While watching a football game on TV with her daughter, alumna Dr. Jennifer Geddes-McAlister (BSc ’05, MSc ’07) was asked why there were no women among the panel of commentators.
At the time, she explained to her nine-year-old that the broadcasters were all former football players, and the sport is built around men. Geddes-McAlister drew from that conversation for inspirational words in recognition of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
“If you don’t see yourself represented in a certain position, or career, or in a task, be that person. You could be the first one to make that difference, and then you’re the one the next generation will look up to,” she says of her message.
Geddes-McAlister, who was inducted into the University of Lethbridge Alumni Honour Society this past year, would have to be considered a role model for her academic achievements alone. After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s in biological sciences at ULethbridge, she would go on to earn a PhD in microbiology and immunology before joining the University of Guelph as a professor of molecular and cellular biology and Canada Research Chair.
Not only has Geddes-McAlister worked tirelessly to become a leading-edge researcher of fungal diseases, but she is also a passionate advocate of equity, diversity and inclusion within the science community. The founder of Moms in Proteomics, which recognizes the unique needs of mothers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), she’s also a mentor with Females in Mass Spectrometry, is involved in several other initiatives to support women in science, and is writing a book on the subject matter.
Geddes-McAlister’s earliest inspiration came from her mother, a single mom who went back to school and taught her children the value of hard work and the importance of pursuing whatever interested them. Her early affinity for science and its linear approach was bolstered by a male elementary school teacher who was also a strong proponent of students – regardless of their gender – cultivating their passions.
Growing up she became aware of societal expectations that girls pursue female-dominated careers, like teaching or nursing, but didn’t perceive any intentional barriers placed in her way. Geddes-McAlister did note her classmates in university science courses were predominantly male, and as such, it may have been intimidating for some female students to speak up in class.
“I think, as a woman in science, you need to be very confident and assertive. And those traits may not always come natural to everybody,” she says.
Most of her university professors were also male, although Geddes-McAlister does recall female role models, whether they were professors or students leading research work.
“I really only appreciated it in hindsight though, which is a good thing,” she says. “It was almost like I knew I could do what I wanted, regardless of whether I saw it or not.”
Studies have shown that women in science have for years faced disparities in funding rates and opportunities when compared to their male counterparts. While Geddes-McAlister believes there is positive movement in the area of gender balance, she says there are still career challenges as well as demands on time and energy that are unique to women.
When she founded Moms in Proteomics in 2021, the goal was to recognize women working in a male-dominated field of research. Geddes-McAlister knew there were amazing female researchers whose work wasn’t getting the attention it deserved. The network has since grown to 175 members in 15 countries and includes not only mothers, but also university students curious on how to balance personal and professional lives, as well as industry partners looking for the best way to support employees.
Geddes-McAlister is heartened to see greater recognition provided to female researchers, and a greater focus on equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. On a personal note, she’s pleased there’s an even split between male and female graduate students working in her lab.
There’s more work to do, however, and Geddes-McAlister says it all comes down to providing women in science with opportunities. When considering a candidate for a particular position, or for a speaking engagement or some other opportunity, she’d like to see less barriers for those scientists with children.
“I find that sometimes I get that from people who will say, ‘Oh, you’re so busy, I didn’t want to bother you.’ And I think, yes, but it should be up to me to decide if I’m too busy for that,” she says.
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