MD alumna and Dr. Mom blogger Stephanie Liu follows her curiosity into innovation and entrepreneurship, with some help from her friends

New product a testament to the spirit of collaboration born during alumni group’s U of A days

Sasha Roeder Mah - 13 December 2022

As a family doctor living and working through many a cold, dry Alberta winter, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry alumna Stephanie Liu, ’13 MD, has seen a lot of clinically dry skin on even her youngest patients. Sometimes the eczema is so severe she has had no choice but to treat it with steroids — an effective treatment, she says, but not without its potential for side-effects that worry some of her patients. 

But it was a separate problem that led to her beta-glucan-based skin-care range of products for children. In researching natural fibre supplements for her own digestive issues, the physician and popular Life of Dr. Mom blogger discovered made-in-Alberta NutraStat, based on a University of Alberta professor’s formula that involves extracting beta-glucan from barley. She was soon to find articles extolling beta-glucan not just as an edible supplement but also as a highly effective moisturizer.

Liu, who has never met a problem she’s not excited to try to solve, immediately wondered: If this is correct, how can I use this information to help my patients? It was time to call a friend — one who had a bit more experience doing in-depth medical research. Friend and fellow alumna Ling Ling, ’13 MD, ’16 PG MedEd Cert, an allergist and immunologist, agreed to do some digging. 

“I am always looking out for effective treatments for irritated, inflamed skin,” says Ling, who was happy to help. “In human and lab studies, beta-glucan was shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-aging properties in the skin. It also stimulates our immune cells to promote skin healing in wounds and broken skin,” she discovered. 

Still, there appeared to be only one skin product — Aveeno — on the market made from beta-glucan. But Aveeno is oat based, and oats only contain up to five per cent beta-glucan at most. Liu had a feeling it was possible to do better. So she reached out to Brad Shapka, ’84 BSc, co-founder of the company that makes the barley-based NutraStat, and asked for his help. Together, Ling, Liu and Shapka determined they could create a bath formula with about 23 per cent beta-glucan — without any harmful additives — using the same extraction process the company uses for NutraStat. 

Before long, with support from an extensive number of fellow alumni and friends, in the fall of 2021 Soothing Bath Treatment by Dr. Mom was finding its way into the baths of people of all ages across Edmonton. It has been a true team effort right from the beginning, with U of A grads from multiple disciplines collaborating. The ad hoc brainstorming/advisory team includes Science grad Shapka, children’s shop owner Lesley Williams, ’05 BA, who offered her knowledge of marketing and demand, and dermatologist Russell Wong, ’08 BSc, ’13 MD, who helped spread the word in his clinic in the early days — after his own mother tried and loved the product. Doctor friends Yuliya Koledenok, ’08 MD, and Shawna Pandya, ’12 MD, also offered it to their patients and ended up investing in the product as well, while pharmacist Erin Manchuk, ’05 BSc Pharm, also provided expert advice.

Nearly a year later, thanks to patient feedback, the group added Soothing Beta Cream to the lineup and now both products are available in more than 20 pharmacies, 10 dermatology clinics and skin-care retailers across Canada.

Liu knows none of this would have happened without her broad network of U of A friends and colleagues. “University isn’t just about learning; it’s about making friends and feeling connected,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this if not for my strong connections from university.”

Ling echoes that: “It's wonderful to work with not just fellow alumni, but a classmate and friend (Liu). We share a vision to make products that can be trusted. And the education we received at the U of A gave us the foundation to make this happen.”

The group doesn’t meet in person often; with such busy personal and professional schedules, they touch base about once a month. Their stimulating discussions always reinforce Liu’s belief: “No matter how much you know, if you want to figure out how to turn an idea into a tangible solution it’s always a good idea to try to find someone who knows more than you do.”

Something else that this product launch has reinforced for Liu? No matter how successful the skin-care line becomes, she will never abandon her first love — caring for her patients. “I love being a doctor. It keeps me learning every day, which I love. It keeps me innovative and I love the search to make people’s lives better in any way I can.”

Before medical school, Liu never would have imagined penning a far-reaching mommy blog and several children’s books, let alone starting a skin-care line. “I had no business experience whatsoever,” she says with a laugh. Her drive to solve health problems in innovative ways has certainly taken her in fascinating directions, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘I would say if you have a passion for something, go after it. If you sit there waiting for it, it’s not going to come.”