Prof. Maureen McKeague

Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Chemistry, McGill University

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I fit in perfectly within STEM simply because I am curious and work hard.

What do you do?

I have the best job in the world - and it has 3 main components:

1) Research. With a lot of help from my graduate students, we try to learn more about what we still do NOT understand about how cancer drugs interact with our DNA (and how this could lead to improved treatment and survival). We do this by performing experiments in the lab using cells, chemistry, and synthetic DNA.

2) Teaching. I teach basic and advanced chemistry and pharmacology/toxicology to undergraduate students, graduate students, and even medical students.

3) Service. Each professor has to help both the university and their field of science running! For example, we run conferences around the world that bring together many different scientists so we can do better science (and more efficiently!); we review papers published by other scientists to help make sure that only the best science is always being performed; we teach the public about chemistry to make sure that verified scientific facts (not myths!) are communicated; we review the classes that students take when they are in a specific degree to help make sure they can get a job after they graduate; the list goes on - it is super diverse!

Why did you choose this field?

I loved all STEM ever since I did "mini-university" camps during the summer as a young child (including a dentistry camp, an engineering camp, a geology camp etc). But, in grade 11 biology, my new understanding of DNA and what we could do with it simply blew my mind! As an engineer, you can use DNA as building material. As a mathematician, you can store information (like a computer) inside it. As a scientist, you can edit it, study it, modify it. DNA is the very code of life - and yet it is so much adaptable and complex than that. Since my undergraduate degree, I have changed within STEM several times (chemistry, engineering, toxicology, pharmacology) but the use and study of DNA connected all of it.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

I did my Bacherlor's degree (Biochemistry) and PhD (chemistry) all in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada. I loved being near my family and all my friends. I never knew I would be brave enough to be a scientific researcher at two of the best universities in the world - both outside of Canada, away from everything I was comfortable with! I first went to Stanford University in California for 4 years; then I moved to ETH Zurich, in Switzerland for 2 years. I was very successful in both places, and learned so much! I never imagined living in those places or being "good enough" to work at either institution. I am so glad I did it though!

Why do you love working in STEM?

Working in STEM gives me the opportunity to do everything I love, specifically, being creative, being productive, working with people, and helping society - all at the same time! I often can't wait to talk to my students or see the new data/results every morning (or in my email!).

Best advice for next generation?

STEM is diverse and is expanding (like our universe). There is a place for anyone with any capability or any interest! Not "one type" of person is best for STEM and there is no business for "science stereotypes". For example, I love sparkles and bedazzles - and put them on everything. So, I was once told I should be a wedding planner! (No way!) As a professor I still decorate my lab coat, my labware, and my office with bedazzles and wear sparkly shirts when I teach. I fit in perfectly within STEM simply because I am curious and work hard.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

My mentor at Stanford University, Professor Christina Smolke always said to "Be fearless"; and my mentor at Carleton University, Professor Maria DeRosa always complimented good work with "Love it!". That sums pretty much everything up: if something excites you, then be enthusiastic and do not fear at all if you will fail or be successful.

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