• Katy Pallister

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Associate Professor Naomi Matsuura

Updated: Aug 27

“If someone said ‘Oh, this is going to be really hard to do,’ I knew I wanted to do it.”

Associate Professor Matsuura is a medical biophysicist whose laboratory investigates the use of nanomaterials in medical imaging, particularly of cancer. Some nano-sized substances can be injected into the body to guide the imaging and treatment of diseases by increasing the contrast of targeted structures. Matsuura has been looking into new contrast substances which, when subjected to imaging radiation, can also release drugs to the tumour sites. This will enable clinicians to deliver site-specific cancer therapies to hard-to-access organs, such as the brain, with fewer side effects for the patient.

For Matsuura, the application of her work fuels her passion for the field. “There's some kind of weird satisfaction I get from staying up and reading things and doing stuff that I think is challenging for myself. But ultimately that last push is why are you doing it? Is it to become the CEO of a company, to buy a better car, or is it to impact someone's life? For me, I think that latter point is a powerful motivator, and as a result of my research I'm thinking I could actually save someone's life.”

However, Matsuura’s path to medical imaging materials has not been a straightforward one. Guided by her love of a challenge, she first trained in engineering, after realising that becoming a medical doctor perhaps wasn’t for her.

“I remember thinking of going to university, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just assumed that probably I wanted to be a doctor because, you know, what else was there? But in my last year of high school, I was in a biology class and we had to do a dissection of a frog and a cat, and it made me almost sick every time. So, I realised then that I couldn't do medicine.

“I knew I liked doing things like puzzles, I knew I liked being responsible for things, and I knew I wanted to be challenged. So, if someone said ‘Oh, this is going to be really hard to do,’ I knew I wanted to do it. I remember talking to my father, and we discussed engineering. ‘Engineering is really hard,’ he said, ‘but you could try it.’ So that's really why I selected it.”

“My colleagues and supervisors thought it was a crazy idea”

Having completed an undergraduate and master’s degree in engineering physics, Matsuura spent some time working in industry and travelling, before spending a summer as a research technician in a medical biophysics laboratory. On the recommendation of her supervisor, Matsuura embarked on a PhD in material science and engineering at the University of Toronto, which was not always plain-sailing.

“I encountered a lot of technical and challenging problems and it really was a very humbling time for me,” Matsuura said. “I did this work with a student from another lab, and we had some pretty interesting results, and the student then kept trying to get me to do more experiments with them. After about a year, I realised that her and her supervisor were trying to publish a paper without me – basically my PhD project that I had started. And that was really challenging.

“When I finished my PhD, one of my friends told me about a volunteer position for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called ‘Right to Play’ and said that they were looking for volunteers to coach young people in Africa. My colleagues and supervisors thought it was a crazy idea for me to leave after working hard for so many years to get my PhD and to get this research experience. But I went to Zambia for a year, working as a volunteer, and it was an amazing life-changing experience for me.”

“I really want trainees to know that what they're experiencing is probably not uncommon”

After Matsuura returned to Canada, and to science, she continued to rise up the research ranks. During this period Matsuura grounded herself through various initiatives that she was also involved in.

“One of my friends started a campaign to raise funds for sending surgical materials and supplies to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, right after their very difficult period in the early 2000s. Since then, I've been working with her to continue this initiative, sending hospital supplies for women who have suffered from sexual violence.”

In the scientific sphere, Matsuura has also supported women as a member, and then Chair, of the Women in Molecular Imaging Network (WIMIN) global committee. Having been at meetings where she felt that most of the focus was on huge successes in the field, Matsuura wanted people to recognise the “everyday” scientist who had pushed their way through the system, despite people telling them otherwise.

In this network, and in the various networks I'm part of, I really want trainees to know that what they're experiencing is probably not uncommon, and for them to have access to a group of supportive people that offers help, mentorship, or just a space to be able to talk through issues which they can't do at their own institution. I also think that there's a diversity in women that we have to also acknowledge, and having these networks will hopefully allow people to see that diversity.”

“We need to continue to advocate for fairness and equity”

As I move along my journey, I see that there's still a lot of unconscious bias that women face. I think people think we are done because they see the success but don't see behind the scenes,” Matsuura continued. “I think people need to see that it's not over, and that we need to continue to advocate for fairness and equity, and work together as a community to ensure that all this happens. It’s not necessarily just women, it's underrepresented and marginalised groups as well.”

A group that Matsuura feels particularly strongly about is the younger cohort of scientists, including her students, who she wants to give support and voice to as they progress in their careers. “We need to give recognition to as many junior people as we can, and lift them up so that we have so many amazing female scientists that their names will come up first in a Google search for someone who's an expert in something.

“One thing I have thought about is a database of say, rising star scientists that people could have on hand when looking for someone in a certain area for meetings and talks. In my experience, pushing for gender equity in these places is not received well, but I think it's really critical that we actually start seeing more diverse panels, or just an increasing number of different women in different scientific meetings and panels.”

Associate Professor Matsuura was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Anna Wu. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates who they want to pass their award onto to create a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event later this year. More details to follow.

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