DR. LIEN LUONG,
What are some initiatives we could take to increase participation of women in the STEM field?
Organizations like WISEST are encouraging girls and women to become exposed to science at early age which is encouraging. I think that having good role models is important as well since it creates a safe environment for students to find their interests. When I was training as a Post-Doc, I was told that I wasn’t selling my research and myself well enough (not assertive enough). I feel like that it’s because of my personality, but also due to the fact that as an Asian woman, I’m expected to be reserved and not raise my voice. While it helps in societal situations, it doesn’t get you very far in academia as it’s important that you grab people’s attention and “sell yourself” to secure the grants that you want. Science is a very competitive field and you need to make your research interesting and relevant.
I think at a young age, kids are influenced by what they see. While there are many male scientist role models like Bill Nye, there aren’t too many female scientist role models on TV. So, when they watch these programs, they don’t make the connection that females can be STEM leaders as well. Also, how is science portrayed in blockbuster movies? The scientists are the ultra-nerds or villains! It’s the lack of role models that is a big problem.
What is your advice to students interested in pursuing STEM education?
Indulge in curiosity and ask questions. People often ask whether my subdiscipline is all about memorizing: that is not what’s relevant. Although it is important to have the foundational knowledge before really indulging in science, a good scientist is someone who has the ability to ask interesting questions and to discover new things. We should foster this in our youths: it could be anything from looking at species in your backyard to turning over rocks for species. I grew up in a city, so I didn’t get a chance to do this, but I looked up photos of animals from the National Geographic and made scrapbooks from them. I had that curiosity and desire to discover - the desire to turn over rocks and ask questions like “why is that rock purple and the other ones are brown?” These simple questions are ones that galvanize amazing discoveries to be made.
Who is your favourite scientist?
Charles Darwin. His predictions on evolution were largely criticized during the 1800’s, but now using modern science, it’s been proven that he is indeed correct!
What is your area of expertise and how was your interest sparked?
My area of expertise is on host-parasite interactions (the symbiotic relationship). My interest sparked when I was a Masters student taken on into a lab (had zero inkling of what a parasite was at that time) and was introduced to a project by a professor. I was told to go into a parking lot and suck up crickets in the area using a vacuum and a flashlight. Once done, I cut them open in the lab and found them full of parasites. It turned out that the parasites in there weren’t understood, so I had the pleasure of describing the life cycle of these parasites for the first time (and discovered that they were sexually transmitted!).
How did u get involved with research at the University of Alberta?
I got my Masters, PhD, then Post-Docs & Fellowship (usually, this is the trajectory one takes to get hired in a university institutional research setting).
After seeing an advertisement for a faculty position at the University of Alberta, I applied, got an interview, and became hired.
How do you feel as a woman in a male-dominated field?
I think it really depends on the sub-discipline that you are in; for instance, social sciences and biological sciences have greater proportion of female academians, while physical sciences has less. For instance, in biology, ecology predominantly has more female researchers in comparison to fields like genomics.
We need to recognize that we do have differences - males tend to be more assertive and outspoken about their ideas. Us, women, tend to be a bit more careful by questioning the validity of our thoughts - we tend to second guess ourselves. Men also tend to be more aggressive about money and grants while women tend to be more conservative on what they ask for. I’m not implying that there is a systematic discrimination against women, but I’m admitting that social norms (ie. being nurturing) apply within the academia setting as well.
Fortunately though, there is an increasing number of female students in Biological Sciences (30-40%), however, as the educational levels goes up - PhD, etc. - the number decreases (20-30%).