Spotlight on Mentors: Dr. Amila De Silva, Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada

Posted at January 12, 2017 | By : | Categories : Women in Science | Comments Off on Spotlight on Mentors: Dr. Amila De Silva, Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada
Dr. Amila De Silva and Anthony Bauer

Dr. Amila De Silva and Anthony Bauer

Dr. Amila De Silva

Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada

Submitted by Anthony Bauer

What is your position, what is your area of expertise?

I am a research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada in Burlington ON. I am also an adjunct professor at Memorial University and University of Toronto. My areas of expertise are environmental chemistry, specifically the fate, transport and disposition of organic contaminants.

What made you pursue a career in government?

The experiences I had as an undergrad (shout out to Jeff Whyte from Health Canada!) and as a PhD student (shout out to Derek Muir, Tom Harner, Mahiba Shoeib and Terry Bidleman all from ECCC) really made a positive impression of science careers in the government. Analytical chemistry is a huge component of my research program and the instrumentation I have been able to acquire through government capital investments would not have been possible for a PI in an academic setting.

Have you had any personal heroes or mentors during your scientific career?

YES! So many! Scott Mabury was my PhD supervisor at University of Toronto. His mentorship was a game changer for me. The level of innovation, creativity, leadership and discipline he brought to his research program was staggering. He also pushed me hard to find my own person whether it meant finding out what I was capable of or embracing what makes me special. Scott is an outspoken feminist and we have had so many discussions about gender issues in science and life.

Derek Muir is another mentor. I’m in awe of everything Derek has accomplished and his knowledge in environmental science. What’s more is that Derek is very ethical and supportive, particularly to young researchers.

My parents are personal heroes to me. My parents are Sri Lankan immigrants who arrived in Canada in the late sixties. When I think about what they endured and sacrificed so that their children could have a better life, it strengthens my resolve to live an honourable life.

How do you establish and maintain a work-life balance?

For me it’s less about balance and more about integrating all of the different priorities in my life. I try to do everything, all the time and like any child of immigrants, I rarely say no to any opportunities. This is what I do but I don’t endorse this frantic multi-tasking. Don’t follow my example! I also spend way too much time on cats_of_instagram.

Do you consider having children as an added challenge for women?

Career-wise? In some ways, yes. We’re lucky to live in a country that values family and early childhood care. For me, the biggest challenge was post-maternity leave when I was thrust into juggling child care, meals, medical appointments, sickness, teething, potty training, etc., and those are just responsibilities related to your children. Add in responsibilities you have to your spouse, your friends, your home, your job and there’s very little left for yourself.

How did/do you mitigate this challenge?

I’ve become a lot better at multi-tasking and harnessing my focus. I’m far more efficient when I’m in the office than I was before I had kids. I’ve also learned to seamlessly transition out of work mode and into home mode. So in a lot of ways, being a parent has made me better at my job and better at life.

The major way I mitigate the challenge is through the immense help of my spouse. He has declined numerous promotions because the added time commitment required for those positions is not compatible with his family priorities. I love this man! When I attend a conference or an evening event (like Laurentian SETAC pub nights!), it means that he is holding things down on the home front. Thus, if you are interested in having kids and a career, you need a lot of support. For me, the support is my spouse. For others it could be friends and family or paid care.

What would you view as some common issues/challenges facing women in science?

If you are looking for a career in research that requires a PhD, having children is something women stress about. Having children during grad school is really tough. The maternity leave policy is not great financially and you probably won’t be able to work the gruelling hours that other students do, and be judged for it. I’m curious to know how faculty members feel about their graduate students or post docs having babies. It would really require them putting aside their own career goals in favour of other values. I’m all for this.

I think a common issue/challenge facing women in science is fulfilling career ambition when you have a partner who also has career ambition. This means difficult decisions when it comes to choosing a post doc and applying for jobs. When there are children in the picture in these early career stages, the situation is even less mobile! In Canada, graduate school enrollment in chemistry is about 50-50 males-females but in science careers, those stats show that female graduates are not staying in science beyond school as much as males.

So then, would you say a lot of the women in chemistry are dropping out of their careers because they’re having children?

This may be a big part of the reason women are “dropping out”. A major draw for a government science career is the generous maternity leave policy and flexible work options. In academia and industry, this is generally not the case. I think another deterrent for academia is that the number of available faculty positions in Canada is very low. If you are not open to relocating to the U.S., the availability and competition for Canadian faculty positions can really discourage women who are juggling family priorities. Our system of evaluating success in science is still driven by publications. I would cast my vote towards placing value on other criteria that point to a balanced individual versus someone who is living at work 24-7.

Have you ever encountered any gender issues/challenges in government?

I have observed sexual harassment of women in academia and government and I’m sure it occurs in the corporate environments too. I have observed serial predatory behavior of authoritative males towards females in vulnerable positions – students, post docs, temporary staff, junior scientists. I think the so called “bro-code” still exists and we need to collectively be more outspoken about these issues. As someone who has chosen to be proactive on this front, I’ve received a vast amount of support from just about everyone! Of course there are other issues too such as the gender disparity particularly in senior positions.

Have you ever received advice that has made an impact on your career?

Yes, specifically with regard to being a woman in science and finding my own footing in the face of adversity. Derek Muir told me that “when you are in a junior position, it is akin to being a blade of grass and the best thing you can do is just focus on developing and growing your career. Once you get to the tree level, the vermin in the grass are still there but are just a minor annoyance.” The biologists reading this are not going to like the metaphor of grass growing into a tree but well, what can you do. With each success, I feel stronger and more resilient to the haters and I’m increasingly in a position where I can make a difference in making that grass an easier and better place to grow.

Beyond gender, do you feel you’ve been presented with unique challenges being a woman of colour (or visible minority)?

One bias I have come across that is unique to being a woman of colour is that in some parts of the world, women are traditionally and culturally submissive. I occasionally encounter surprise for not subscribing to that. I’ve encountered males who fetishize women of colour and have projected that on me. It happens more than you would think. Yuck!

Do you feel these challenges are similar for any visible minority (gender aside)?

As a kid, gender biases were less prominent in my experiences compared to being the only brown kid in school. I was acutely aware of looking different from a young age. The most valuable lesson my parents taught me is the importance of fitting in without sacrificing your uniqueness. This is something that applies to everyone but as a brown skinned person in a largely white community, it was an early and necessary lesson. And it is a beautiful thing! It enriches the community that you are fitting into and enriches your own identity when you understand that you are more than just one thing. In the same way a woman may feel the pressure of being more male to fit in, visible minorities can feel the pressure to be less ethnic in order to work against negative stereotypes.

So, is it about not succumbing to the pressure of fitting in?

Partially, but I think another challenge of being a visible minority is the pressure and responsibility to represent excellence so that it reflects well upon other minorities. For example, when I have been subjected to unfair decisions, I’ve felt the pressure of representation spurn me forward into challenging such events. The alternative would be to accept mistreatment and potentially contribute to a tradition of treating other minorities unfairly. Thus, when you feel your decisions have repercussions on a larger group of people who are entering the workforce after you, it can have a significant impact on your choices.

Do you feel that being a visible minority has presented you with experiences or a perspective that has potentially prepared you for the biases you experience/have experienced as a woman?

Definitely. As I grew older and start facing gender biases, it was easier to be outspoken on these issues because I was already used to being different as a person of colour.

The distinct difference, however, is that there is a certain degree of social acceptance when it comes to gender inequity compared to the most obvious racial inequity. For example, when it comes to things like serial sexual predation of male scientists towards junior women, there is still an accepted belief steeped in sexism. When it comes to ethnic diversity, nobody (I hope) will try and justify mistreatment by saying inferiority or a need to be superior is a genetic predisposition. We have to think bigger on these issues of sexism. For me, it’s natural to substitute racism with sexism as way of metering my response.

Could you offer a formula for success for young women (or even girls) pursuing a career in science?

The advice I would offer is to do what you love. Most people do not pursue a science career path for the money, glamour or prestige since most of these things are quite lacking in our field. I do this because I love it. I have a very high stick-with-it-ness and I am driven to understand how things work. Early in my career, people advised me to take on various projects and pursue certain collaborations over others because it would be good for the c.v.; I’ve avoided using that as a motivator. I’ve pursued my interests and worked with good people, regardless of their level of success. This recipe has led to lots of opportunities, solid research products, and my own personal and professional development.

What advice and/or caution would you give young (high school, post-secondary, grad school) women pursuing a career in science?

You want it? Do it. In my experience, females can be very self-critical. In any career, there is more than one path so don’t feel like you can’t do it because you aren’t as smart as person X or extroverted like person Y. In the same way, there’s more than one way to be a scientist. We spend so much time thinking about what we lack compared to feeling grateful for what we have. If you don’t know what makes you special/unique, ask people who know you.

The other advice I have is to challenge the boundaries of your comfort zone and don’t let your fears of failure stop you. Initially the idea of giving a scientific presentation was terrifying for me. My PhD supervisor told me that most scientists tend to be introverted but that you shouldn’t let that hold you back.

What advice would you offer the same cohort of male peers with regard to gender issues?

When we talk about the confidence gap, a lot of males will confess that they also suffer from confidence issues. I’ve encountered males who tackle that self-doubt by projecting supreme confidence, posturing, even cockiness. Those qualities can be insufferable to be around. Males can learn from their female peers. Males: it’s ok to admit that you are uncertain or insecure. If you can get comfortable being vulnerable, this can lead to some authentic and honest interactions of immense value.

Starting even earlier, what advice would you give parents with young daughters?

I think our culture/society does not encourage people to feel good about ourselves, particularly females. The major cultural construct I see is that the female purpose is to be an object of desire. Moms and dads have grown up with this social conditioning. To quote Bob Marley, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery…”. How can you do this? Buy less stuff! When you feel compelled to buy that new mascara, think about what is driving the need. If you love make up, challenge yourself to go out make up free for a day. Be less judgemental about your appearance and the appearance of other women too. Kids are the ultimate observers and if we can make these changes, it will really improve many of the gender issues our society is faced with.

What advice would you give your male peers on this subject?

I want males to be interested and passionate about this topic. It’s AMAZING that there are men on the L-SETAC WISC. Males have the greatest ability to influence change because they occupy the majority of the professional workforce in science. It is far more powerful to have a male speak up and say that he is offended when he hears a degrading comment against women compared to a female doing so.

Do you consider yourself to be timid/reserved/lacking confidence?

Yes! All of those things!

Can you comment on the perception that “women’s timid nature or lack of confidence is what holds them back” in terms of obtaining higher positions or wages?

It is true that women are not as skillful in negotiating higher wages. They don’t have the same level of confidence to strategize for successful negotiation. Another problem is that research shows that both men and women display gender biases against women during evaluations. So the problem is that women are being offered lower starting salaries and women are not negotiating well for equal pay. I have never successfully negotiated an equal salary and I still think about that and feel guilty for contributing to the dismal statistics.

Do you see any benefits to being a woman in science?

Totally! It’s exciting being on the cusp of change and to have the opportunity to lead the way! I’d like to dispel the notion that males are the primary culprit for gender issues in science and the workplace. The reality is that we should all be more conscious of gender issues and adjust our behaviour accordingly. It means that when you interview a female or you see a woman give a research presentation, you work against your own socialization to ignore what she is wearing or how she styles her hair. It means that when someone jokes about whether you are having pregnancy brain, you say, “Actually, I don’t believe in this term and think it is harmful to women.” It means that you elevate your consciousness to not use gender-specific quips like, “Ata girl” and definitely don’t use derogatory gender-specific terms.

My advice is, don’t sacrifice your uniqueness in order to fit in. I have a lot of attributes that are traditionally feminine – being a good listener, emotional aptitude, empathy, socializing, etc. These are not bad qualities to have as a leader, and, particularly in a workplace where those skills are sometimes in short supply.

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