As a female PhD researcher in the physical sciences, I have been lucky to be surrounded by strong females who have influenced my career-path. My scientific career has been linear, but not always obvious to me, and has mostly been based on opportunities presented in front of me, rather than the focus some young students have knowing they will grow up to be a doctor, or a lawyer.
Up until I was in high school, and even when I was applying for university, it was a toss-up between the Arts, and Sciences. Science wasn’t the obvious choice for me. I enjoyed my science and math courses, but I also liked my writing courses and music. One of the deciding factors in choosing science for my undergraduate degree was a high school chemistry teacher.
Mrs. J was a young, relatively new teacher; a petite French-Canadian woman who loved Chemistry. Rumour had it she went into teaching because she ended up having a child during her PhD program and chose a MSc rather than continuing on in her research. However she came to teaching high school, her passion for the subject was obvious, and I was thankful she taught my Chem-11, and Chem-12 classes. At the time I liked chemistry, and I was reasonably okay at it, but it still wasn’t a clear choice to me.
At some point I made the decision to pursue a general Bachelor of Science degree. I took biology, chemistry, calculus, and a couple other courses my first year at university. Even though I was now in university, when I hit a roadblock in chemistry, I went back to my high school teacher and asked for her assistance. I was no longer her student, yet she was willing to help me, and gave me a package of useful supplemental information. Mrs. J genuinely wanted me to succeed, even once I had advanced out of her class.
During my first year of university I had a young female instructor. She too held an MSc and a teaching degree, but was teaching introductory chemistry courses rather than high school chemistry. Tricia was tough, and knew what she was doing. She was able to have control of the class, even though she was probably about 26 at the time. (Looking back, after being in charge of a class at age 27, I now appreciate the skills it requires). To this day, when I do certain calculations, I still hear her voice explaining the principles of why a certain assumption allowed me to simplify the math. Not only have her lessons stayed with me a after a decade, later on, Tricia became a colleague I went to for critique and advice as I progressed in my academic career.
Throughout the last two years of my undergraduate chemistry degree, I had a young female professor who I originally mistook for a slightly older student – until she walked to the front of the room, and introduced herself as the professor. I ended up taking three courses from Heather in two years, and she became my Honour’s research supervisor. I then transitioned into graduate school with Heather as my supervisor. One of her causes in her research grant applications is to train highly-qualified personnel, more specifically female personnel. I fell in love with research in her lab; it was mostly the topic, but also the small, tight-knit group of students.
Working closely with Heather for five years has been hugely influential in my career. I learned the techniques used in my research, but also the details of the field from her expertise. I also learned things from her that aren’t so easy to identify, such as how to communicate science properly, both written and verbally. Many of the things I learned during that time were not the easiest things to say to someone, yet Heather managed to use constructive criticism without making me feel insecure.
I was told to stop apologizing for things that were not my fault, or outside my control. “I’m sorry, but…” was no longer an appropriate start to a verbal answer. I dropped the qualifiers that riddled my speech. Try telling a 22 year old not to say “like”. Heather did, and I decreased the frequency of that habit substantially. I was able to speak more clearly, more precisely. I was also taught to change my speech pattern so I didn’t “inflect up” at the end of a statement implying a question, or wavering confidence.
As my graduate supervisor, how I did reflected back to Heather, and so it was in her best interest to break me of certain habits. But that wasn’t the sole reason she did these things. Heather was legitimately interested in seeing the progress and development in her graduate students. A good relationship with a graduate supervisor, especially in the sciences, can make or break the experience. In my case, it was very positive and helped shape me to where I am today.
I know that when you’re in your teens, thirty seems so far away, so much older than you, and so hard to relate to. But the mentors I’ve had have all been women between the ages of twenty-five and forty. Perhaps it was because deep down, I knew “thirty-something” wasn’t really all that far away from me, and subliminally, I could become someone similar to these women scientists in a just few years. It was easier to mimic someone I could see myself becoming. It allowed me to grow by their example. At some point, I would like to be able to mentor young scientists like Mrs. J, Tricia, and Heather did for me.