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Spotlight on Mentors: Deborah MacLatchy, Vice President and Provost at Wilfrid Laurier University


Dr. Deborah MacLatchy

Vice President and Provost at Wilfrid Laurier University

Submitted by Tamzin Blewett

To highlight the achievements of women in science and to promote mentorship opportunities, the L-SETAC Women in Science Committee will feature interviews with women in leadership positions. Our very first interview is with Dr. Deborah MacLatchy, a renowned toxicologist and currently the Vice-President and Provost at Wilfrid Laurier University.

1.) What is your position, what is your area of expertise?

I am full Professor of Biology at Wilfrid Laurier University as well as provost and vice president. My areas of expertise are in the fields of comparative endocrinology and ecotoxicology.

2) What made you pursue a career in academia?

When I was an undergrad student, the opportunity to work in a couple of research labs over the summers, and performing my honours thesis project, spurred me onwards to graduate school. Grad school then became a continuation of the work that I liked doing. I never really thought of anything else. Past a certain point, it just became clear that this was the path.

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

I would have to say my honours, Ph.D. and PDF supervisors were very important. These included Dr. Dan Toews (undergraduate –Acadia University), Dr. Geoff Eales (Ph.D. – University of Manitoba) and Dr. Glen Van Der Kraak (Postdoc – University of Guelph). All of these supervisors provided a large amount of mentorship and encouragement throughout my programs, right when I needed it. Glen still provides significant mentorship through to today.

4) Have you encountered any challenges specifically associated with being a woman in science?

I did not directly experience challenges from anyone in the lab, or that I was collaborating with (e.g. during my Ph.D. or postdoc periods); at least, I couldn’t have named them as such at the time. I found any challenges that I experienced were related to my peers not my supervisors. Men tend to have a higher level of bravado/ego (confidence) that they tend to display. Because of this I would find myself doubting if I was capable or smart enough to pursue a career in science. In some ways, academic conferences were the worst for this kind of thing, more so than the people I was interacting with every day in my lab or department. Hearing my male peers describe how good they were and their paths to success often made me question my own. I agree with those who suggest that, in general, men are socialized to be confident and to be individuals, whereas young girls are socialized to get along and play nicely. This impacts how we portray ourselves to others as well as how we internalize day-to-day challenges.

One case of sexism that occurred during my Ph.D. was from another peer, a graduate student from another lab. He claimed that when he became faculty that under no circumstances would he ever take women into the field with him, because of the “complications” that would lead to. This student thought it was completely appropriate to segregate females from doing field work because they were somehow too tempting and males would be unable to resist in the uninhibited environment of a field station, away from the day-to-day workplace and that it would be too hard to get facilities to accommodate women and men in the field. To my knowledge, he never did go on to be faculty and thankfully doesn’t run a field program where his unprofessional and sexist attitudes would be dangerous to students and colleagues. I hope he’s learned and matured since then. But it still amazes me that he was comfortable making these kind of statements in the department lunch room; I still don’t know to this day if the mostly silent response from others was due to shock or passive agreement. (I’m not sure in retrospection that my equivalent of “OMG. You’ve got to be kidding.” was adequate enough.)

5) How do you manage an active lab with your large role in administration?

This is achieved by having a terrific research coordinator, Dr. Andrea Lister – who supervises the day-to-day in the lab. I also try to make sure that the students coming into the lab know what the challenges and opportunities there are with me being VP Academic. I try to vet the students coming into the lab, because you don’t want them to have wrong expectations. I try to be as present as I can, and with electronic communication (i.e. email) it helps. I try to reply as soon as possible in terms of emails and my students are a priority for me. It is much more normal to have this type of e-relationship than it was previously, say 20 years ago, but there is no doubt that there are compromises on both sides, both from my students and myself, to make the student-supervisor relationship work and to be effective. I miss the days the students just dropped into my office whenever they had a question—now I am usually so booked with meetings that even if they came by I wouldn’t be available for all my open door policy. I’m really lucky that the students I do have can be effective in this type of environment—kudos go to them, not me.

6) Any advice for upcoming students or post docs who want to pursue a career in academia?

Perseverance and resilience are very important because people are balancing so much in their personal and work lives. Developing a network to be successful is very critical. It isn’t often talked about, but there is a significant level of commitment to start a Ph.D. and continue onto a post doc in academia. If you don’t love it and this isn’t your passion, then you need to think critically about going down this path. There are too many people who do love it and are excellent at it who are still going to find success challenging. You don’t have to do this, it’s so competitive and there are other career paths that you can pursue. At the end of the day, you have to love it and it’s very competitive, but loving it is what makes it worth it.

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

Different people have different levels of work-life balance. One of the things that has worked for me is to integrate as much as I can, so that there isn’t a complete split between work and school (i.e. having your friends and social network as a part of your work life). Thus, when you are going on field trips or conferences, you can include friends or family. The biggest reason I love administration is that when the brain gets tired of research, then I can focus on administration tasks. I am a problem solver and builder and I can satisfy both of these traits in either the lab or my admin role. Balance also becomes important in your choices of relationships of partners/spouses. You need to choose someone who will support you throughout these challenges (e.g. Ph.D.– to post doc and into your career), while you support them – this is critical. This is often overlooked as a really important piece of success, but it is key to career happiness. As supervisors, we sometimes don’t talk to our students about it enough, but when you are making those life choices, the support and commitment from your partner is a large contributor to your career as well. I’m really lucky I have that. I often think it would be better to be alone than to be with someone who is not supportive of you, but that’s just my personal opinion, as I’m a bit of a loner anyway. An academic career and one that moves into administration requires an extensive amount of focus and commitment.

8) What was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome as a woman in science?

The job market in the early to mid-90s was awful. The year I got my tenure-track position, there were 2 postings in Canada that entire year that I could have applied for. It is very important to have several back-up plans. Be focused and committed on Plan A, but at some point, for yourself and your support network, you need to talk about Plan B and C. I was giving myself another year of postdoc but knew after that I would have to be making some changes, and one of the things I started doing was trying to figure out if policy or government would be an avenue to pursue. Make sure you are trying to cover any skill gaps to address this before it’s too late. Related to this, whether you are geographically flexible may be a critical determinant in your choices, because jobs are usually geographically located, even in this day of the internet. Having said that, even that depends on what part of the country you live in, i.e., how many opportunities may arise and the need to move from low density to high density areas (where there are more opportunities). Really think about this in regard to your planning, especially if an academic position is your top option. This all ties back in to having supportive interpersonal relationships in regard to whether flexibility in geography is something you *both* need to consider for one partner to go with Plan A. This isn’t about being a woman or a man. I am very thankful of the sacrifices my spouse has made over the years to support my career opportunities, including multiple moves across the country.

9) What are some of the misconceptions and roadblocks that women have to overcome today to become respected and well-known scientists?

I think part of the challenge is the worry that they might not be committed enough, or that they will make other life choices, rather than science. It’s a common misconception that women will prioritize family versus work; I think mostly what we all try to prioritize is balance. Men do not necessarily get the same assumptions. Another challenge is that women don’t seem to go for higher-level positions (such as Canadian Research Chairs). A lot of men go for CRCs (or have the confidence to) but fewer women step up for those kinds of positions – thinking they are not competitive enough. We need to ensure that women with strong CVs are nominated for awards and prizes. One thing societies could do is alternate plenary or invited speakers between years. Finally, they have shown in studies that the type of language we use in reference letters is different between women and men. Examples are "She’s the best female student I ever had" vs "She’s in the top five percent of my students”. Women are described more by personality traits than by intelligence, versus males who are often described as committed, brilliant etc. We all have unconscious biases, but there are actually very proactive and easy steps that we can take to address them, either individually or in groups.

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