What attracted you to science as a young person?
I didn't realise I was interested in "science" until I had already started a university degree in psychology. I have always been interested in understanding "why", and although I enjoyed science classes in primary school, to me history and culture were more compelling topics. I loved trying to understand how people thought and behaved similarly or differently across time and history; how the personal environment could shape individual thoughts and feelings and vice versa.
Imagine my surprise to learn all about a topic called "social psychology" which answers exactly those questions, and even better that it had a scientific method for testing these big ideas!
What do you do on a typical work day? Which aspects of your work get you out of bed in the morning?
My typical work day is different depending on time of term. Some days are just about preparing a lecture or tackling a pile of marking, others finding the perfect measure, or analysing data and writing up results. One of the great things about being an academic is that the job is more flexible day-to-day compared to other jobs.
Regardless of what kind of work day it is going to be, what gets me out of bed in the morning is knowing that I have the kind job that let's me focus on the exact questions and issues I'm passionate about. The studies might not always work, but at least I had the freedom to try and understand a question I found interesting.
Did you explore any other career avenues, and if so how did they compare to your current work?
I've had many jobs over the years, with a couple that had the potential of becoming careers.
For a couple of years, I worked as a sales and marketing assistant during my undergraduate studies. This used some of the skills I'd learned in my undergraduate studies on psychology and business, but ultimately I realised it wasn't for me.
My next two jobs focused on research. First, I worked as a research analyst for the Government of Canada in a learning policy group. We were responsible to trying to figure out what the barriers to university-level education were in Canada, and what policies were having an impact. I also worked as a research advisor for a public opinion and market research firm. In this role, other companies and government organisations would ask us to design a study that could test an important question they had.
In both my research analyst and research advisor jobs I got to explore lots of interesting questions that had real important consequences for people's day-to-day lives (e.g., would more grants make university easier to access? Why aren't people in our city recycling? Why are our employees so unhappy?). But I was always answering someone else's questions, never my own.
I realised that as much as I enjoyed working in research, what I truly wanted was to be able to dedicate myself to understanding a specific topic and asking my own questions.
Have you encountered any roadblocks in your career, and how did you overcome them?
When I was still an undergraduate student, I almost failed a module on statistics. I had avoided getting help until it was almost too late, and even with a tutor it wasn't possible to salvage my final mark although I did manage to pass.
What made this particularly stressful is that this module brought down my overall degree mark, and almost forced me to drop part of my degree specialisation as a result. After that term, I changed my study habits, made a point of seeking help as soon as I was confused about something, and managed to get a high first in the next-level statistics module I took the following year! I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses that year, as well as what really mattered to me for my future.
Really though, the biggest roadblock I've encountered in my career is an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Before I started my PhD, I saw myself as someone who is largely competent (statistics aside). PhDs can be very long (especially in North America) and very stressful. Lots of people develop a sense of imposter syndrome, which is an overwhelming concern that you are about to be uncovered as a fraud who doesn't belong or deserve the successes you've experienced.
I am lucky to have a very strong social support network and PhD mentors who have supported my successes and failures over the years. Even after successfully defending my PhD and getting a job, some days I still feel like an imposter in the presence of so many smart and successful colleagues. But I took on the advice to celebrate every "win" to help cushion the days filled with paper rejections or failed studies. I've also try to get more involved in new hobbies so I have lots of fun things to distract me when I need them.
Was anything in your career path easier than you had expected?
Some people talk about how competitive academia can be. I thought I would really struggle in that kind of environment and worried I wouldn't want to become an academic if it meant always competing to be seen as the "best and brightest".
In reality, most people are so supportive and excited to work with others. I think that's what makes for the best kind of science: when everyone is collaborating to answer a question, combining all of their expertise and unique insights together. Some people definitely have a competitive streak, but it's much easier to avoid those kinds of working relationship than I had initially worried.
What advice would you give people who aspire to work in science?
Being a good scientist means being good at lots of different things: being able to ask big and important questions; figuring out the best study designs for testing these questions; running simple and complex statistical models; writing up and communicating findings in a clear and engaging way; and playing well with others to build successful collaborations.
It can be really intimidating to think that you have to be perfect at all of these different skills. But the important thing to remember is that everyone - even the most brilliant scientist you can think of - has strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. The important thing to remember is to not compare your beginning to someone else's middle!
One day you will be talking to another scientist you admire only to realise that you have a specific skill that they lack. And it will feel awesome.
What one thing would you change to make science more accessible to people who don’t currently pursue it?
I would love to increase representation in science. I think that sometimes people tend to think that a scientist looks or thinks a certain way, and that if you don't fit that mould then it isn't the right place for you.
The path from A-B often seems like a straight one when you're on the outside looking in. But most scientists you know have taken a longer, winding path to get where they are today. I think if more people could see how we all got to where we are, they'd realise there is a path there for them as well.