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A Conversation with Professor Gilbert

“Knowing my own strengths and weaknesses, and accepting them, empowers me like nothing else”

What do you do at the University of Toronto?

I am an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. In this role I teach undergraduate and graduate level courses, guide thesis studies and write grants to support our research efforts. I also have a chance to get in the laboratory and do some research from time to time!

Can you tell us about the research done at the Gilbert Lab?

Our research focuses on skeletal muscle regenerative medicine. In particular, we are really interested in trying to understand the signals that wake up the stem cells that live in skeletal muscle tissue. Our hope is that if we figure out what controls muscle stem cells, we could then develop drugs that improve skeletal muscle repair in the aging population.

What challenges did you face growing up?

I was born and raised in beautiful New Hampshire in the United States. My parents were young when I was born, and as a result, we struggled financially, but we always had enough to eat, a roof over our heads, and love. Another challenge I faced growing up was being the first person in my extended family to attend college. Without family members to help me navigate the complex transition from high school to college, I really lagged behind my peers in the beginning.

How has mentorship impacted your life?

Mentorship played an important role at so many pivotal points in my life. It was my track coach who steered me towards college. My coach and his wife really pushed their girls to go to college and as a result of spending so much time with the family, I, too, came to believe that college is what you do after high school – and I’m so glad that I did!

Do you think it’s important to ask for help? Why?

Asking for help can be one of the hardest things to do. The first step is the realization that you are struggling. Asking for help often feels like a personal risk because it feels as though you are revealing a weakness, but in reality, asking for help reveals inner strength. It takes courage to ask for help. Ultimately, you come to find that you are not the first person to face the challenge that is causing you such immense stress.

What empowers you?

Empowerment is defined in different ways to different people. For me, empowerment comes from knowing that I am a work in progress. I take joy in discovering my strengths and constantly evolving to tweak my weaknesses. Knowing my own strengths and weaknesses, and accepting them, empowers me like nothing else.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to raise their confidence?

The best advice I can give is to identify things that scare you and actively confront them one at a time. Early in my career I was terrified of giving oral presentations. What if I mess up? What if they are talking about me in the audience? I knew this was something I needed to overcome so I started practicing in front of peers and larger audiences. The confidence you gain with each fear you overcome is exponential!

Penney Gilbert grew up in Lebanon, New Hampshire, a small town in the United States. It was there that her interest in biology was first sparked and where she gained an appreciation for nature. She then traveled to the state of Pennsylvania where she earned a BSc from Haverford College (1995), a small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Following college, Penney spent two years working as a research technician at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN) during the weekdays and as waitress on the weekends. Penney pursued graduate studies at UPENN as a result of encouragement from her supervisor. She earned her PhD (2006) for her thesis studies, which identified a new breast cancer tumor suppressor gene. She then traveled further west for her postdoctoral studies at Stanford University and subsequently accepted an Assistant Professorship at the University of Toronto in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering.