Growing up in the former Yugoslavia, Dr. Miroslava Cuperlovic-Culf did not ask herself if women could be scientists. Many of her professors were women, and the participation of women in the economy and in research was nothing unusual. Home was also a supportive environment. "Everyone in my family is a scientist of some kind, so you could say it's in our genes!" says Mira.
It was not until she arrived in the United States in 1992 to do her Master's Degree and PhD that she realized the field of computational physical chemistry was mostly dominated by men. However, positive experiences there, combined with her smarts and relentless dedication, would lead her along an exciting career path at top universities and research institutes across North America.
Celebrating the marriage of biology and computer science
Mira's research interests lie at the intersection of biological systems and artificial intelligence (AI). She joined the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) 12 years ago as a research officer and now leads a team of over 10 people who use AI techniques like machine learning to analyse molecular interactions. Mira and her team specialize in understanding cells and their behaviour in different environments. They collaborate with health researchers to decode diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer, and develop new diagnostics and treatments such as gene and cell therapy, as well as their production methods. Their expertise also provides insights into plant biology and genetics.
When the NRC launched its AI for Design Challenge program in 2018, Mira was selected to lead its AI for Biological Systems master project—a natural fit for an eminent researcher who has been pioneering the use of AI in health research for over 25 years.
"Through the AI for Design program, we're celebrating the marriage between biology and computer science, and launching collaborative projects with leading experts across Canada. By bringing together Canada's brightest minds, we hope to make next-level discoveries that can lead to better health outcomes for people with cancer and genetic diseases," she says.
As part of the AI for Biological Systems project, Mira will be using AI to optimize the design of universal cells and understand their behaviour. Universal cells are like blank slates that can programmed into different types of cells, and are undetectable by the immune system, making them potentially useful for cell therapy and for organ and tissue regeneration.
Currently, cell therapy against cancer is effective, but it is expensive because it must be tailored to individual patients, and is available to few. Researchers hope that in the future, universal cells could replace the need to extract T-cells from each patient, and would be accepted universally by their immune systems. This would make cell therapy easier to produce and more affordable, so that more people with cancer could benefit from the treatment.
"The big technological gap in universal cells at the moment is being able to design them so they have the desired properties, for example less likely to mutate, ability to turn them on or off (regulate expression), and predict how they will behave in different biological environments. This is where our program can make a difference," believes Mira.
Passion and collaboration—key ingredients to success
When asked if there were mentors in her career that stood out, Mira points to Dr. Myer Bloom, with whom she completed her post-doc at the University of British Columbia. "Myer was a role model for the types of behaviours to exhibit to have success in science. He was very collaborative and social—he knew no one group could do it all so he was always building relationships with other groups. He encouraged us to lend our equipment, share time at each other's labs, and exchange ideas. This is exactly the philosophy I have now in the AI for Design program", says Mira about the relationships she is fostering with the universities that she works with.
Mira has also had the pleasure of supervising many students, more of them women than men, though this was not a deliberate selection on her part. "What I look for first and foremost in a student is a passion for the science. Often that first work term is a key moment for the young researcher that confirms this is exactly where they want to be. It's a great privilege for me to share the love I have for science with my students. I hope that they can feel the spark within me and that it helps light a spark within them too."
When it comes to her team, her leadership style is hands-off. "My team has cutting-edge expertise in AI and machine learning, so I let them bring their best to the table. I provide suggestions when I think it could be helpful, without interfering with their daily work," she says. Accepting a diversity of ideas and methods leads to greater mutual respect and produces superior scientific results, something we can celebrate annually on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.