As a young girl growing up in Lebanon, Mona Nemer had to convince her teachers to allow her to study science.
Today, Dr. Mona Nemer — who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Wichita State University — is the chief science advisor for Canada, providing advice and insight to Canada’s prime minister and his cabinet.
Nemer came to Wichita to escape the civil war in Lebanon. She stayed with relatives while earning a degree at WSU in 1977, and went on to earn her doctorate in bio-organic chemistry from Montreal’s McGill University.
She was a professor of biochemistry at the University of Ottawa and vice president of research there when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named her his chief science advisor in 2017.
Nemer talked with Tom Shine and The Range about her position, the continued COVID-19 problems Canada is experiencing, and what she learned during her time in Wichita.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Shine: The CDC has warned U.S. citizens from traveling to Canada right now. And I know that Canada is having difficulties right now with the pandemic. What's happening there that's making it such a difficult time?
Nemer: Like many places in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting lots of challenges in the sense that the virus is mutating. They think it's changing to basically escape the vaccine and to be more aggressive. And once you let these new viruses … just take over, it becomes really a battle between the vaccination, public health measures and the variants.
What do you think has been your most important role during the pandemic?
As the prime minister told me a year ago, he said, ‘I knew that having a science advisor was important, but I didn't realize how important it was in a pandemic.’
I would say that probably one of the very important roles that I have played is to bring science, scientists, experts together to help me provide the best advice to government. So I think … connecting government needs with the outside scientific expertise.
I read an article about you that … the pandemic has amplified the role of science when it comes to making public policy. Can you talk about that a little bit?
What the pandemic has done, because of the situation where it was an unknown virus, we didn’t know how it’s transmitted, how to detect it, what to use to prevent disease … the public was basically getting acquainted with not only the terminology but also with the way that things happen behind the scenes, in the many cases, when you have a new drug or when you make a decision about whether to allow something or not.
I think this was illustrated, for example, early on with the conversation around … mask wearing. So suddenly this was something that was very tangible, that affected people, and they were going like, ‘Well, is this protective or not? And how do we know this?’
Then they were hearing the experts on national TV and radio discuss how this has not been done (just) for this virus, but for other viruses ... So it was, I think, a learning experience on how public policy gets done and also on the role of evidence and the quality of the evidence that needs to weigh in for the decision-making.
This country … has experienced some anti-science backlash. Have you experienced that in Canada?
Fortunately we didn't experience anti-science in Canada. As a matter of fact, I think that we have succeeded to raise that to the extent where now, when politicians take a policy or weigh in on something, you have the population saying, ‘Well, we want to know what the experts think of this. We want to know what data you had to support this decision.’
I'm really proud of the progress that we have made in terms of installing a respectful dialogue between scientists and the public.
You were initially appointed to the office for a two-year term, which I think would have ended last year … sort of the middle of the pandemic. The prime minister asked you to stay on for two more years. Did you ever consider not staying on?
It wasn’t something I thought about at all. It was a public service, I think at its best. I knew that I had a role to play, I was playing it and that it wasn't the time to let go.
What experiences from your time in Wichita still influence you today?
My first, like, two months were very difficult because everything around me was different. … But after that, it was so rewarding. I succeeded in my studies. I met new people and I thrived in a new environment, which actually helped me a lot later on in life.
It sounds like the end of the world when you pick up your stuff and you go to a new place. And actually it enriches you because you meet people who are very different from you, who think differently … the environment does challenge you. And when you succeed in that environment, you just become a better person, but you also become a person who has a lot more appreciation of diversity and more patience with people who are not the same and a lot less fear of people who are not like you because you've experienced people like this.
When was the last time you were back to Wichita? Do you come and visit at all?
I promise myself every year, and I have a daughter who absolutely wants me to take her to Wichita because she hears me talk very fondly of my time in Wichita.
So I haven't been to Wichita in a while, but I can tell you I'm so looking forward to going there again and visiting the streets where my house was and the university. And I'm sure lots of things have changed dramatically.
But I dream of that day when I'm going to be able to visit again.