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Amanda Durkin was in high school when her dad was told she had a limited time left to live. The Parry Sound man managed to beat the odds but Durkin decided to continue her work at Health Sciences North Research Institute. March 7 /2020 (Ian Campbell)

Amanda Durkin started studying cancer therapies after her father received a devastating cancer diagnosis.

Durkin was in high school when her dad was told he had a limited time left to live.

The Parry Sound man managed to beat the odds, but Durkin decided to continue her work at Health Sciences North Research Institute.

"He survived that whole ordeal and that kind of set my whole interest in science and from there I did my undergrad at Laurentian and then when I wanted to do my graduate degree, I looked into some of the supervisors here," said Durkin. "It seemed like a natural fit for me… I feel like it's definitely made me understand how difficult cancer treatment can be and like finding therapies that are actually effective, it's made the softer side of me so compassionate, there is so many people that have cancer in their family and it's obviously so difficult."

Durkin's research has been focused around the development of a new cancer drug known as VR23.

It was discovered in Durkin's lab and she's been working on finding out the features of the drug.

So far, the drug has shown a lot of potential in treating autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease.

"I think STEM is definitely a very important field for women to be in. I've noticed even from talking to my mentors and seeing my graduate school classes that the new-age of science has a lot of women, a lot of my classes are majority women so give it 10-20 years more scientists will be women," said Durkin.

"I think International Women's Day is a good opportunity to mark all of the achievements that women have made but fight those stereotypes or biases that are present."

One of those women currently working in the field of STEM is Dr. Dominique Ansell, an emergency room physician at Health Sciences North.

"I think it's extremely important, it's probably been part of my whole life. The fact that I'm now able to do what I do in a field where it used to be male dominated, but now I have a lot of female colleagues," said Ansell.

"I work with in the emergency room department, and I'm hoping it keeps going that way and that we have more and more balance between the two sexes in medicine."

For Ansell, there are still some old-fashioned attitudes in the industry but it has come a long way.

"There has been some pioneer women that have come before me and several others that have allowed us to take our place, for example…I'm the vice-president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North and we haven't had a woman on the medical staff as far as I know," she said.

"I think that it's just a matter of different opportunities coming your way and knowing that you can do anything you want. It doesn't matter if you're a man or woman, it's as long as you have passion," said Ansell.

Melissa Kay is a master's student in biology who originally didn't like science and was then inspired by a grade 9 teacher to get into the field.

"When I did my undergrad in forensics, I tried to do a lot of classes regarding DNA and DNA technology and I did my undergrad thesis in forensic DNA," said Kay.

"I thought that was really interesting and cancer research is extremely important and not going away anytime soon…it was definitely important to find female role models within STEM"

"I actually find a lot of my colleagues who are other graduate students, there's a lot of females, almost more than males at this point," she added.

Kay is applying to the Science Communications program so she can make her research accessible to others.

According to Statistics Canada, it does appear the country is starting to make that curve towards making STEM a more female dominated field.

Women who received a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree in 2012 make up 58 per cent of the total number of graduates.

They've outnumbered men in every field of study except mathematics, computer and information sciences, architecture, engineering and related technologies, personal, protective and transportation services; and agriculture, natural resources and conservation.