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International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022: Exceptional work happening on campus. Here we meet several faculty members

February 11th, 2022
Top, l-r, Dr. Erin Mazerole and Dr. Geniece Hallett-Tapley. Bottom: Dr. Karine LeBris, Dr. Mel Lam and Dr. Ping Zhou

Today, Friday, Feb. 11, we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022. This global day marks the accomplishments of women in science, recognizing the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. It also shines a spotlight on what still needs to be done. At St. Francis Xavier University, numerous female faculty and students are doing exceptional work. Here, we’re pleased to profile and introduce you to a few StFX faculty members. 

Dr. Erin Mazerolle

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology and Department of Computer Science


 

What sparked your interest in science? 

I always liked science as a kid, but I had no idea about science careers. I might not have gone into science, but I won summer research funding through the National Research Council’s Women in Engineering and Science Program after my second year of undergrad. Without that funding, I might have taken a different path! 



Could you speak about what you teach at StFX and your work? 

I teach courses on statistics and brain imaging. A lot of my research has applied advanced brain imaging techniques to patients with neurological diseases (like stroke or tremor) to try to do a better job of assessing those patients. Some of the brain images we take don’t do a great job of telling us how a patient is really doing or predicting how a patient will do in the future. My work tries to address that problem by finding images that match up better with a patient’s functioning and outcome. More recently, I’ve started working on new ways to share what we know about the brain with the general public. Knowing that behaviours arise from the brain is really powerful. For example, a teacher who understands the brain basis of ADHD might have more empathy for their students. Unfortunately, neuroscientists like me typically don’t have the skills to develop activities to effectively share our knowledge. I've teamed up with a fantastic collaborator from the Faculty of Education (Dr. Conor Barker) to do this important work. 



What about awards, accolades or accomplishments to mention? 

I’m an NSERC grant holder.



How important is it to encourage girls in science, and what can people do? 

It is still so important to encourage girls and other under-represented genders in science! It is easy to look at the gender ratio of an undergraduate life sciences class and think the hard work is over, but there is much more to do in other fields (like computer science) and at later career stages. Most of all, I think we need to do more outreach designed for girls experiencing intersectionality, such as girls from racialized communities. I believe the unique perspectives these girls will bring are crucial for science to stay creative and move forward! I’ve enjoyed working with organizations that make fun and welcoming spaces for girls in science, such as Actua (of which our very own X-Chem is a member). Supporting programs like these is a tangible way to help girls find role models, make connections, and get inspired so that they can picture themselves succeeding as scientists. 

 

Dr. Karine Le Bris

Associate Professor, Department of Physics 


 

What sparked your interest in science?

I have been fascinated by science and the natural world for as far as I can remember. I also love the intellectual challenges associated with them. I have never even considered pursuing a career outside of science.



Could you speak about what you teach at StFX and your work? 

I teach a wide array of courses from introductory physics to specialized courses such as optics, laser, atomic and molecular physics. I have also developed services courses (atmospheric physics, medical imaging) to reach students who, otherwise, may not have taken a pure physics course. I am an experimental physicist specialized in mid-infrared spectroscopy. My research program has two main streams: (1) determination of the global warming potential of greenhouse gases and (2) detection of pollutants by laser spectroscopic techniques. 



What about awards, accolades or accomplishments to mention?

As a first-generation student, the thing I am the most proud of is to get a PhD and be able to pursue a career in academia. My family has always been supportive of my choices but that never prevented the ‘when are you going to find a “real” job?’ comments that so many graduate students and postdocs have to go through. Since I became a faculty member, I was able to maintain a continuous stream of external funding for my research program, which has allowed me to build my own laboratory facility at StFX and hire undergraduate students as research assistants. While being an experimentalist in a small remote undergraduate institution is challenging, making it work can also be incredibly rewarding.



How important is it to encourage girls in science, and what can people do? 

Science is the foundation of our modern society. New ideas and solutions can only come from mixing people with different background and fresh perspectives. Unfortunately, physics is still a field where women are underrepresented. From discussions with students, I have realized that it often stems from a wrong perception of what the science is. Changing people preconceptions about physics is one of the reasons that motivate me to offer service courses. I strive to show students that physics is not (only) playing with esoteric equations. It is, above all, a science that can help us fight the challenges of tomorrow and offer a better future to all. In addition, physicists get to study fascinating stuff such as space-time curvature, quantum entanglement, dark matter and dark energy, black holes, etc.

 

Dr. Ping Zhou, Professor

Department of Mathematics and Statistics


 

What sparked your interest in science?

Stars in the sky seemed very fantastic to me when I was a child, and I wanted to be an astronomer to explore the vast unknowns of space. Now, I am a mathematician whose research is in approximation theory. My research has potential applications in signal processing and neural science (and maybe the stars in the sky, one day).



Could you speak about what you teach at StFX and your work?

I have been teaching mathematics courses at StFX for more than 20 years. I have taught courses ranging from first year mathematics concepts, business mathematics, and calculus to fourth year senior math courses. I also do research and supervise students for their undergraduate research and thesis.



What about awards, accolades or accomplishments to mention?

I came to StFX as an NSERC (Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada) University Faculty Award holder for my first five years in my career here, and as an NSERC Discovery Grant holder. I have published 46 papers in some well-known peer-reviewed research journals. I have been a life-time member of CMS (Canadian Mathematical Society), chaired the Women in Mathematics Committee and Mathematics Competition Grant Subcommittee at CMS, and served as a member of several committees in the society. One of the accomplishments I am very proud of, which I also see as my contribution to the mathematical community, is that among the students I have supervised here at StFX, two are now professors of mathematics, one of whom is a woman.



How important is it to encourage girls in science, and what can people do? 

It is surely very important to encourage girls to pursue science as their careers. The most important thing, in my point of view, is to help them open their minds to science. I am very happy to see more and more girls getting into different areas of science and engineering, including mathematical and physical sciences, life sciences, and all different areas of engineering. I see more and more girls in my calculus for engineers courses year after year, and more and more girls in my higher-level mathematics courses as well. I believe we, as women, have bright futures in science. 

 

Dr. Mel Lam

Department of Human Kinetics


 

What sparked your interest in science? 

In my senior year of undergrad, I was actively seeking out the opportunity to work in a research lab. The chair of Psychology, who happened to be a kinesiology professor, was looking to hire a research assistant. It was his enthusiasm and encouragement that sparked my interest in science. Together, we formulated research questions and I was then responsible for running the experiments. Under his mentorship, we made “science” happen. I was incredibly excited when we published our first paper together. To see all our hard work in print made me realize that I had it in me to be a scientist. Ultimately, he was the one who urged me to pursue graduate school, which led me to where I am today. 



Could you speak about what you teach at StFX and your work? 

I teach courses that explore how humans control voluntary movements as well as how humans learn new motor skills (e.g., swimming). I encourage students to think about movement beyond the bones, muscles, and joints. They learn to appreciate the role that the brain plays in planning and regulating movement. We also explore how motor control and learning change in special populations such as Parkinson’s disease and Down syndrome. One of my favourite courses was social psychology. The idea that the presence and behaviour of others can have an impact on one’s own behaviour fascinated me. I also had a passion for motor control. So why not bring the two together and explore how people plan and execute actions when interacting with each other (e.g., moving a couch with a friend)? The general question that my research attempts to answer is: How does social context modulate perception, cognition, and actions?



What about awards, accolades or accomplishments to mention? 

I would like to acknowledge NSERC for the five-year Discovery Grant and the Early Career Researchers supplement that was awarded to me in 2019. Their support is what has allowed me to hire students (~70% female) who want to explore motor control and learning and develop their passion for science!  



How important is it to encourage girls in science, and what can people do? 

It’s incredibly important to encourage girls in science. We need to do away with the stereotypes. We need to make girls realize that they are intellectually strong and just as capable as boys. Girls need to be encouraged that they have a future in science. I’m finding that more than half my students are girls. Having a woman professor standing at the front of the lecture hall, teaching them about science, allows girls to realize, “Hey! That could be me one day.” But what they also need are opportunities for practical experiences. This is what will “spark” their interest in science, that hands-on experience. This is where women in science step in. We need to mentor them, build their confidence, and help them reach their science career goals. We also need to identify the girls who express interest in our course material and invite them into our research labs. As a woman in science, I want to ignite that spark. 

 

Dr. Geniece Hallett-Tapley

Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry


 

What sparked your interest in science? 

My interest in science began in my high school years. Coming from small town Nova Scotia (Shelburne, NS), several individuals played key roles in supporting my growth as a scientific researcher. I was fortunate to have a fantastic high school chemistry teacher, Laurie Page. He had a great way of visually showcasing the fundamentals of science; he made chemistry exciting. As an undergrad at Acadia University, Dr. Jeff Banks really sparked my interest in my current area of research (physical organic chemistry/photochemistry) and strongly encouraged me to apply to graduate school. During my stay as a postdoc at University of Ottawa, Dr. Tito Scaiano was pivotal in teaching me everything I know about successfully managing a cohesive research team.



Could you speak about what you teach at StFX and your work? 

At StFX, I teach 3 credit second year organic chemistry (for non-chemistry majors); advanced organic chemistry and introduction to photochemistry. My current research is focused on the use of light-activated nanoparticles (or nanomaterial sized particles) to improve the energy efficiency pharmaceutically relevant chemical reactions – known as photocatalysis. The optical properties of nanoparticles have been known for centuries. For example, the beautiful pinks, purples and yellows we see in antique stained-glass windows can be attributed to the sun’s activation of embedded gold and silver nanoparticles that are formed from the reaction of gold and silver precursors added to molten glass during the moulding process. More recently, given the ongoing climate emergency, my research team has been interested in expanding the use of light-activated materials to application-based studies ranged from water pollution control, detection of contaminated drinking water and refinery waste control. 



What about awards, accolades or accomplishments to mention? 

My greatest accomplishment is my daughter, without a doubt. I feel that, as a first-generation post-secondary student, I am lucky to have been blessed with an amazing family that has supported my journey. My husband, my parents and my brother have always been constant source of support and encouragement, willing to endlessly listen about my work. I am proud that I have been able to establish a vibrant research team here at StFX and maintain external funding for this work, including federal (NSERC; CFI) and industrial support (Imperial). I am also proud and encouraged that many of my student researchers identify as female. I feel it is my responsibility to be a role model and train as well as encourage the next generation of young female scientists.



How important is it to encourage girls in science, and what can people do? 

For too long, female academics have been led to believe that professional success comes at the cost of personal goals. This gender bias is one of the primary reasons that many girls tend to abandon a career in the sciences following high school or an undergraduate degree. Unfortunately, this view is severely outdated. I try to lead by example and show that it is possible to achieve success in both parts of life. Also, having a daughter who is keenly interested in science, it is important for me to be a strong role model. Science is a gate way for critical thought and creativity and fostering this in the younger cohort should be supported.

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