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From student to scientific leader: CIHR Scientific Director shares her journey in science

Dr. Jane Rylett is Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Aging. She is also a Distinguished University Professor at Western University in London, Ontario, and a Scientist in the Molecular Medicine Research Laboratories at Western’s Robarts Research Institute.

A passion for neuroscience

Dr. Rylett has built a career based on an interest in science and compassion for others.

“Throughout school, my favourite subjects were biology, chemistry, and physics,” she says. “I have always been fascinated by how things are put together and how they work.”

Dr. Rylett was an active volunteer throughout high school and spent a lot of her time with the elderly. From this experience, she developed an interest in the human body, and the brain in particular, and what happens during aging. This led her to study neuroscience and neuronal communication in university.

As a graduate student, Dr. Rylett encountered many individuals with Alzheimer’s disease when she became involved in a clinical trial for a potential new treatment for dementia. This gave her insight into the translational aspect of research and to the complex clinical problems that can be associated with aging of the brain.

“It was life changing for me to see the struggles of the patients and their caregivers and observe the enormous impact that neurodegenerative diseases can have on our aging population,” says Dr. Rylett.

In her laboratory at the Robarts Research Institute, Dr. Rylett and her team are studying the mechanisms regulating chemical communication in the nervous system in health, normal aging and disease. Much of the research that they carry out involves studies of the function of cholinergic neurons that play an important role in cognitive processes such as memory and attention.

Commitment to community service

Her engagement with older adults and patients has been the biggest influence in her scientific career. Dr. Rylett continues to participate in community outreach, which has included volunteer service with the Alzheimer Society of Canada and its network of provincial and local societies.

She has also given back to the research community, serving on peer review panels for funding agencies and foundations as well as on research policy committees.

Now as a CIHR Scientific Director, Dr. Rylett plays a wider role in bringing researchers, partners, and community stakeholders together, in Canada and internationally, to identify research needs and gaps, and to work collaboratively to develop novel research programs and funding opportunities. This includes promoting the translation and implementation of research findings to impact care and practice.

This is important as Canada and other countries face the challenge of aging populations. By 2035, Canada is expected to become one of the world’s super-aged countries, where more than 30 percent of Canadians will be age 60 or over.

Dr. Rylett will be leading the development of a strategic plan for research to prepare for this demographic shift and respond to the needs of an older population.

Follow your dreams

Dr. Rylett has had an excellent experience in progressing from a graduate student, to an independent investigator, to a research administrator and scientific leader. She has benefited from and been inspired by many great and supportive colleagues and mentors.

For a time as a junior faculty member at Western, Dr. Rylett was the only woman among 20 men in her academic department. This has changed substantially with the recruitment of several outstanding junior and mid-career women colleagues.

“I think that the academic community is a supportive and inclusive environment, fostering the success of both women and men in achieving their career goals,” says Dr. Rylett.

Her advice to girls interested in science is to follow their dreams.

”Science and research offer outstanding career opportunities in new emerging fields as well as the traditional ones,” she says. “It can open the door to a wide range of work environments depending on your particular interests and creative skills.”

Let’s draw attention to the incredible work of women in science! This article is part of a month-long series celebrating women in science, from International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11) to International Women’s Day (March 8). For even more articles about amazing women working in science, head over to the Canadian STEM Femmes blog.

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