Mulu Geletu-Heye

Splendour in the Lab

Thursday, April 28, 2022 - 5:10am
Carla DeMarco
Senior Research Associate working in UTM lab bridges academia, altruism, and activism

In 2006, a last-minute lab move to Halle, Germany required Mulu Geletu Heye, who was then studying at an institution in Munich, to travel some five hours away for her PhD thesis defense. While she was seven months into her second pregnancy.

“People asked me ‘are you crazy? Just drop out and do the defense afterwards,’” recalls Geletu Heye.

“But I said, ‘no, I want to do this.’ I didn’t want to lose one year or more. So, I traveled the 500 kilometers to do my thesis defense. I just knew I could do it, and I did it.”

This origin story perfectly exemplifies the two words she most often imparts to the young people she now mentors at UofT Mississauga and beyond: resilience and confidence.  

Working as a senior research associate in the Gunning Lab at UTM since 2013, Geletu Heye oversees the cellular biology experiments that are undertaken to investigate the lead components against several cancer cell lines, testing the efficacy of drugs that the chemists design and develop. Most of the students in the Gunning Lab have a chemistry background, but with her cell biology background, Geletu Heye provides guidance on the biology experiments that they do as part of their investigations. 

She also brought a project from her previous lab that focuses on the caveolin protein, which is involved in a lot of biological processes.

Geletu Heye, who was born and grew up in Ethiopia, has a long-standing love of science since she was a child. 

“I was always thinking about animals and plants, wanting to figure out how systems work, and I was especially interested in biological science, so because of that I stayed with the life sciences field, specifically biology,” she says.

After high school, she was awarded a scholarship at St. Petersburg State University in Russia.

Geletu Heye says the drive to pursue her scholarly dreams was bigger than the obstacles she needed to overcome, including adjusting to a new culture and learning a new language: she had a year to learn Russian since all her classes would be taught in that language. But her perseverance paid off, and she mastered the language and completed her BSc in biological science and a master’s degree in biochemistry. 

With these degrees under her belt, Geletu Heye returned to Ethiopia to work as a research assistant, but she could not stifle her academic ambitions. 

Once she found the right supervisor to oversee her project to investigate a particular protein associated with leukemia, not only was she accepted to do a PhD at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Germany, with six months to learn yet another language (German) to pursue this work, she was awarded a scholarship, the German Academic Exchange Service Fellowship, and ended up graduating magna cum laude, the second-highest honour given to PhD graduates. (Again: while seven months into her second pregnancy.) 

The opportunity to come to Canada was to work as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Professor Leda Raptis in the Microbiology Department at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. A cancer survivor and brilliant academic, Raptis is someone that Geletu Heye describes as embodying resilience. 

“Professor Raptis has played a huge role in my career and work ethics,” says Geletu Heye. 

“She is a former boss but now a good friend to me and my family. She interviewed me when I was in Germany and accepted me to join her lab. I told her that I was pregnant and couldn’t join her lab right away, but she said, ‘I will wait for you.’ She waited for me for over 6 months until my second child was born. I learned a lot from her and definitely intend to support other scholars in whatever way I can in the ways I have been supported.”

However, academia isn’t the only focus for Geletu Heye. 

Her outreach efforts to get other people interested in science, particularly youth, as well as educating young kids about Ethiopian culture, is a huge passion. 

Since 2018, she has been teaching her native language Amharic every Saturday to elementary school children in the Peel region. She was teaching in person, but like most instructors, had to pivot to online education when the pandemic hit.

“Teaching languages to kids is very important because it enhances their learning and communication skills, and helps them understand how important it is to help in the community, as well as the value of voluntarism,” says Geletu Heye. 

Her group also participated in a culture day to share their Ethiopian customs with others, showcasing traditional food, dress, and music.

“This experience has also enhanced my teaching skills, but I think it is important to expand the younger generation’s knowledge of culture and identity, for them to know their ancestors’ language and land, their history, and geography.”

Along with bridging cultures, Geletu Heye also aims to be a conduit for youth to connect with research, mentoring underprivileged people, especially girls, and promoting science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). 

For the past seven years during the March and summer break from school, Geletu Heye brings 10-15 local high school kids to the Gunning Lab. This visit enables her to show them how research is done, as well as the opportunity to meet UTM graduate and undergraduate students, who share their experiences, as a way to motivate and inspire the young students. Some of the recent visitors ended up studying science at UofT St. George and Queens’ University, as well as coming directly to UTM once they graduated high school. She hopes to convey to them that while the research can be challenging, if they put the work in, it will pay off later.

“I always tell young people they have to be confident and resilient,” says Geletu Heye. 

“If you keep these two words in mind, nobody will stop you from doing what you want to do. Don’t give up, ask for help, and get advice. I also talk to families with young kids because the family also has to be involved in these kinds of things. There are lots of problems and struggles but family is important to play this kind of role.”

She says support shouldn’t stop there: Geletu Heye also encourages people, who have privilege, whether they are in an academic setting or other profession, that they have a responsibility to help people who are struggling.

On this front, she is profoundly motivated by her humanitarian activism. 

Still very much tied to her Ethiopian community, Geletu Heye was moved to lend aid to Ethiopia that has been enduring an ongoing civil war in Northern Ethiopia (Amhara, Afar and Tigray regions) for the past 16 months, with over nine million people displaced and an estimated half a million people killed. 

In her HR role with the Ethio-Canadian Network for Advocacy and Support (ECNAS) for Toronto and the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA), she and a colleague visited Ethiopia last January and saw firsthand the suffering on the ground.

“It was so devastating, so painful,” says Geletu Heye. 

“I just cried a lot there when I see people – women and kids especially – are really affected. We gave the donations of food and clothing, all these things we collected, including books for the kids, who are unable to go to school.”

Through her work with ECNAS they are fundraising and accepting more donations to send. 

“Thanks to some departments here, like UTM’s Recreation, Athletics, and Wellness Centre, who donated some clothing, and also the Institute for Management and Innovation provided some donations. I am organizing to send everything to the people in need. I just cannot sit still with my privilege when I see others in need,” says Geletu Heye.