From Chemical Reactions to Career Satisfaction with Janice Wong

Janice Wong’s interest in science started with a simple chemical reaction to create a household staple: aspirin.

During her first year at Simon Fraser University, at an introductory chemistry course, her professor led the class through the process of mixing compounds to form acetylsalicylic acid. It was then that a spark ignited.

“I was excited to see how something so useful could be created, seemingly out of nowhere. We started with random ingredients and ended up with medicine. There was instant chemistry, both literally and figuratively,” she recalls.

She had not planned for a career in science. In fact, her family had encouraged her to become an accountant. But, as Janice neared completion of her Bachelor’s degree, she knew she wanted a career dedicated to experimenting, research and discovery.

“I felt like university was my last chance to pursue this passion, and I didn’t want to give it up.”

Taking a chance, Janice applied for a co-op placement at Health Canada’s Food Lab in Burnaby, British Columbia. Working with a team of professional chemists entirely changed her career aspirations.

“It was surprisingly easy!” she says recalling her decision to pursue a career in science.

After graduation, Health Canada hired her full-time at the Burnaby Food Lab, as part of the team supporting the Canadian Nutrient File (CNF).

There, Janice tested food samples provided by manufacturers to determine nutrient levels in each product, and reported on various nutrient quantities from more than 5,600 foods commonly consumed by Canadians.

This work, in Health Canada’s Burnaby and Toronto food labs helped inform a major update to Canada’s food guide in 2019.

To say Janice became a valuable addition to the lab team would be an understatement. In addition to being named 2019 Rookie of the Year for her work, she holds two Health Canada awards for excellence in science (for paraben and nutrition projects, respectively).

Her latest project with the Nutrition Research Division is centred on folates, their metabolites, and their role in healthy cell growth and function. Metabolites are substances used or made during metabolism, which converts food into energy and the building blocks needed for growth, reproduction and maintaining health. Folate is important in early pregnancy to reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spine and more generally to support blood cell health and prevent anemia.

The project, led by senior researcher Dr. Amanda MacFarlane, examines the effect of folic acid supplements and fortified foods on health. It is one of just a handful of studies to examine the effects of folic acid supplements, which are recommended to women who could become pregnant to ensure for neural tube closure of the developing fetus.

The experiment involves feeding mice various doses of a folic acid supplement and measuring how it is metabolized in the liver, giving greater insight to the ideal dosage to support healthy metabolism. The foremost goal of the project is to identify safe and effective dosing in mice so we can translate those findings to human health.

Although much work remains to be done before the final results are in, there has already been much to discover during the project, as Janice notes:

“It’s been a bit of a learning curve, I’ll admit. Tissue analysis is a lot different from food analysis.”

Working on the cutting-edge of metabolite research, there are often new methods and hypotheses floated within the research team to achieve the desired results. Her team lead, Brian Yu, who is a specialist in the laboratory, has introduced new analysis techniques into the experimental design.

Janice credits their progress to being a highly collaborative team, who openly discuss new ideas with enthusiasm.

Janice says she hopes to encourage other women and girls to pursue science careers. “There are so many opportunities that come with a background in sciences, so just go for it!” she says.

“Many of my peers with chemistry degrees now work as venture capitalists, because the scientific process is so applicable to design and more. If you haven’t found the thing that gets you excited – keep searching,” she says. “There’s no need to settle for a career that doesn’t fulfil you. And science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields have a lot to offer.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Let’s celebrate and elevate the incredible work of women in science! This article is part of a month-long series celebrating women in science, from UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11) to International Women’s Day (March 8).