Waterloo Mathematics Helping to Solve the Problems of Inequity

From Mathematics to Medicine and Gender Equality 

Professor Anita Layton’s contributions to research, which have included revealing the molecular mechanisms behind different responses to treatments for hypertension among men and women; and uncovering potential side effects of a new “miracle drug” for diabetes, have resulted in her being named the Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematical Biology and Medicine. But Layton’s work with mathematics is not a path she readily chose. In fact, she wanted nothing to do with the subject area.

“The school I went to in Hong Kong is not like here or in the States. From kindergarten all the way up to high school is one large school,” Layton explained. “My father was the head of the math program in high school, so I was basically in his school since I was five. His colleagues would pat me on the head and say ‘oh Anita you’re so smart; you’re going to grow up to do math just like your daddy’. This was the last thing I wanted to do.”

Layton left high school before the stipulated time in Hong Kong and went straight to university. Despite being out of the shadows of her father, she still shied away from mathematics. 

“I left high school before grade 12, so I don’t have a high school certificate or diploma, and nobody ever cares,” Layton revealed. “I went to Duke (University), and I avoided math at all cost. I wanted to do physics but soon realized I couldn’t do experiments, so I switched over to computer science because if something goes wrong nothing smells, there’s no fire; nobody ever knows. So, all of my degrees were in computer science as I didn’t want to do math at all.”

However, Layton could only avoid mathematics for only so long. In the end, she ended up pursuing what she describes as ‘mathy’ computer science.

Today, she is recognized as a pioneer in demonstrating the use of mathematics as the new microscope in biology and medicine. Her modelling work was instrumental in solving one of the longest-standing mysteries in traditional physiology: how do mammal kidneys produce urine that is much more concentrated than blood plasma? More recently, she has dedicated much of her research to gender differences, for example, how men and women react differently to hypertension medication. She has found that females are not used in experiments to the same extent that males are, thus it is less understood how females respond to these medication.

Layton was a professor at Duke University in the United States before joining the University of Waterloo in 2018 as a professor of Applied Mathematics and Pharmacy. She is among the 13 women and 11 men currently appointed as Canada 150 Research Chairs. She deems the number of female research chairs as testimony to Canada’s understanding that there’s a significant difference between diversity and equity.

“I was pleasantly surprised that more than half of the research chairs are women. Honestly, I didn’t expect it,” Layton explained. “I think it’s a reflection of the right direction that Canada is going. There is still a lot of work to be done, but at least as an institution and a country, we’re willing to say we’re going in this direction and are actually making a good effort. And at least they realize the distinction between diversity, which is who gets to play, and equity, which is how much each gets paid to play. That realization I think is an important first step.”

Since her childhood, Layton’s father repeatedly encouraged her to get a PhD – something he didn’t get the opportunity to pursue. She believes that the only way to get more women and minorities to pursue mathematics and higher education is for them to have role models at every stage of their lives.

“Girls and minorities need teachers in their classroom who look like them and support them in fulfilling their potential, otherwise it’s very discouraging,” Layton said. “So, I think having role models in every part of the pipeline is very important.

“In the United States, a lot of girls and minorities turn away from math even before they enter college, and I think it must be the same in Canada because that’s what is expected of them. Our girls and minorities need good role models before they start college; once they get to college, it is too late.”

For much of her career, Layton has been playing her part in supporting females and minorities by actively recruiting them as trainees and graduate students.

“I try to get as many women as I can, and I talk to them; try to get them to work with me and keep them in the field,” Layton said. “I do the same with postdocs, so I try to recruit underrepresented minorities and help them with their careers.”

Because of her dedication to diversity and equity, Layton was asked to give the keynote at Waterloo’s International Women's Day dinner 2019 and has been appointed as chair of the university’s Research Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Council. A major goal of the Council, which includes members of the faculty and administration, is to develop strategies to help support female and minority faculty succeed at Waterloo.

"The Council looks for ways to increase the number of awards and research funding given to women faculty." Layton said. "I hope that one day soon I will no longer be surprised, even pleasantly, when half of the prestigious awards in STEM are won by women."