Inspired by nature to design the materials of the future

The recipient of a prestigious J&J WiSTEM2D Scholars Award, McGill’s Noémie Dorval Courchesne wants to bioengineer biodegradable, non-toxic materials for use in a variety of devices

The threats that bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella can pose to humans are widely understood, but what of their potential to engineer new materials? This is one of the questions Noémie Dorval Courchesne is exploring as the winner of the Johnson & Johnson WiSTEM2D Scholars Award for Engineering. Dorval Courchesne is an assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Chemical Engineering and a Canada Research Chair in Biologically Derived Materials. Her research group investigates how to use the protein fibers produced by many bacteria to create novel materials for biomedical electronics, such as wearable sensors and bioelectrodes.

These bioengineered “living” materials have the potential to make devices more effective and more sustainable. A variety of applications are plausible, such as using these materials in soft wearable or implantable electrodes for monitoring the body and in electronics that biodegrade into non-toxic components after use.

Johnson & Johnson announced the WiSTEM2D Scholars Awards in October. WiSTEM2D, which stands for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing and Design, is awarded annually to one scholar in each of the STEM2D disciplines. Dorval Courchesne was selected from a competitive global applicant pool of female researchers who are driving breakthroughs in these fields.

“McGill congratulates Professor Dorval Courchesne on this well-deserved award”, said Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. “Already a pioneer in her field and a mentor to an emerging generation of scientists, she is helping to solve some of society’s current challenges through greener materials.”

“I am excited to become part of the WiSTEM2D scholars’ community, to network with women in STEM fields and to promote inclusion at all levels in academia and industry,” said Dorval Courchesne. “It is an honour to have been selected for this award and I hope that I can do my part to create change and promote diversity.”

Promoting diversity in STEM

As an WiSTEM2D Scholar, Dorval Courchesne receives $150,000 in research funding and three years of mentorship from Johnson & Johnson. “I am very excited to embark on this journey as new WiSTEM2D Scholar and I am sure that the funding provided through this program will help me recruit talented researchers for my laboratory,” says Dorval Courchesne.

She credits the example and mentorship of MIT’s Paula Hammond and Angela Belcher for setting her up for success her career. “They are excellent examples of successful and creative women in STEM,” she said. “I learned a lot from them scientifically but also from their research group management styles, and from all the opportunities that they provided us with as research trainees in their groups.”

She is committed to fostering a similar culture of diversity and inclusion at McGill, recognizing that there are still too few women in STEM fields. “Surrounding yourself with successful women mentors can be highly motivating and probably the best demonstration that this work is possible,” she said. “I think it is important to have confidence and to firmly believe that both women and men can equally contribute to scientific discoveries and new breakthroughs.”

Learn more about the 2022 WiSTEM2D Scholars

This article was originally published in the McGill Report.

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