Trailblazers 2019: SFU vice president Joy Johnson helped level playing field for women in medical research

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      Once upon a time in Canada, almost all medical research did not consider differences in sex and gender.

      “I think people were sex- and gender-blind,” Joy Johnson, SFU’s vice president, research and international, told the Straight by phone. “We had people studying cardiovascular disease and assuming it was a men’s disease—and not thinking about women’s particular issues.”

      She pointed out that the first crash-test dummies did not consider the different body sizes of women. That left a gap in the understanding of injuries that women, including those who were pregnant, might sustain in motor-vehicle crashes.

      The gender blindness also applied to pharmaceutical research. Drugs were tested on male animal models. According to Johnson, this elevated the risk that researchers wouldn’t be aware of how women might respond to medications.

      “We’ve seen a number of drugs pulled because adverse side effects weren’t found in the initial work,” she said.

      That gender-blind approach largely came to an end during Johnson’s term as scientific director for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Gender and Health from 2008 to 2014.

      She and her colleagues persuaded CIHR to ensure that anyone applying for federal health-research funding would have to indicate if they were considering sex and gender.

      “That was a big game changer,” Johnson said. “Once you have those kinds of requirements, it makes people think differently about their work and it really raises people’s consciousness.”

      SFU recently reappointed Johnson for another five-year term. Her job entails leading universitywide research initiatives and supporting researchers in eight faculties.

      She emphasized that as part of SFU’s mandate to be an “engaged university”, she is keenly interested in research that makes a difference to society. And she’s proud of SFU having the fastest-growing research income of any university in Canada.

      “I think we really are coming into our own, not just as a top comprehensive university but as a top research university in this country,” Johnson said.