Guided by the science: Mona Nemer's principle for life, not just pandemics

At an all-girls' school in Beirut, she fought to study her favourite subject. Now the renowned molecular geneticist is in her element as Canada's top scientific adviser

In the summers of her youth, Mona Nemer would escape the sweltering heat of Beirut with her family to seek out the cool mountain air of Wadi Chahrour.

The small village in Mount Lebanon provided respite away from the bustling city just a dozen kilometres north, a place of tranquillity to indulge her boundless curiosity.

"It was really very quiet and peaceful, which gave a lot of time for reading and perhaps dreaming," she tells The National. "I guess I was just curious and asked many questions. I was fascinated by so many things around us."

Most of the dreams were about a future career in science. She can’t explain why, but from an early age she was drawn towards “the medical side”. Not, she hastens to add, to become a doctor of medicine.

“That was clear,” she says, “because I was afraid of needles. I was freaked out by blood. I wanted to discover new drugs and contribute to health that way. I thought that was fascinating, to be able to actually discover a drug that can then benefit millions and millions of people around the globe.”

Her wildest imaginings can’t have conceived a future in which she would grow up to be the Dr Mona Nemer reappointed recently as Chief Science Adviser by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to guide Canada through a viral pandemic.

Since the emergence of the coronavirus, Dr Nemer has been awestruck by the intensity shown by peers across all disciplines, industry and academia coming forward to lend their expertise.

Remarkable progress has been made at an unprecedented pace but she is a firm believer that speed and scientific rigour are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, she maintains.

Asked whether the worldwide coalition that produced vaccines in less than a year has made it easier for her to interest others in her favourite subject, Dr Nemer says: “There’s nothing like impact, right?

“We’ve never talked so much about science as we have in the past year. I think that’s certainly the upside of the pandemic … there have been some good moments, some good outcomes. I think that the vaccine is the perfect example.”

The pressures and hardships notwithstanding, Dr Nemer is living the dream. For decades, but particularly during the current crisis, she has been contributing to health in the way that her teenage self always hoped.

Back then, though, the aspirations of the young Mona were in jeopardy almost before they began. While her home in East Beirut was one of equality, where her parents had the same expectations of Mona and her sister as they did of her brother, the Ecole Zahrat-el-Ihsan in Achrafieh was not as progressive.

The teachers were nuns, and she recalls that the school didn’t fit well with her temperament. “It was an all-girls’ school and the assumption was that girls would not go into scientific fields so there was no need to have a science-focused curriculum after a certain stage,” she explains.

The 17 year old, determined not to let that dictate her fate, gathered a few similarly minded classmates to petition for a science stream. “It was maybe one of my first acts of civil reform or not to say disobedience,” Dr Nemer says, “but we really pushed hard … and we won.”

Dr Mona Nemer and family in Wichita.

It was the beginning of a long and distinguished career, not just in science but as a champion for it. In the ensuing years, Dr Nemer has stood up repeatedly on behalf of those under-represented within the multi-disciplines, especially women.

“I think that we will rest on the day when it’s so normal that nobody walks up to any woman in a leadership position and says how great it is,” she commented recently, “because I don’t think any guy walks up to a prime minister or a president and says: ‘Oh, isn’t it wonderful that we have a white man who’s a leader?’”

The married mother of one has also questioned why having a family should in any way preclude women from a scientific career when, as she points out, it doesn’t seem to do so for men.

Her own opportunities in further education and specialisations can certainly be traced back to that early advocacy at Catholic school in the 1970s. It ignited her passion for chemistry in particular, though she was keen on all fields of science - except one.

“I didn’t like biology at school because you just had to do a lot of memorising, and I was maybe a bit impatient about that,” she says, of the character trait that has played a decisive role at several crucial junctures.

“I really loved maths, I loved chemistry, I loved physics. The only part of biology that I liked was genetics because that was more problem solving and probabilities.”

Born in 1957, Mona grew up the oldest of three siblings pushed by their father, a mechanical engineer, and mother, a teacher, to academic excellence.

“The expectation was to be in the top of the class and if you weren’t, then you’d have to explain why,” Dr Mona says with a laugh. “I loved reading so much that books were my rewards.”

She was a teen in the waning years of Beirut’s golden era when the capital was swirling with people and ideas. “This whole environment was so cosmopolitan, so open to the world,” Dr Nemer says.

It inspired her to decide to travel abroad for graduate studies after doing a degree at the American University of Beirut (AUB). With these career plans in place, her future seemed written in stone until the country around her began to crumble.

After her first year as an undergraduate, the start of the civil war effectively cut her off from the rest of the family in East Beirut as she hunkered down in the campus on the west side of the city. “I spent several months in the sub-basement of the medical building at AUB, and there were bombs and shells coming on us,” she says.

Dr Mona Nemer's student life in the basement of the AUB medical building in July 1976, just before she left Lebanon.

It was a disquieting experience punctuated by a particularly close call. When her father came to bring her home one weekend, the city had become so divided that checkpoints manned by gun-toting militia proliferated.

“We were almost kidnapped and killed,” she says, the fear and anger from the encounter still evident in her voice almost 45 years later. “That was pretty traumatic for me and I became very disillusioned about the situation. The whole religious bickering was really foreign to me.”

As life in Beirut became increasingly dangerous and intolerable, Mona fast-tracked her departure. Her parents were supportive, but had concerns about sending their eldest daughter to America alone. A compromise was reached in which she was free to finish her studies in the US as long as she settled close to family.

She was too impatient to do the required semester of English at the University of Florida so moved to Wichita, a city of around 300,000 people in Kansas, to live with her aunt. It was a dramatic change from the Beirut of her earlier days. “The culture shock was something else,” she says.

The transition was made easier, however, by finding an unexpectedly large Lebanese community, as well as fellow students embracing with generosity and interest what she describes as a “weird creature”.

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I arrived in Montreal and I'm going: 'Wow! That's something that resembles where I grew up'

Eager once again to get a move on – this time with her research – she applied to graduate school at the University of Michigan, but a weekend trip north of the border with friends changed everything.

If lack of patience has been a strong determinant of Dr Nemer’s career path, then serendipity’s been the other. “I arrived in Montreal and I’m going: ‘Wow! That’s something that resembles where I grew up.’ I fell in love with the city and basically the rest is history.”

She immediately went to the admissions office at McGill University to apply. Despite it being little more than a month before the new school year started, her request was accommodated.

As at AUB and Wichita State, Dr Nemer excelled during her PhD in bio-organic chemistry at McGill, going on to do postdoctoral training in molecular biology in America but always returning to her beloved island in the Saint Lawrence River.

Happy chance chartered her course again when colleagues in the office next to hers at the Clinical Research Institute in Montreal discovered a new cardiac hormone called atrial natriuretic factor (ANF). They asked Dr Nemer to collaborate on the molecular cloning.

“Just by being a little bit supportive of my colleagues, I ended up having a great project doing things I would never, never have anticipated I would be working on: which is the heart.”

At the time, the received wisdom was that the heart's function was to pump blood into the rest of the body. Dr Nemer and her colleagues found that ANF was a hormone produced by the heart to help control blood pressure.

“What I did is isolate the genetic sequence for ANF, and provided evidence that it was made in the heart. It was a very important paradigm shift because suddenly now we’re thinking of the heart as an endocrine organ.”

She would go on to become a specialist in cardiac regeneration, her work contributing to the development of diagnostic tests for heart failure and the genetics of birth defects.

Then, with her career in full flight, she chose to pivot and take a job at the University of Ottawa as professor of biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President of Research in 2006.

Characteristically, when asked at the interview what her interest in the Canadian capital was, she replied: “It’s only two hours from Montreal.”

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The notion of public service was important at home, using your talents not only for your own advancement

The position allowed her to throw herself into “the science enterprise” after realising the extent of support that scientists needed from academic administrators and government.

The ultimate advocacy role, however, was still to come. Eleven years later, towards the end of 2017, Dr Nemer took up the mantle of Canada’s Chief Science Adviser with all the vigour of her younger self petitioning the nuns at high school.

The decision to serve the country she fell in love with all those years ago may have much to do with her upbringing in Lebanon. “I don’t try to rule the world,” she says. “I try to work with others to make things better.

“The notion of public service was extremely important at home, using your talents not only for your own advancement.”

Her promise from the outset was to restore science to its rightful place. She wanted to make a difference, helping politicians and civil servants to understand science and value the wealth of scientists “in and out of labs”. She was also compelled by the conviction that the public’s access to facts and evidence underpins democracy.

In the first years of her term, Dr Nemer would often walk along the riverside path that goes by the parliament and supreme court buildings, making a circuit with Ottawa on one side and Gatineau, Quebec, on the other.

“Walking,” she once wrote of these trips, “re-energises me when I have difficult decisions to make. I have a lot of them.”

That was before Covid-19. Now, Dr Nemer says, the important has given way to the urgent.

She hopes one day to look back and feel that she helped build an enduring science advisory system in government. For now, she says, there isn’t time to even register that the great and the good are looking to her for answers.

“You have to keep focused on the outcome of the job that needs to be done. Once it’s done, there’s already the next one that’s waiting. It’s very dynamic, but it’s very tiring.”

Throughout her tenure, Dr Nemer has tried to lead by example to inspire rather than force people to do things differently. It is perhaps unsurprising that she, too, has learnt to modify her own behaviour along the way.

“You have to be patient, which, you know,” she concedes with a small smile, "I’m better at than before.”

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