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UHN scientist values mentorship: 'I am lucky to have these women to look up to'
​​"It is important for female scientists to understand through others what their career can look like one day," says Melissa Iazzi, a postdoctoral researcher participating in the Biosciences Oncology Leadership Development (BOLD) Program at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Photo: UHN
By Stacey Sheehan

From a young age, Melissa Iazzi knew she wanted to pursue a career in science.

In the first year of her undergraduate degree, she decided to focus on research into rare terminal illnesses following news of her sister's Stage 4 Ewing sarcoma cancer diagnosis at the age of 16.

"​I became fixated on the questions of 'why don't we know more about this disease' and 'why are there not more treatment options available'?" Melissa recalls.

She went on to complete her PhD in molecular science at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), where she learned to use novel proteomics techniques – BioID, to study cystic fibrosis.

Melissa leveraged her years of experience to transition her skills to research her sister's cancer. She received funding through the Princess Margaret Postdoctoral Research Award and began her fellowship at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre under the supervision of Dr. Brian Raught, a Senior Scientist affiliated with the Department of Medical Biophysics.

As her research progressed, she realized she wanted more from her career.

"I wanted to become a leader and help empower women to pursue science," she says.

Dr. Raught encouraged Melissa to apply for The Princess Margaret's Biosciences Oncology Leadership Development (BOLD) Program, which helps postdoctoral researchers and senior PhD students develop management skills and connect them with leaders in academia, research, health care and industry.

"The BOLD program has helped me grow as a leader and a person, and is helping me to foster the key components needed to be a supportive and impactful leader," Melissa says.

'Be modest, be confident and, most importantly, enjoy yourself!'​

Since it began in 2022, 44 participants have gone through the BOLD Program, completing modules that teach them about self-awareness, communication, collaboration and other leadership skills so they can become better mentors to the next generation of scientists.

The program was developed by the Cancer Education Program and an advisory committee comprised of postdoctoral researchers, senior scientists and the Office of Research Trainees.

The BOLD program has set up Melissa well for success in this space.

Melissa also credits other mentors along the way who helped her create her vision of what her career as a leader and scientist could be. She credits Dr. Natasha Leighl, clinician investigator at The Princess Margaret and Medical Oncology Lead in the cancer centre's Lung Site Group; Dr. Audrey Astori, also at The Princess Margaret, and Dr. Martina Hausner at TMU.

"I am lucky to have these women to look up to," Melissa says. “It is important for female scientists to understand through others what their career can look like one day."

As Melissa moves forward in her career, she hopes to take on more leadership opportunities – including teaching and research positions – while advancing her research commitment to Ewing sarcoma.

"I am eager to embark on this research journey, and I hope one day no one else has to lose their sibling to this disease," she says.

Melissa's advice to other female scientists is to venture outside of their comfort zone, pursue leadership roles and put themselves out there.

"It can be difficult to pursue a career in science but don't let external factors keep you from succeeding," she says. “Be modest, be confident and, most importantly, enjoy yourself!

"There's no challenge that is too big to conquer if you put your mind to it."

This story first appeared on UHN News