Italian Canadian researcher wins top international prize

di Priscilla Pajdo del July 21, 2020

TORONTO - Carolina Tropini, Ph.D., University of British Colombia’s (UBC), is the first Italian-Canadian to win the Johnson & Johnson Women in STEM²D Scholars Award. She is an assistant professor at the School of Biomedical Engineering, department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Smart, intelligent, driven – she is obviously a bright individual. She’s a credit to both Canada and Italy – Alba in Piedmont, to be exact - from where Ms. Tropini emigrated with her family, in 2001. After receiving her undergraduate degree from UBC, she moved south, to California to pursue graduate studies at Stanford University. Professor

Tropini subsequently returned to UBC to continue her career in academia.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson, one of the globe’s largest scientific research firms, announced that Professor Tropini as only one of six assistant professors or senior lecturers chosen for the award. More than 540 female scholars from around the world had been nominated for consideration by the Award’s panel of judges. The six winners represent women leaders in the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing and Design (STEM²D).

First launched in June 2017, the Award’s goal is to sponsor women at critical points in their careers. Each winner receives $150,000 USD, over a three-year period, to support the research passion of the women and inspire career paths in their respective STEM²D fields.

Dr. Tropini is both passionate about her work and focused on its goals, in Engineering, no less.

A delightful and charming individual to interview, she nonetheless stayed concentrated on the focus of her research: the interaction between the environment in the body, disease and the microbes that live on and within us.

Dr. Tropini can you give us a layman’s summary of your studies with microbes and their purpose in our bodies?
Please…call me Carolina. Microbes are a set of organisms in our bodies that help us stay healthy. The human health is intimately connected with our microbiota - a remarkable consortium of trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live symbiotically in our bodies. In the lab, we study the microbes that live in our digestive system. Microbes perform functions that we are unable to do such as helping us to create the vitamins we need, to digest food and to protect us from pathogens. They need us to survive and we need them to function well.

Our world is changing. People are leading busier lives and we find ourselves turning towards processed foods for convenience. How does this affect the microbes living within us?
Over the time of Industrialization, we have changed our lifestyle and the way we eat food (consuming more highly processed foods). With that, our microbiota has rapidly adapted, but, our biology has not. We are now seeing a very large rise in inflammatory diseases, immune disorders and allergies. We are missing some components that good microbes would have provided us.

Is there something we can do to help correct the good microbes in our system?
Listen to what our grandparents always told us: eat more fibre; eat a variety of veggies and get outside and play. Consuming fermented foods can also be beneficial.

Can you explain how your research will help people with gut diseases such as inflammatory bowl disorder (IBD) which affects over ten million people worldwide?
With IBD, the gut is very inflamed and can trigger symptoms of abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea. That, in itself, changes the microbes that survive in the digestive system. We are trying to ameliorate the gut environment by changing the microbes that are present within it, thereby driving the ecosystem to a healthier state.

How will the funds from the award benefit your research?
Research is very expensive. The funds will help pay for graduate students to work on this project and provide money to perform experiments.

Typically, women are underrepresented in STEM²D. Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges as a woman studying in this field?
This is true; I was extremely lucky to have mentors that not only championed me, but, helped me find my passion. Even considering becoming a professor felt out of reach. It was the people that have helped mentor me through this to whom I owe the privilege to where I am now. We live in a time when we need to increase diversity, not only in terms of gender but in racial representation and being more inclusive of people with disabilities.

The Johnson & Johnson Scholars are selected for their capacity to provide vision for women in the STEM²D fields. How do you feel about your role as mentor for students?
I am very excited about the emphasis on mentorship in the STEM²D program. It is obvious to me how each mentor helped me take the next step. I hope to repay them going forward by emulating their model. It is important to find the right mentors - people who will both support you and challenge you; someone who will help you achieve your potential and make you a better scientist. The Award suggests that I can be that someone and makes it possible for me to share my expertise, as others have done with me. And, if you would permit me, that's a source of personal pride.

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