Submitted by Amila De Silva
What is your position and area of expertise?
I am a professor at the University of Toronto. In broad terms, I focus on contaminants, sources, transport and exposure from measurement and modeling perspectives
Your education is very diverse – undergrad in Biology from U of T, M.Sc. in Zoology from U of A, M.Sc. in Mining Engineering from Queen’s, a PhD in Chemical Engineering from U of T. Is this because you are a super science enthusiast and/or did it take you some time to find a field that was a good fit?
I graduated from my BSc in 1976 at a time of relative economic prosperity. It was a time when competition was not paramount and many had the optimistic view that a job would evolve. It was a time that allowed us to follow our passions. This is a luxury not experienced today. I was in a very privileged position and I was able to follow my passion to study bird behavior for my M.Sc. It was so fulfilling and fascinating! It was an excellent pursuit in curiosity-driven science. It is something that in today’s world we see much less of and certainly with less purity.
It was so fulfilling and fascinating! It was an excellent pursuit in curiosity-driven science. It is something that in today’s world we see much less of and certainly with less purity.
Some might think the zoology work is not related to my current field of study but really it was invaluable. I focused on watching birds which has proven to be a very useful life skill in observing human behaviour. Academia is known for its competitiveness and people jockeying for dominant positions in the scientific hierarchy. My background in behavioural ecology has enabled me to understand personalities and behaviours used to exert dominance. It’s fascinating to understand how certain people manage to dominate a conversation or certain people who manage to move up the hierarchy while others stay behind, particularly when it is not a product of the research quality. It’s been beneficial for me to know how to assert myself by recognizing and understanding the behavioural traits of myself and others.
You have Master’s and PhD degrees in engineering, an area that is under-represented for women even now. One of the contributing factors to this is that the under-representation of women in engineering subconsciously or consciously signals that this is not a career path for women; and yet you still pursued degrees in this field. How conscious were you that this field was lacking diversity in the 1980s?
The mining engineering degree was very difficult. It is my most prominent experience of blatant sexism, which was horrific and powerful. It was an extraordinary learning experience, not in terms of mining engineering, but in terms of behaviour and how people get ahead. I survived.
But you didn’t quit?
No I didn’t. Intelligence and creativity are not enough to survive. There are many, many smart and creative people. To succeed today takes that rare combination of ambition, perseverance, a positive attitude and incredible physical stamina. A combination of all those attributes leads to success. I just kept going.
To succeed today takes that rare combination of ambition, perseverance, a positive attitude and incredible physical stamina. A combination of all those attributes leads to success. I just kept going.
Do you think your tenacity to complete the degree made a difference to the environment?
In the greater scheme of things, sticking with it made a difference. Things have changed. I still think of that mistreatment and pledged early on in my career that I would never behave like that and to support people in positive ways. It strengthened my resolve to act ethically in my personal and professional life. I did not have an ally during that time and perhaps that is why I am a professional ally of many, particularly many who have trouble finding a voice.
I was hired in 1991. In 1993, the Dean of Arts and Science was a woman Marsha A. Chandler (the first woman Dean at U of T) formed a “Women in Science” committee which I was very privileged to be part of. There were about 20, mainly junior female, faculty members. I was inspired by Rona Abramovitch’s actions on that committee. Abramovitch was a Professor of Psychology and was serving as the Status of Women Officer and the Provost’s Advisor on Proactive Faculty Recruitment. She was extremely articulate and politically savvy and was key to leading big initiatives in the committee. The committee implemented best practices in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences such as hiring practices, ensuring women were a part of the hiring pool, stopping the tenure clock for maternity leave, reading beyond the lines of deprecating comments in referee letters. What I learned from that is that soft pressure can be very effective – just getting people together, sharing experiences and talking about these issues was very empowering. It cuts through the isolation that is a common thread in such experiences. Isolation allows for unethical and regressive treatment. Knowledge and sharing allows for best practices. It made a big difference at U of T and led to change in other institutions.
Lots of students in grad school have the perspective that they need to decide whether they want a career in consulting OR academia OR government OR industry OR be a full-time parent. You’ve done it all and sometimes simultaneously! What is the key to be able to make these big leaps in between career silos?
As I said earlier, I was very privileged and it was a different time. Now graduate students are under tremendous pressure. I am tremendously sympathetic to that pressure. Academia has become so competitive. Perhaps moving between government and consulting is more feasible because it isn’t as hypercompetitive as academia. This hyper-competition in academia really concerns me for the quality of education, instruction and mentorship provided to the next generation. Regarding motherhood, I am a mom to two wonderful kids. In this profession, there is never a right time for having children but I encourage those who wish to have children to take the plunge. We need to make space to for people to choose to have kids. We need those smart and gifted people to have children, if they so choose.
Tenure-track positions in academia appear to be exceptionally grueling. Mental health issues are rising in academia and many junior faculty report tenure-track stress-related problems. Scanning through the c.v.’s of current Canada Research Chairs sets the bar very high for productivity, recognition, innovation, and competition. What would you say to a student who doesn’t think they have what it takes to make it in academia?
The current selection system in academia has problems. It’s a system that prides itself in believing it is a meritocracy but really one has to be more critical about how we assign merit. Enthusiasm and curiosity are no longer sufficient requisites. More and more it seems that physical endurance and a strong position of mental health are crucial to success in academia. Nowadays, an academic career is like running a race; it has transitioned from a sprint to tenure to a career-long marathon. It is not sustainable. The lack of sustainability in society is beyond the academy. As we continue down this track of unsustainable standards, we will continue to select only a narrow, exclusive group of “alphas” bent on success but not necessarily reflecting a healthy breadth of qualities. Mental health issues are a symptom of this hyper-competitive environment.
Nowadays, an academic career is like running a race; it has transitioned from a sprint to tenure to a career-long marathon. It is not sustainable.
Not very many people identify as having an alpha mentality (i.e. perception of being superior and dominant; occupying an apex position in hierarchy), so does this mean they are not well suited for academia?
I absolutely believe that we need diversity in academia. We need non-alphas. We run the risk of a lack of creativity when we select only for the hyper-productive, “alpha” people. I speak out against the flow but really the upper echelons of university administration need to recognize these issues. It is not easy to find your voice and your position in an environment that selects for the alpha personality. I love my profession dearly. It is my dream job. I learn all the time and it is so cool to help other people achieve their goals. It is an incredible gift. It is absolutely awesome but there is a tough side of it too. I always try to be an authentic version of myself. Many women feel a horrible lack of self confidence relative to their male peers and there are many reasons for that. How does one deal with a lack of self confidence? It is unfortunate when people compensate for low self confidence by trying to be dominant, especially situations in which it’s the weak lashing out against the weak.
Anybody visiting your website (http://www.miriamldiamond.com/) can see that your graduate students are different ethnicities, ages, genders, etc. Clearly you embrace diversity! I know that you have led other initiatives for diversity on campus, in scientific societies and in your day-to-day activities. What can you share with us?
My students are wonderfully diverse! As scientists, we ought to be dedicated to inquiry. Diversity expands the horizons of inquiry. It allows us to look at questions differently and to bring a rich span of experience to the scientific enterprise. We cannot afford to have a narrow view of science especially for environmental concerns. I am dedicated to improving the world and we need every outlook; diversity helps us achieve that.
Diversity expands the horizons of inquiry. It allows us to look at questions differently and to bring a rich span of experience to the scientific enterprise.
Have you had any personal heroes or mentors during your scientific career that really stand out?
Don MacKay (Professor Emeritus University of Toronto and Trent University) was an early mentor to me and I’m grateful to him.
I must acknowledge Ursula Franklin (Professor Emerita, University of Toronto, celebrated feminist and human rights activist). She was so deeply generous and compassionate. She served as my role model. She had so much love to give. Her life was a matter of compassion and caring. She was an unexpectedly powerful person. She was very petite and she spoke very carefully and slowly. She was almost the antithesis of many people you see leading large organizations now, the Energizer bunnies and the Roadrunners.
One of my mentors was Alena Mudroch. She worked on arsenic at Environment Canada and was one of the few women at Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, ON in the late 70s. She was tough, a real fighter and an inspiration for me. She paved the way for many women scientists.
A lot of people would describe you as tough, a fighter and inspiring.
Even women who are perceived as tough and fighters for positive change need to be nourished at the end of the day. My goal is not to fight but to be wiser and more effective. I am coming to terms with my own limitations and frailties which is challenging for people who are used to constantly driving themselves. Especially in academia, you have to be able to recognize when to pull back. If you are always on the brink, you’ll be prone to burnout. If you constantly push yourself to the extreme, you’re also contributing to the bar being raised higher and higher towards unsustainable and unrealistic expectations. I’ve been complicit with that but more and more, I’m trying to speak out against it. Understanding limits is an important part of life’s journey.