Last Saturday evening, the Living Arts Centre hosted Mississauga’s third TEDxMississauga conference with Dr. Patrick Gunning, Dr. Joseph Gabriele, Mary Ellen Bench, and Shelli Varela as speakers. The event’s theme was “Limitless” and celebrated the potential of the Mississauga community. The event included performances from the UTM Dance Team and UTM Music Club. The Medium rounded up highlights from the TEDxMississauga conference.

Shelli Varela

Shelli Varela is Mississauga’s first female firefighter and fire captain, author of Peanut Meets the Pigtailed Firefighter, and a travelling member of Firefighters Without Borders. Varela was named Firefighter of the Year in 2010, where the award recognised her 10 years of charity work and community service. Today, Varela is writing her second book and continues to inspire both men and women with her journey and her success in a male-dominated profession.

“My first test as a firefighter had nothing to do with fire,” said Varela. Instead, as the first female firefighter, she faced scepticism. Varela’s colleagues believed that as a 5’2” female, she would “not be able to pull her weight” in a crisis.

While Varela felt disheartened, her district chief offered her the following piece of advice: “Shelli, firefighters are like tools in a toolbox. You don’t need eight hammers—you might need a hammer, [but] you also need a screwdriver, a ratchet, [and] a wrench.”

Soon afterwards, Varela and her team were called to the site of a capsized car containing an injured driver. Due to her petite build, Varela was able to climb into the car and help get the driver to safety. At this point, Varela earned the respect of her colleagues and, more importantly, understood her chief’s advice.

“I had made the mistake of thinking that because I was a girl in a boy’s job, and because I’m only 5’2’’, that what made me different made me less. But in this instance, it made me valuable, because the belief in a limitation is more powerful than the limitation itself,” recounted Varela.

For the remainder of her talk, Varela shared three important lessons with the audience. The first was that “bravery builds backbone […] when you’re brave enough to stand out on your own, you’re able to achieve excellence”.

For Varela’s second lesson (“certainty creates character”), she recounted the painful memory of watching her father’s health deteriorate over the years. But one thing remained the same: her father’s love for the musician Stevie Ray Vaughan. “[My father] was certain about what he loved. What do you love? Because when you are lucky enough to know what you love, don’t apologise for that—and let it light you up,” she said.

Varela’s final lesson was about the power of perception. “Perception creates reality […] when you choose the perception that supports your dreams, ‘I can’t,’ becomes ‘How can I?’ ‘It hasn’t been done before,’ becomes ‘Yet,’ ” she said.

Mary Ellen Bench

The City of Mississauga solicitor, Mary Ellen Bench, leads the city’s legal and risk management division, where she and her team provide legal and risk and insurance support to the City Council, the city manager, and city staff. Bench was recently awarded the 2015 Tom Marshall Award of Excellence for Public Sector Lawyers in recognition of approximately 15 years of legal counsel and guidance for the city.

“Our vision is to be a city where people choose to live,” said Bench as she began her talk reflecting on Mississauga’s progress.

When Bench first came to Mississauga, it was a “bunch of farmer fields” and considered to be nothing more than a “city hall attached to a shopping mall”. At first, Bench viewed Mississauga as a stepping stone, but chose to stay once she discovered and appreciated Mississauga’s culture and atmosphere.

“I’m lucky to say that I’ve been practising law for 29 years and I can count on one hand the number of days that I did not want to go into work,” said Bench.

Bench was the eldest of six children raised in a single parent family. In her final year of high school, she was passed over for a scholarship opportunity because the teacher believed that the other student would “make something more of her life than [Bench] [would]”.

“I hope I have lived up to proving that teacher wrong in the grand scheme of things,” said Bench.

Patrick Gunning

Patrick Gunning, an associate chemistry professor at UTM, is well known among the student population for his ongoing cancer research. What many may not know is that prior to teaching chemistry, Gunning completed his Ph.D. at the University of Glasgow and postdoctoral work at Yale University before transitioning to Mississauga.

For the last 10 years, Gunning has been focused on the STAT3 protein. Gunning poked fun at his obsession, saying that he and STAT3 go back a lot further.

“I’m from a little island on the west coast of Scotland called Bute. And if you look at the shape of Bute, it looks almost identical to STAT3, so maybe it was fate that I was meant to target this protein,” he joked.

The STAT3 protein has been called “a master regulator”—it expresses genes that “lead to division, growth, preventing cell death, and tumour growth”. In cancer cells, this protein is permanently switched on.

Gunning and his team have been using medicinal chemistry to develop drugs that target STAT3 in cancer cells—specifically, a molecule that acts as an inhibitor for the STAT3 protein.

“We do this with organic chemistry, which is everyone’s favourite subject at university,” says Gunning. “Biologists don’t like us. They call us cooks and chefs, and Breaking Bad has propagated that idea.”

Gunning’s molecule has to overcome several obstacles, such as being able to bind effectively to the STAT3 protein, withstand human metabolism, and affect only its intended targets (i.e. not healthy human cells) in order to be a viable treatment.

Because Gunning’s work is patent-protected, he referred to the molecule his team is working on as “compound X”.

“We started off with a molecule that [has lots] of different targets, and wasn’t particularly a good drug, but we optimised it in a rational way towards compound X, which we believe is on target,” said Gunning. “We’re really excited by the preliminary research data.”

Joseph Gabriele

Following his BSc from U of T, Joseph Gabriele went on to complete his Master’s and Ph.D. in the field of molecular neuroscience at McMaster. Today, Gabriele is an assistant professor within McMaster’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience.

Gabriele began his talk by recounting the tale of his wife being diagnosed with a rare bone tumour. Following multiple surgeries, Gabriele’s wife recovered but still suffered constant chronic pain. What made matters worse was that she could not take oral pain relief medications. During these difficult times, Gabriele took on the role of a caretaker, felt depressed, and turned to alcoholism.

“Did you know that over 55 million people in North America suffer from some sort of pain? It costs the health care system an astronomical 300 billion dollars a year,” said Gabriele.

At this point, Gabriele began working with fellow researchers to produce Delivra™, a topical compound that can transport agents (in Gabriele’s wife’s case, pain medication) and allow for localized action and enhanced recovery.

The compound only reduced Gabriele’s wife’s pain by 10 percent, but it was a start. Using an integrative approach, Gabriele’s wife slowly improved her quality of life using Delivra™, yoga, acupuncture, and semi-competitive salsa dancing.

“She uses these different modalities to just to get through the day—that’s the new normality,” said Gabriele. “[…] This integrative approach—it can help millions of people with pain.”