Women in Research: Sheona Mitchell-Foster

In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8, the UBC Faculty of Medicine is celebrating women in research by speaking with some of our leading researchers in cancer, heart and lung, population health, and brain and chronic disease.

Sheona Mitchell-Foster is an Assistant Professor with UBC’s Northern Medical Program based in Prince George, B.C. She is also a practicing obstetrician gynecologist and researcher, who is dedicated to examining cervical cancer prevention and the reproductive health of marginalized and vulnerable populations.

We spoke with Dr. Mitchell-Foster to learn more about what sparked her interest in pursuing a career as a clinician-scientist, her current research projects and what advice she would offer to women wanting to enter the scientific community.

What sparked your interest in reproductive health research?
Sheona Mitchell-Foster

Sheona Mitchell-Foster

I was attracted to reproductive health research – as well as reproductive care clinically – because of the disparities in women’s health outcomes that we see in Canada and even more markedly on a global level.

Globally we see incredible gaps in women’s health outcomes and big gaps in available care. I saw this as a lack of focus on research that was targeted at improving health services and health systems and improving engagement in care – so I became interested in trying to address some of the barriers that women face when they are trying to access these services.

The exciting thing for me about research versus purely clinical care is the opportunity to actually contribute to evidence that can inform and transform health systems and policy and I think that is pretty powerful.

What are you working on right now?

One of the projects I am working on focuses on decreasing barriers to reproductive screening. For a long time I have been involved with research on cervical cancer screening. I’ve been working with the ASPIRE Africa program where we are looking at the option of HPV self-collection for cervical cancer screening in low and middle income countries, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa. Self-collection is a really powerful and innovative tool because it means women can avoid the requirement for a pelvic examination, which is often associated with embarrassment, fear of being uncomfortable and in low and middle resource settings there is a lack of health care providers who are trained to do it.

I am also currently working with Northern Health and BC Cancer Agency partners to do a study at two of the drop-in centres in downtown Prince George that serve people with unstable housing, as well as sex trade workers. We are looking at offering HPV self-collection to them which also integrate self-collection swabs for other sexually transmitted infections. Because these are drop-in centres and not traditional health care centres, we are looking at the uptake of the test and whether the barriers to this service are actually taken away if people don’t have to go to a health care centre. We also want to know whether this is something that could be scaled up in smaller communities, as well as at other centres in the North.

My other area of research is related to women with problematic substance use in pregnancy, women living with HIV in pregnancy and Indigenous women in pregnancy and how they access care. So mapping out what antenatal care and obstetrical care looks like specifically for these women, who have more complex social and medical situations that often require multidisciplinary care. Another aspect of this is asking how we can address specific health system challenges like barriers to care and how we provide care.

What advice would you offer women wanting to pursue scientific research?

The reason why I got into scientific research was because I was motivated by what I am passionate about. I can’t say that I am always passionate about the process of research itself, but I am passionate about where it can get us.

We tend to see all the barriers when entering into a scientific career, even the reality of getting an actual tenured track position at a university. But, if you are fully engaged in what you do, you will have the long-term motivation that will drive your success. Focusing on what you are passionate about and having a mentor you respect will get you a long way.

Meet some of our other leading researchers

Marianne Sadar

Marianne Sadar, a UBC Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, recently developed an experimental drug that shrinks advanced prostate cancer tumours in the lab. It is the first drug in the world that targets the “engine” of the tumour that causes the cancer to grow.

We caught-up with Dr. Sadar to learn more about her journey into cancer research, her recent drug discovery and the strengths that she feels women bring to the scientific community.

Nadia Khan

Nadia Khan, a UBC Professor of Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine, was recently named President of Hypertension Canada. Dr. Khan’s research mainly focuses on cardiovascular disease among specific populations.

We spoke with Dr. Khan about her research interests, what she is working on now and what advice she would offer women wanting to pursue a career in scientific research.

Joanne Matsubara

Joanne Matsubara, a UBC Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, is examining age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – a chronic disease and major cause of blindness among the elderly.

We spoke with Dr. Matsubara about her journey in research, her current projects and what she hopes to accomplish.

Lynn Raymond

Lynn Raymond is a UBC Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Clinic Director of the Centre for Huntington Disease, and Director of the UBC MD/PhD Program.

We spoke with Dr. Raymond about her interest in neurology, her current research project and the benefits of pursuing a career in scientific research.