Dr. Caroline Cameron

UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Here, we target women who are brainy, creative, and passionate. Dr. Caroline Cameron is a professor in the Biochemistry and Microbiology Department at UVic who studies the diseases of spirochetes, a type of uniquely spiral shaped microorganisms, including the causative agents of syphilis and leptospirosis. The work in Dr. Cameron's lab primarly focuses on understanding the pathogenesis of treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis, and identifying novel candidates to improve diagnostics and develop a vaccine for this disease.

 
Know that you have the potential. It’s a challenging career, but it’s highly rewarding and incredibly interesting and you meet some unbelievable people throughout your life and your career. Give it your all. Work hard and enjoy it.

What is your field of study and what stage of your career are you at?

I’m a professor in the Biochemistry and Microbiology Department at UVic. My field of study is basic science and I study the pathogenesis of a group of bacteria called spirochetes. Specifically, we’re looking at Treponema pallidum which causes syphilis. We’re trying to figure out ways to combat that infection.

When did you first become excited about science?

I was excited about science all the way through my schooling, but probably grade 10 science was when it really connected with me. Then when I went to University I just really enjoyed the microbiology aspect of things, so that’s really what got me started on this career pathway.

How did you get to the position you are in today? Was it a straightforward career trajectory?

It was pretty straight forward for me. I did my undergraduate degree and my PhD right afterwards, both at UVic. I did my postdoctoral training down in Seattle at the University of Washington and then I joined the faculty in Seattle. Then I applied for a position here at UVic and moved back to Victoria in 2006.

What do you enjoy about this field of research and your work?

I love working with all of the different people. The trainees are the highlight for me. Also the dynamic nature of research – it’s different everyday. There are different challenges, you really have to think outside the box, mostly things are not routine. Lots of challenges and lots of interesting aspects.

Have there been any major obstacles during your career?

I don’t know that I’ve really encountered many obstacles, other than the usual ones like trying to keep constant grants flowing in and money flowing into the lab.  But we’ve luckily been pretty successful with that to date. It’s definitely about time management to juggle everything and as long as you’re being proactive about it and staying on top of things I don’t think there are any insurmountable obstacles.

Do you think mentorship is an important component of professional development?

Certainly. It was incredibly important for my career to have the mentorship that I did and I hope that I convey the same sort of level of mentorship to my trainees to really get them to know what’s important in the field and what’s important for this career. And to help them prepare for a career.

Have you had strong mentors during your career?

I’ve been lucky enough to have strong mentors all the way through, from my PhD all the way to my postdoctoral training. That is incredibly important for a young scientist to have that.

Did you select those people because you anticipated they would be good mentors?

Yes, they were all very engaged which naturally translates to being a good mentor. So I think that’s an important thing for people to seek out.

How do you balance your hectic work schedule with your life?

What I try to do for most of the time is when I’m at work, I’m at work and I’m focused on that. And when I’m at home I focus on my kids and my husband and my family life. And I think that’s how you balance it – and then when they’re asleep sometimes you go back to work and get back into that mindset. It’s a challenging career, but it’s important that you make sure you keep the other aspects of your life at that same priority level.

What would you like young scientist to know about balancing a challenging career with having a family?

That it’s totally possible. I think the perception out there is that it’s not possible, but you can have both, you can get a professorship and have a happy home life as well.  So don’t let your ambitions be derailed because of this perception that it can’t be done.  Having this challenging career has made me a better mother/wife and having a family has made me better at my job as well. It’s a good role model to show to your children that you have this career that is important and you feel you’re giving to the public health community (in my particular case) and that you're mentoring trainees and teaching undergraduate students. That’s a good role model for your children to see. And then on the flip side, definitely being a parent increases your patience and your ability to troubleshoot and listen to differing opinions. So I think they compliment each other very nicely.

Imposter syndrome is quite prevalent in science, especially for females. Is this something you’ve encountered or observed during your career?

I don’t necessarily know if it’s along the gender lines, because I think people in general sometimes feel that insecurity as they’re going through. It could be just that females talk about it more.And what I attribute it to, is that the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to learn. So it’s important to keep your accomplishments in perspective and to know that you are contributing and that you are helping. And that you’re helping to further the career of younger scientists. Have I experienced it? I guess so, I think everyone has. It’s important to not limit your potential based on something that’s not even real. Just do it, just do good.

What do you think we can do to counter imposter syndrome?

I always look at what if you didn’t do this? What if you succumbed to [imposter syndrome] and you couldn’t move forward? There would be this gap where people wouldn’t be getting the training they need, the work wouldn’t get done, and how is that benefiting anything? I think that every contribution is important and people need to realize that.

What has been your greatest accomplishment in your career?

I honestly think training younger scientists. I’m really happy with the number of people that we’ve trained and how they’ve gone on to their successes. The process of logical thought that they gain while they’re in the lab and their ability to interact with different people, and to defend their ideas. I hope we have instilled that in them, so I think that’s my greatest accomplishment – or our greatest accomplishment, it’s not even mine, it’s the lab’s greatest accomplishment.

What are you still hoping to accomplish?

Well, I would love it if the lab could really combat this disease that we’re working on. Either try to design a vaccine or try to understand it better so that a vaccine can be developed to try and help the millions of people that are inflicted with this disease around the world.

What do you think professors can do to support female scientists pursuing academic careers?
To let female scientists know that it’s possible and to support them unconditionally and with all of the mentoring and support and direction that everybody needs. I never look at it along gender lines – a person is a person and I will give everybody everything that I have in terms of support and mentoring. That’s the universal rule for me.

What programs/events would you see as being most useful for women in science here at UVic?

Well I think the launch event was wonderful – it shows the enthusiasm and the support that’s out there. So more of those would be great. Also more examples of women who are in these positions within science, and more interactions among graduate students, postdocs, undergraduate students, and faculty to let female students in science see all of the different career stages and to just talk it through.

What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science?

To know that you have the potential. It’s a challenging career, but it’s highly rewarding and incredibly interesting and you meet some unbelievable people throughout your life and your career. Give it your all. Work hard and enjoy it.

What are your interests outside of work?

I love hiking! That’s the number one. Anything outdoors – hiking, skiing, kayaking, and of course doing all of that with my family and just seeing the joy that they experience in discovering the world. And I’m a typical mom - I’ve got all the kids events, soccer and ballet. So being out to support them in their interests and endeavors is really important as well.

 

 

 

Cameron Lab on Lab Adventure Day in Fall 2015

Cameron Lab on Lab Adventure Day in Fall 2015

 

What do you think professors can to support female scientists pursuing academic careers?
To let female scientists know that it’s possible and to support them unconditionally and with all of the mentoring and support and direction that everybody needs. I never look at it along gender lines – a person is a person and I will give everybody everything that I have in terms of support and mentoring. That’s the universal rule for me.

What programs/events would you see as being most useful for women in science here at UVic?

Well I think the launch event was wonderful – it shows the enthusiasm and the support that’s out there. So more of those would be great. Also more examples of women who are in these positions within science, and more interactions among graduate students, postdocs, undergraduate students, and faculty to let female students in science see all of the different career stages and to just talk it through.

What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science?

To know that you have the potential. It’s a challenging career, but it’s highly rewarding and incredibly interesting and you meet some unbelievable people throughout your life and your career. Give it your all. Work hard and enjoy it.

What are your interests outside of work?

I love hiking! That’s the number one. Anything outdoors – hiking, skiing, kayaking, and of course doing all of that with my family and just seeing the joy that they experience in discovering the world. And I’m a typical mom - I’ve got all the kids events, soccer and ballet. So being out to support them in their interests and endeavors is really important as well.

 

 

Hannah Charnock