A Sneak Peak at our Keynote for CBU_WISE – Dr. Michelle Adams

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Dr. Michelle Adams has worked as an engineering consultant inMichelle_Adams the environmental sector since the mid 90s. She is a former naval officer and holds a PhD from Dalhousie’s Faculty of Engineering. In 2008, Michelle joined Dalhousie as an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Management; her personal research focuses on green technologies, eco-efficiency and renewable energy development. Her efforts have focused on supporting a transition to renewable energy in Nova Scotia and research supporting the introduction of sustainability strategies into the Atlantic Canadian manufacturing sector through the lens of innovation. Michelle also spent four years as the Director of Dalhousie’s Eco-Efficiency Centre – a research and education organization that helps business identify opportunities to optimize both environmental performance and operational efficiency.

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“Doctors” are fakes—they don’t have a doctorate!

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photo (1)My name is Joan Salah.  I am a local family doctor and, when I flatter myself, I call myself a woman in science.  I grew up in the tiny village of Iona, the second of 5 children.  My mother was a single parent hippie artist from Halifax, so I always felt like a bit of an outsider there.  In high school, I decided to be a “Doctor”.  After all, I had been telling everyone far and wide how very smart I was and I figured that was the best way to prove it.  Off I went to Mount Allison to do Biochemistry and ultimately to go to medical school.  I knew nothing about medicine or what my ultimate career might look like; I was armed only with a general knowledge of what it might take to get accepted.  Very quickly all my plans got turned upside down.  As it turned out, I loved Chemistry.  I was good at it; I loved the research, the collegial environment and the small university experience.  There I discovered that “Doctors” are fakes—they don’t have a doctorate!  Everyone in a University knows that true intellectuals have PhDs, so off I went in search of one for myself.   I applied to Dalhousie, got my NSERC funding and my future was set in motion.  I was bothered, however, by a niggling curiosity:  I had said I would get into Medical School, could I? So, I applied.  I only applied to Dalhousie, assuming I would not get in anyway.  When I did get in, I thought I shouldn’t waste the opportunity.  Well, what an enormous mistake.  In my first 2 years I was miserable.  Compared to my beloved chemistry lab, medicine was a mess.  Nothing was controlled, very little was well known and I felt like all I could do was memorize great and growing lists of stuff.  In my undergrad, however mistakenly, there were times that I felt like I really knew something well.  I never felt this way in Medicine.  In my second year, I wanted to quit, but realized I was so far in debt that quitting was no longer financially feasible.  Finally, in 3rd year we were launched on the poor unsuspecting patients of Halifax and, thankfully, I remembered that I really do like people and medicine is really all about people.  From there, slowly, medicine became science to me.  I learned again to ask thoughtful questions, to examine and to pay attention.  I did tests, tried to prove theories and in the end tried to formulate an answer and consider management.  As it turns out, my job now is not so different as I imagined my life as a chemistry professor.  I teach, I participate in the (often fascinating) lives of my patients and not a day goes by that I don’t experience something new.

Tenure-tracked or Mommy-tracked?

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I love Science, in particular Chemistry and I can talk in depth profile-faculty-stephanie-macquarrieabout these topics for hours. I also have plenty of experience with scientific writing. This however, is my first real shot at writing a blog, I follow lots of blogs on different topics and it seems the best ones have well incorporated humor or sarcasm… I’ve been told I am not really funny (although I do know some pretty kick-ass chemistry jokes) or sarcastic (that last comment was not), but I am passionate and I love teaching, so I thought I would give it a go and see what happens.  

I am one of those really lucky people who do what they love for their job. I am an Assistant Chemistry Professor at a small research intensive undergraduate university. On top of having the best job in the world, I also have the three best kids in the world and a pretty awesome partner to go along with all of that.  Of course getting to this point was not a walk in the park, I had to work hard and overcome some pretty significant barriers along the way.

I grew up in a small town in NS with very encouraging parents who luckily pushed me towards science and constantly told me I could be anything I wanted to be and I believed it. I credit them with granting me the gift of stubbornness that has taken me far in my life.

My high school science teacher was disinterested in science and had a clear intolerance for girls who believed they should pursue a science career. I recall one particular occasion when he informed the class that the boys would likely do better because they were able to solve problems, while the girls were only capable of memorization. I considered this a challenge to prove that he was wrong.

Long story short, I completed my BSc at MtA and went on to Virginia Tech to do a PhD in organic chemistry. Along the way I had discovered a real passion for two things chemistry and teaching. I wanted to teach people WHY I love chemistry and why it is so much more than what is taught in most chemistry highschool texts.  I decided early on that I would follow the academic route and become a Chemistry Professor.

A very important thing happened to me during my undergraduate studies – I met and fell in love with someone, but not just anyone – this particular person was extremely supportive of my goals and future aspirations – this was a really important factor in realizing my future career. I was in graduate school when we got married and almost immediately I started receiving unsolicited advice “don’t have children until you finish” cautioned my friend.  I nodded easily; I was 25 and had no plans of children immediately. Research, socializing, our puppies took up most of my time anyways.

I was nearly finished my doctoral thesis on the academic trail towards becoming a professor.  When a faculty member advised me “don’t have children until you get tenure”… This time the nod didn’t come so easily, I was heading into a 4 year post-doc before I was to even enter academics and even then Tenure is typically a five to seven year process, and my husband and I wanted a family. It was 2004! Did I really have to choose between a career in academics and a family? More unsolicited advice came my way “these are not the years for distractions, the languor of pregnancy, the time-consuming demands of infants and young children”, “You have to be a serious scholar, go to conferences, publish, advise students, serve on university committees” “Establish yourself as a teacher and a researcher, Children will interfere with this!”

I understood that the next few years after my Ph.D. were going to crucial for developing momentum and establishing my academic reputation, it was also the time I wanted to have children!  When was their going to be a good time? Why should academics be different than other career paths where women could be successful at work and at home?  Wouldn’t time management and a supportive family structure make both possible?

 So, my stubborn streak kicked in and my husband and I planned for our first child I was writing my thesis and looking for a post-doc and as far as “best time” scenarios went, we considered this ours.  

I also felt it was important to set a precedent, prove that you can have a family and proceed with a career in academics, especially in chemistry.  Role models for young women in my situation were in high demand, in fact in the 9 years I spent in post-secondary education I had very few female science professors and at that time none of them had children. It really did seem like an all boys club. It became clear to me that more women had to pave the way and show that it can be done. 

 We welcomed our first born in April of 2005 and I was excited to begin sharing the news with my friends, colleagues and family. Balancing out the excitement that rained from family members and friends were several comments I received from some colleagues and professors, including “Don’t worry, this isn’t the worst thing that could happen, you will manage to get through this” followed up with advice about considering other more family friendly career options….

The funny thing is I had always considered an academic career a fairly family friendly choice up until this point.  I knew lots of hard work would be involved, but I also saw plenty of flexibility in hours.

Honestly, it has been a bit of a balancing act and both aspects of my life have often required creative time management skills and long hours, yet anything worth having is worth working hard for. This is just as true for having children as it is for following your career path.

I finished my post-doc in 2009, I published, I lectured and I traveled to conferences (often with my very supportive husband and wonderful son in tow). In 2009 I became a Chemistry Professor at CBU and I had my second child. It was amazing how much had changed in those five years, it was easier to find other women in similar situations, I received a lot less “advice”, times were changing and still are changing for the better. Support systems exist. Four years into my academic career and we welcomed our third and final family member into the world. I have to admit when the time came to announce that I was pregnant with my third I was much more relaxed. I felt like this really was a convenient time to have a baby – finally! I wasn’t finishing my Ph.D., or starting a new career. I had established myself in my position, had some experience with babies already and I knew it would be a welcomed announcement at work. However, I was 35, not yet tenured and if I had waited until this time to start my family it is more biologically unlikely I would of been able to have three amazing children.

Now I lecture, run a research program and travel to conferences, sit on the PTA and read bed time stories.

Every part of my life is very rewarding in its own way, and often the two complement each other. If I end up pulling out my hair because a reaction isn’t working in the lab  there is no better stress relief than reading Curious George to your four year old and delighting in her giggles…Having my children immersed in an academic environment isn’t hurting either. On a recent snow day, my 8 year old came to the University with me, where we visited a giant fish tank, took a few books out of the library and had lunch in the cafeteria. At the end of the day he told me “ I was the luckiest mommy to have such a fun job!” And I couldn’t agree more.

Sure I used to have great stretches of time to work. Now I have research thoughts while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.   I can’t imagine doing anything else. I really love what I do, and a lot of that has to do with working in a supportive environment both at work and at home. I want to spend more time encouraging young women to pursue their career goals without having to sacrifice a family life. Now more programs are being developed, more information is available to help women early in their careers balance work and parenting, so that they never have to choose between the tenure track and the mommy track. 

Along the way I have been so fortunate to meet many Women Scientists, some with challenging stories, others with remarkable confidence, all of which make excellent mentors for young women considering science. I want to share this blog with them and I have asked them to write an entry and I will post one each month from a different woman scientist in a different scientific career, perhaps along with a thought or two of my own – I kind of enjoyed my first go at blogging!

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My three “distractions”