Dr. Melanie Ratnam Breaks Gender Barriers as a Tamil Woman in STEM and Advocate for Equity in Canada
Dr. Melanie Ratnam is the first Tamil Canadian woman to be recognized for Canada's Women's History Month National Campaign in 2023.
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Michelle Obama once said, "There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish." This quote accurately depicts Dr. Melanie Ratnam, the first Tamil Canadian woman to be recognized for Canada's Women's History Month National Campaign in 2023 for advocating for equity in STEM as President of the Society for Canadian Women in Science & Technology (SCWIST). 

Melanie was raised in Scarborough, Canada, and earned her Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of Toronto. Her research focused on how specific immune cells in the brain, called microglia, control inflammation after cerebral ischemia, a condition with insufficient blood flow to the brain.

"What makes my perspective unique is twofold. Firstly, I am Canadian with a deep respect for my heritage, rooted in the history of Tamil people from Ceylon. Secondly, having grown up in Scarborough, I describe myself as a Scarborough girl because the heart of Scarborough is represented by the strength of its communities."

In 1992, the Government of Canada designated October as Women's History Month to celebrate the accomplishments of women across Canada. The 2023 Women's History Month theme was "Through Her Lens: Celebrating the Diversity of Women," which recognized Melanie for her numerous achievements as a Tamil woman in STEM.

I met Melanie to discuss her accomplishments, challenges, and perspectives on equity in STEM. Keep reading to learn about Melanie's unique journey in pursuing a career in Science as a Tamil woman from Scarborough.

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Melanie immigrated to Canada with her parents when she was just a few months old. Raised in Scarborough, she continues to live and work there. Melanie feels a deep connection to the Scarborough community because it laid the foundation for who she is today.

"I often say that the community raised me. The kindness and compassion of those in the Scarborough community played a crucial role in my development."

During her early educational journey, Melanie's mentorship came from her parents, who supported her academic pursuits, and her educators from elementary school to university, whom she holds in high esteem.

Melanie's love for science first ignited in grade six when her elementary school principal initiated a science fair club and extended an invitation to the entire school. As the club expanded, it provided Melanie with a hands-on approach to learning and understanding the real-world impacts of science. "Unlike traditional textbook learning, it brought science to life, marking a pivotal moment in my journey."

Her passion for science continued in high school, where she sought the incredible opportunity to explore neuroscience and epilepsy research at a university wet lab. Her love for research at the bench continued through her undergraduate and graduate studies. Melanie explains, "Under the guidance and training of incredible scientists at the University of Toronto, I had the privilege of delving into neuroscience and life science research, solidifying my passion for the field."

While Melanie fondly shares stories about educational mentors in her life, she expresses immense gratitude to her parents, stating, "They tirelessly drove me back and forth, supporting every science fair project and providing me with the foundation for my academic pursuits. Their unconditional support was crucial to all my pursuits in my life."

Besides her love for bench science, Melanie is deeply committed to advancing equity in STEM. I asked her to share more about her initiatives.

Melanie is the President of The Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST). This national not-for-profit organization advocates for gender equality and removes systemic STEM barriers for underrepresented groups across Canada. With a 42-year history, SCWIST focuses on three main areas: engaging youth in STEM, supporting women in STEM during the career phase, and policy and advocacy initiatives that are national in scope. 

Melanie also co-founded a youth program in Scarborough, Toronto, called Ultimate Science. She has personally mentored over a thousand students through this program to create STEM projects that aligned with the student's interests. Melanie emphasizes, "What makes this program special is how it shows that science is everywhere. Students find they can link their interests, such as sports or cooking, to STEM projects, creating a meaningful and impactful learning experience."

Melanie's roles as the President of The Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) and co-founder of Ultimate Science reflect the influence of outstanding educators in her life. She feels compelled to pay it forward to the community.

While Melanie's academic and professional career showcases a set of accomplishments, it also comes with challenges. I asked Melanie about her challenges as a Tamil female in STEM and how she overcame them.

Melanie faced challenges in accessing unique STEM programs as a Tamil immigrant. She is so grateful to her educators for going out of their way to provide access to great opportunities early in her childhood. She highlights the importance of understanding the system in which science and STEM operate in. She encourages everyone to support initiatives that improve access to experiential learning in STEM, especially as Canada ushers in the fourth industrial revolution - where emerging technologies like AI can potentially exacerbate gaps in education.

Melanie emphasizes connecting with communities to tackle specific challenges or systemic barriers. She says, "Being in a group that understands these barriers allows you to draw upon lived and shared experiences to shape perspectives, and frameworks & tools to overcome challenges effectively."

Melanie is passionate about implementing systematic change and equity in STEM through policy change. I asked her to describe what fostering change and equity in STEM means to her.

Melanie explains that achieving equity in STEM, especially in Canada, should also include a strong focus on inclusion. Cultivating "a sense of belonging" is critical to building a positive organizational culture. She says, "True success is visible diversity and a tangible sense of belonging felt by everyone involved."

Melanie emphasizes that addressing gaps in pay equity and rates of gender-based violence is crucial for this success. Closing wage gaps and reducing gender-based violence rates for equity-seeking groups will be necessary for Canada's talented youth and STEM workforce.

Melanie states, "The ultimate measure of success will be the absence of these gaps or, in other words, the achievement of equity and equality for all equity-deserving groups in Canada." 

I asked Melanie, "Looking ahead, do you think Canada is on the right track to securing an inclusive future for all?"

Melanie expressed that reaching our collective goals as a nation will require continued commitment and bold leadership to improve systems in every space. "The call-to-action is for leaders, decision-makers and all of us, in every sector and organization, to continuously assess and implement effective policy reform that will ultimately create system change in a way that positively impacts innovation and economic growth."

Melanie, the first Tamil Canadian woman to be recognized for Canada's Women's History Month in 2023, shares this humbling recognition with all those who continue to help communities all across Canada move one step closer to achieving equality.

Indojaa Sathiyaseelan
Toronto,  Canada
I have a versatile professional background in marketing, writing, and media. I am p...
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