By Lara Pickford-Gordon
T&T’s Stecia-Marie Fletcher recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a PhD in Medical Biophysics. The research which earned her doctorate is regarded as a contribution to the field of non-invasive drug delivery to the spinal cord. It may be useful in treating a wide range of spinal cord diseases and disorders.
The 27-year-old, a research associate at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) is reaping the rewards of the steady academic path from secondary school through university. When she started advanced studies, she knew she did not want to be a medical doctor but wanted to make a contribution to the medical field. She chose biomedical research.
Fletcher is also passionate about equity, diversity and inclusion in science, recognising that the field is male dominated and young black women are not familiar faces in science. In a telephone interview from Canada on November 21, she disclosed that she has been talking to a lot of young females especially young, black women who may feel “there is no path for them to pursue in science or scientific careers”. Fletcher acknowledged it is a male-dominated field and “white male dominated” so women do not envision themselves in it.
She feels “extremely blessed” to have had strong female supervisors and role models while at university. “I definitely feel this is a field where we need to have more inclusion of lots of people from different backgrounds,” Fletcher said. Passionate about research and learning, she is conscious others look up to her because of what she has achieved.
“I want to be a good role model for them, when I think of my cousins and how they try to do well and succeed…that is always something that drives me and pushes me,” she said.
Stepping out in faith
Fletcher is a graduate of St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain. After Advanced Levels, there were high hopes that she would get a national scholarship. This did not materialise but her mother Patricia Boscombe-Fletcher, used personal funds and sent her away to pursue an MSci, (Master of Science) an integrated Master’s degree at the University College of London, England.
Bascombe-Fletcher, told the Catholic News: “I was not going to let not receiving a scholarship define her and prevent her from achieving her goal…I really did not have the amount of money.” She added, “but I prayed and I felt that God was telling me go ahead and He would provide. So, I stepped out in faith.”
It was costly and Bascombe-Fletcher an educator and former lecturer at the Valsayn Teachers’ College and University of Trinidad and Tobago, depleted her savings. Although
there were those who advised her to bring Fletcher back home, she did not want to break her daughter’s heart. “I knew she was very bright,” Bascombe-Fletcher said.
She held fundraisers and could testify to the generosity of family and friends. Her sisters “parted with many thousands of dollars in savings and pensions to see Stecia through”. One friend loaned £5,000 for Fletcher’s final year. She graduated with First Class honours.
Fletcher was encouraged by her professors to go on to a PhD but there was no money to continue. Bascombe-Fletcher could not borrow, her bills were “sky high” and she had bought a house. Distraught about the situation she prayed to God, Bascombe-Fletcher recalled that she received a message.
“I heard the Lord saying to me ‘how dare you question me after I have taken you through these four years just leave her alone don’t question me’; it was frightening because I had never heard anything like that I had never heard a voice like that I can’t even describe the voice…it was in my being”.
She told Fletcher to go ahead with the PhD. A four-year research programme opened up at SRI. Fletcher’s application was late but applications were subsequently invited again, and she was offered a place. The programme was funded with tuition and accommodation covered. Fletcher knows the sacrifice her mother made to ensure that she could pursue her studies. This kept her focused on the goal ahead. She mentioned being taught that money should be spent or invested in things that are important. Her education was an investment which she could not waste. “The financial thing has been extremely stressful but it is a matter of if you want it enough and are motivated enough” she said.
Her doctorate was earned from research at SRI, an affiliated research and teaching hospital with the University of Toronto. The titles of her research papers will confuse the lay person however, she tried to explain simply. One part of the work dealt with the use of focused ultrasound. Fletcher said ultrasound uses sound waves. Using the analogy of someone standing in a cave and screaming loudly, the sound generated echoes back and forth; ultrasound has a similar effect. When administered to the spinal cord there are “reverberations and echoes” aimed at inducing a therapeutic effect but this can also be harmful. Fletcher said, “what my work was doing was developing different sequences for sending in the ultrasound so we can mitigate that effect”.
Another aspect of the research focused on the safe use of ultrasound contrast agents— microbubbles. “We inject these microbubbles and they have also strong echoes of sound coming back from them and basically you can detect those echoes and different frequencies of sound, by doing that you are able to maintain your ultrasound treatment at a safe level”.
Before earning her PhD, Fletcher on October 23 had to present at a public seminar and defend her research in an examination with a committee. “The exam goes on for two hours and they just go round ask you a whole bunch of different questions,” she explained.
I know who I am
Going to England in 2012 at the age of 19 years was a “culture shock” for Fletcher who was accustomed to living with her mother and being in familiar surroundings.
“That first year was very challenging because I did not know who I was. I knew myself in the context of home but being out there I did not have a strong, individual sense of self,” she said. Living in a dormitory she took her cues from roommates, socialising with them, “going where everyone went”. Looking back Fletcher thinks she did not study enough. The absence of a support system caused her to lie in bed at nights crying. She returned home in the first year around Easter time. What helped her to eventually settle was joining the African and Caribbean Society of the university. “I did grow to understand the culture and learn the culture and learn where I could fit into that culture,” Fletcher said.
Faith and Science
Fletcher is a member of the Living Water Community. In her younger years, she belonged to the Morvant/Laventille pastoral area where her mother served as a Lay Minister. She admits that it was a struggle to be open about her faith while in London. “I would go to church but I wouldn’t tell anybody I was going to church,” she said with a chuckle. Her absence was explained as going for a walk. “I am in science in my first year and most of the courses I took were pure physics courses, you hear things, ‘religious people this and religious people that’ and you kind of believe it is something to be ashamed of.”
Things changed in her second year when she made friends with similar values. Fletcher said, “It was through my relationship with those friends I really started understanding I could be friends with people who are a lot more secular but I should be able to say to them this is my faith and this is what I believe.” She said finding a Church community helped. Fletcher was part of the university chaplaincy in England but did not gel with the community there. When she sent to Canada in 2016, she joined the St Monica’s parish which was close to the SRI. “One of the first things I did when I came here; I went to the young adult’s group. I have those friends”.
Fletcher said in her mid-20s she stopped caring what others thought about her relationship with God. She continued, “I have interesting conversations with colleagues who are atheists all the time …I think right now the place that I am, I am strong enough in it but that has not always been the case.” Part of dealing with “the push and pull of science and religion” was having strong communities in both. Having friends from both worlds keeps her grounded in who she wants to be and what her morals and beliefs are.
Fletcher’s resume is impressive with a list of research contributions, publications, conference presentations, awards, honors and commendations. She is also involved in extra-curricular activities, as a vocalist with the Sunnybrook Band and mezzo soprano with Takes of Harmonia acapella choir of the University of Toronto. She’s the cantor at St Monica’s singing on weekends. When churches closed, she kept up with Sunday Masses on Trinity Television with her mother. Fletcher can play the piano and when she returns home after a hard day it is her “big stress relief”. She joked that with all the extra-curricular activities and different committees, “I’m bad at taking time to just sit and relax”. The COVID-19 pandemic has actually given her time to slow down.