Dr. Lori Brotto is executive director of the Women’s Health Research Institute, Canada Research Chair in Women’s Sexual Health, director of the UBC Sexual Health Laboratory and a professor in the university’s department of obstetrics & gynaecology. She also maintains a private practice. Dr. Brotto will moderate the Women in Science event on Feb. 10, 2022.

Finding her focus

Headshot of Dr. Lori Brotto
Dr. Lori Brotto, Executive Director, Women's Health Research Institute; Canada Research Chair in Women's Sexual Health; Director, UBC Sexual Health Laboratory; Professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, UBC; Registered Psychologist

I became interested in focusing on sexual health by accident. As an undergraduate studying biopsychology, I volunteered anywhere that would take an 18-year-old. I landed in a lab that was looking at animal models of sexual dysfunction. I spent six years injecting rats with stress hormones, antidepressants and creating stressful environments to measure the impact on their sexual behaviour. 

The moment I decided to focus on sexual health research in humans happened in March 1999. I was just gearing up to defend my master’s thesis, which focused on animal models of sexual problems, when Viagra was approved in Canada. I remember reading a study that month about how common sexual health problems are in women, so this really shone a spotlight on the huge gaps in women’s sexual health research. —Treatment had been made available for a sexual health problem experienced by men while women continued to suffer with sexual health problems. I shifted to human research after that. My research focus came together through serendipity combined with a bit of luck and risk-taking. I never imagined I would become a sexual health researcher given my particular upbringing.

My clinical practice has driven a lot of the research questions that I ask. In particular, I’ve been very interested in the extremely high prevalence of low sexual desire experienced by women across age groups and the lack of effective and available treatments. This research has taken me down a path of exploring non-pharmacologic treatments, such as mindfulness and other psychological treatments, which turn out to be pretty effective. 

Sexual health embodies many tentacles

My research focus on women’s sexual health has evolved over time in depth and breadth. 

In terms of depth, we’ve developed, tested and expanded mindfulness-based interventions for sexual health problems in women and gynecologic/vaginal pain. We’ve expanded that program to be a digital health tool that’s more accessible, and we have adapted it in multiple populations including gender-diverse people. We’ve expanded to include survivors of prostate cancer with sexual health concerns and their partners. Our initial focus on mindfulness-based treatments for low desire has now expanded to the point where mindfulness is standard of care in many of our clinical departments around the world delivering sexual medicine and vulvovaginal pain health care. 

The breadth of my research has expanded to look at sexual health from a biopsychosocial perspective, which includes looking at physiological, hormonal and social determinants of health contributors to sexual health problems, and also trying to differentiate sexual dysfunction from other states, such as asexuality, which in some cases is secondary to trauma. While sexual health has always been the focus of my work, it has many tentacles depending on what’s important to patients and society, and what my students want to investigate.

Satisfaction through science

There’s been a very widespread uptake of mindfulness and my work has contributed to more public uptake of mindfulness in sexual health, which has been very gratifying. I have a keyword alert online that sends me news articles about mindfulness and other related topics. I probably get about 20 a day, new findings, new applications of mindfulness. I wrote a book on mindfulness in sexual health and my second book is coming out in mid-2022, directly in response to the public saying, “How do we do this? How do we learn more?”

Maintaining multiple positions

My private practice is the source of research questions for me. It keeps it real for me. It keeps me real; it keeps me connected to the issues. There are so few people that have specialized in sexual health in B.C. and across Canada that people seeking treatment must wait far too long. I feel extremely privileged to hear patients’ stories and offer care. 

Questioning sexual health work 

In social gatherings, there’s usually a lot more speculation on what exactly being an expert in sexual health means. In academic environments, there are some who still question whether sexual health should really be considered serious science. I still find myself having to give the spiel about the truly academic nature of this work and how sexual health has been declared by the World Health Organization as critical to quality of life.

Advice for young women who are considering a career in science

Get a mentor, someone you look up to. Pick up the phone or email someone who is an early career researcher and say: “I’m a high school student, can I have 15 minutes of your time,” and “Tell me what’s like to be a woman in science.” Even at my stage in my career I have mentors that I call and check in with all the time. I don’t think that need for mentorship ever goes away. 

And be brave. I have a daughter in the sciences in high school and I’m aware of some of the really good programs for girls in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. But the larger landscape is still very gendered and suggests girls don’t do science, girls don’t become professors. I see it as important for young people to challenge that, and to almost be gender blind when necessary, but also to be a gender advocate when needed and really champion girls advancing in science. Just look at some of the Nobel Prize winners. Three years ago, we saw physicist Donna Strickland receive a Nobel Prize, and she was not even a full professor at the time. There are some really great role models for young people nowadays. 

And science and STEM is fun. Another stereotype is science and STEM is dry and boring and you have to only love math and you can’t be creative or have other interests while being a scientist. They’re all just stereotypes, that’s all they are.

About Women in Science

In 2015, UNESCO and UN Women established an annual day to honour the important role women and girls play in science and technology. Together they are making a global call to “smash stereotypes, defy gender biases and defeat discrimination that hold women and girls back in STEM fields.” 

At BC Children’s Hospital and B.C. Women's Hospital & Health Centre, we are proud to support our inspiring female leaders who are making ground-breaking discoveries and innovations in research. At this unique evening event, we will showcase the important contributions of six of these women. 

As the moderator

I hope that we get a lot of women and girls attending. I also hope that we get a lot of non-women and girls attending. It’s a chance for everyone to celebrate women and women in science. I hope that we have all genders clapping and listening and celebrating. 

I will ask the six panelists about where they derive their inspiration from, how they’ve overcome adversity, challenges along the way and what they would say to young people. I will ask them about some of the really niche and diverse areas of science. When young people think science, they think chemistry and microbiology and microscopes and white lab coats, but public health, population health and global health are science. This is an opportunity to provide some really concrete examples of what science looks like.

Join us as we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022
Click here for event details

Registration is open to high school students, university students and members of the general public. The curriculum and discussion will be targeted for a grade 10–12 education level. 

Registration will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Space is limited to 200 participants.

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