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. Sandra Roy is a PhD candidate in the Chemistry Department at UVic as well as a Senior Laboratory Instructor. Sandra's work focuses on combining her passion for teaching with the technical instrumental expertise developed throughout years of experience working for the National Defence and her research at UVic. The focus of her thesis is based on non-linear optics and methods to detect the orientation of molecules very near to the surface being analyzed.
How long have you been with UVic? In total throughout my Masters, PhD and now also being a Senior Laboratory Instructor, it has been 7 years.
What brought you to Victoria, and where is home? Home is close to Montreal. I studied my undergraduate degree at the University of Laval in Quebec. My Masters program brought me over to Victoria – I remember considering applying for programs away from home and a friend said “if you’re going to go away, just go really far”. You can’t get much further than Vancouver Island!
What best describes your current roles and responsibilities? As a PhD student I work a lot of hours on my research. I’m the senior person in my lab, which means that I oversee the projects of other people and work to fix and maintain the instruments. As an SLI I’m somewhat limited by the part-time aspect of the job. I don’t have the full range to change experiments, but I work to troubleshoot instruments, deal with the students (helping with reports, lab work, creating handouts) and show the TA’s how to effectively teach this lab. I’ve also implemented the drop in centre which seems to be helpful and well attended. We always try to improve upon ourselves.
What does being a female in a leadership position at UVic mean to you? It’s nice to be independent – you have free range to put time and effort into the job. It’s sometimes strange because I’m both a grad student and an SLI, so dealing with a line of colleagues, friends, and a research team is a unique dynamic. As a female, I feel like I’m well received and people are open and friendly towards me, but at the same time it feels bit less like an authoritative position. As and SLI I like to be strict at the beginning of the term to make sure I’m respected, and then I can go easier on students as the term goes on. I have to make sure that at the end of the day, I still get my final word in to convey my point.
Tell me about your path of education, and how you got to where you are today? I did my undergrad in Quebec City and at one point in my studies, employers came to the university from different companies to advertise for positions and the National Defence had a great presentation. I thought there was no way I was going to get the job so I didn’t even submit a resume. There was a second round of visitations a few weeks later and I chatted with those people. They were doing interviews that day and asked to go sit down and chat because I seemed interested. We went for an interview and they just said I got the job. From that point on I never again thought “I won’t get that.” Worst case scenario it’s a no, what do you have to lose?
I ended up working with computer simulation for the National Defence throughout the summer and they asked me if I wanted to do synthesis work with energetic materials (explosives, propellants) during the school year. I realized that whatever I wanted to do in life, I could learn it. I continued working for them one day a week during the school year.
When I ended up looking for a Masters program in computer simulation, I sent an email to my current supervisor (Dr. Dennis Hore) because he had a joke on his website. Next thing I knew I was heading over for a visit to see UVic - it was the easiest decision to make. When I finished my Masters, I returned for a short term to the National Defence. I came back to do my PhD with the same supervisor and now I get to learn from a very experimental standpoint.
Describe your current research. I work with non-linear optics. I look at the orientation of molecules within 100 Angstroms from the surface. We carry out sum frequency generation, which only happens with a break in symmetry. Unlike IR where you see the bulk solution, with this we only see what is oriented.
Right now I’m looking at adhesives and the chemical interactions between the two surfaces, which is usually orientation dependent. Right now I want to look at a type of bacteria that secretes a really sticky residue. It’s so strong that if you could produce 1cm2 of this stuff, it could hold up the weight of a Smart car. They don’t know what it’s made of or how it interacts so strongly as an adhesive, which it what I’m working to find out.
When did you first become excited about science? I don’t know! I think I always have been. My love for science started with math and evolved into liking chemistry during CEGEP (2-year intermediate program before university in Quebec). I started university in the chemical engineering program for one year before I switched over to chemistry. I think what brought me to chemistry was wanting to know the ‘why’ of things. You can go so much deeper with a knowledge of physical chemistry to explain the reasoning.
Has being a woman in your field ever posed unique challenges, and how were they overcome? None that I know of, but again when you apply for things you don’t always know. Its advantageous that people are more receptive you and are friendly to you, but it’s sometimes hard to be appreciated as an authority figure.
What are your career or future goals? I’m still deciding! I love teaching and I ideally want to work at a small university. Higher education teaching has been excellent.
What advice could you offer to up and coming young female scientists? Just try it. Go ask someone who is doing the job you want right now and follow them for a day. The workplace environment and the type day-to-day work is important in deciding if you will truly enjoy that job on the other side of your formal education.
What has been the most rewarding part of your education/career? Every semester in Chemistry 361 (Analytical Lab) when I make a change that students appreciate, it feels really great. Making changes, applying your ideas, and having people receive them well is really wonderful. Anytime I try to explain a concept to a student and I see them have this eureka moment, it’s so satisfying.
What keeps you as excited as science, besides science? I’ve made an effort in the past year or so to take my weekends for myself. I don’t work at night, because I have busy days working 7am-6pm, so my time off is important. I fill that free time with a lot of RPG and board games. I also love making food - I’m a major foodie. The other day I made butterscotch rolls and they’re a hundred times better than any cinnamon bun you can buy. I live in a small place that has a community atmosphere and we always have a great social event schedule with lots of BBQs. And Comicon! I hope to go this year in Ottawa!