was inspired by the avoidable death of my sister.”

On her greatest sources of pride

“I’m proud to be a mother to two young and curious girls who view the world with an inspiring level of innocence and optimism.”

On navigating obstacles

“As a black immigrant woman in health care who is on a leadership track, I have absolutely faced obstacles. A big barrier is being disbelieved as soon as you are seen or heard  ̶  before even being given an opportunity to demonstrate competence and excellence. One way I have learnt to overcome this is to not wait for permission and to show up consistently with energy and excellence!”

On great career advice

“This is paraphrased from a mentor: ‘Show up in your work as the values and principles you wanted to be known for and build your professional brand around those values, not around the title of your role or where you work.’

Richa Sharma, Project Director, Health System Innovation

Richa Sharma is a Project Director, Health System Innovation, with a focus on redesigning the mental health and addictions system. She has a Masters in Health Administration and is a Registered Psychotherapist by background. She brings more than a decade of project management, quality improvement, policy development and operational planning experience to her role at IBH. Her research interests include the development and measurement of effectiveness of culturally adapted psychotherapies and modifying psychotherapeutic treatment to meet the needs of diverse patient populations.

On what brought her to IBH

“I was drawn to the opportunity to inform and lead systemic change for mental health and addictions services by using innovative solutions, emerging research and evidence-based practices. I want to push the boundaries of how care has been historically delivered to create a more integrated care system so that patients can have better access to the right type of services. I’m also focused on equity-deserving groups and being able to more appropriately meet their needs.”

On overcoming assumptions

“I have had to learn to negate or overcome assumptions that people have made about my ability to perform or succeed in a particular role or function based on my age, gender or race. To do so, I focused on the end goal, remained authentic, genuine and confident in my own skills, and spent time building relationships and understanding the perspectives of the various individuals I work with.”

On identifying her strengths

“I’m proud of my ability to build relationships and connect with people from all walks of life  ̶  patients, families, colleagues, leaders, family and friends. This has helped shape who I am as an individual and as a professional, as well as the approach I take to my work.”

On what sparked her interest in science

“While I was completing my clinical training and first starting to practice, I realized the gaps that exist in serving patients and families from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and while there is the desire and willingness to address the gaps  ̶  there is limited information, research, frameworks and tools to be able to support providers in doing so  ̶  this sparked my interest in science, research and innovation as I looked into what’s actually out there and how it can be leveraged. I’ve also been inspired by many leaders at IBH who have focused on population health analysis and learning to inform care delivery.”

On great career advice

“Never make assumptions  ̶  whether it’s about people, processes or practice  ̶  always dig deeper and ask questions to ensure you truly understand.”

Ruoxi Wang, Research Associate III, Learning Health Systems

Ruoxi Wang is a Research Associate in the Learning Health Systems program. Her research interests in understanding social determinants of health and applying appropriate statistical methods to address research questions stemmed from her training in sociology and public health. She resonates with IBH’s commitment to working with the community and conducting Learning Health Systems research. “I am grateful to work at IBH as a Research Associate because it allows me to engage in and learn about exactly what I am passionate about,” says Wang. “I am proud of being able to support my team and contribute to our collective success.”

On inspiring family members

“Several factors and individuals have influenced my interest in health research, with one significant influence being my family. Both my parents are clinical scientists. Witnessing their dedication to staying at the forefront of their fields in order to provide quality care to their patients has instilled in me the value of health research. I find joy in being able to address research questions that have the potential to contribute positively to the community in some ways.”

On finding her niche

“I found it challenging to identify my research interests when I first entered the realm of research because of the vast amount of knowledge to explore. I took two main approaches to narrow it down at the beginning. First, by reading papers, attending seminars and participating in projects to develop a basic understanding of different research areas with an open mind. And secondly, self reflection and consistently asking myself ‘Is this the area that I want to continue learning?’ I was fortunate to find my research interests after a few years.”

On great career advice

“Be adaptive and maintain a positive mindset in a changing environment.”

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