Chelsea Rochman and Helen Tran receive 2021 Dorothy Shoichet Women Faculty in Science Awards of Excellence

December 16, 2021 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

For their pioneering work in the study of microplastics and organic polymer chemistry respectively, Chelsea Rochman and Helen Tran have each received the 2021 Dorothy Shoichet Women Faculty in Science Award of Excellence.

Rochman is a professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB); Tran is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, cross-appointed to the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry.

“Both researchers are eminently deserving of this award,” says Vince Tropepe, a professor in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology and the Faculty of Arts & Science’s vice dean, research.

“Professor Rochman’s internationally recognized research into the environmental impacts of microplastics will yield unprecedented insight into their effect on ecosystem health and will play a major role in shaping international policy and legislation.

“Professor Tran’s creative use of polymer chemistry, machine learning and computer-assisted design is revolutionizing our understanding of how to generate multifunctional materials and is paving the way for the development of new health and sustainability technologies of the future.”

The award was established in 2016 by Molly Shoichet, a University Professor in U of T’s Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry in honour of her late mother. The award helps early-career female researchers in the physical or life sciences, computer sciences or mathematics within the Faculty of Arts & Science focus on their research.

When it was launched, Shoichet described the award as a “gift that will provide one of the key ingredients to women science faculty seeking to advance knowledge in a meaningful way — a little more time at a key point in their career when often family, research, classroom teaching and service are all vying for attention.”

“I am absolutely honoured to receive the award for a couple of reasons,” says Rochman. “First of all, I really admire Molly Schoichet’s work and career.

“Second, some extra time to focus on my research will allow me to give more of my focus to a large-scale experiment I am currently leading at the Experimental Lakes Area. This will be instrumental for a large collaborative project that will help narrow gaps in the knowledge about microplastics and inform local and global policies.”

According to Stephen Wright, EEB chair, “Professor Rochman is a trailblazing ecologist in the field of plastic pollution research. As an early career researcher, her work has already been groundbreaking in its characterization of the sources and ecological impacts of plastic pollution.

“In fact, since early in her graduate career, she has been a leading pioneer of this rapidly growing field. Her work is not only revolutionizing our understanding of the effects of plastics and their interactions with other stressors on ecosystems, but her lab is also playing a major role in shaping international policy and legislation.”

In particular, the award will allow Rochman to devote more time to her role as lead-principal investigator of a long-term research project to study the impact of microplastics on an entire lake. The experiment is being carried out at the International Institute for Sustainable Development's Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario.

Through this experiment, Rochman and her colleagues will study — at an ecosystem scale — what happens to microplastics in lakes and watersheds; how they affect aquatic ecosystems; and the extent to which ecosystems exposed to microplastics recover, including what happens to them over time.

Tran’s current research aims to create next-generation electronics that will autonomously respond to local stimuli and be seamlessly integrated with the human body, opening doors for opportunities in environmental monitoring, advanced consumer products and health diagnostics for personalized therapy.

“I am incredibly honoured to receive this award, which will accelerate my research program during a critical point in my career,” says Tran. “I admire Professor Shoichet's altruistic initiative to create such a meaningful award to support younger faculty in the sciences.”

Underpinning such next-generation electronics is the development of new materials with a wide suite of functional properties beyond our current toolkit. Organic polymers are a natural bridge between electronics and soft matter, where the vast chemical design space allows tunability of electronic, mechanical and transient properties. Her team leverages the rich palette of polymer chemistry to design new materials encoded with information for self-assembly, degradability and electronic transport.

“Helen possesses an excellent academic background, unparalleled enthusiasm and passion for science, and a keen devotion to training and teaching junior scientists,” says Robert Batey, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “Her bold and highly creative research program, securely underpinned by her early success record and enabled by her interdisciplinary training, is unique and will surely propel her to make significant discoveries in the polymer science field.

“Helen is perfectly positioned to use this prestigious award as a key career accelerator, and I am confident she will also serve as an ideal ambassador to honour Dorothy Shoichet and inspire the next generation of women faculty in science, particularly in chemistry.”

With files from the Department of Chemistry.