Amanda McLaughlin

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. Amanda McLaughlin is a PhD candidate in the Division of Medical Sciences at UVic. Her work mainly focuses on retinal physiology. Amanda played a large role in the development of the sexualized violence policy at UVic in addition to her work with the Graduate Students Society.

What is your field of study and what stage of your education/career are you at? I am a 5th year PhD candidate in neuroscience, studying retinal physiology.

When did you first become excited about science? I’ve always really liked my math and science classes throughout high school and my undergrad. I thought I was going to go into medicine for a long time; however, I did the Integrated Science program at Dalhousie University in Halifax which exposed me to scientific research in my first year which is when I gained more of an interest in research.

How did you get to the position you are in today? Was it a straightforward career trajectory? What are your current career aspirations? My transition to grad school was pretty seamless because of my research experience from my undergrad, and the program I’m in now offered a transition between the MSc program and the PhD program which was also relatively easy.  I’m realizing now however that my transition to the next step after my PhD will be more difficult. I want to take a step away from academia for now, and transfer to an industry or government position related to policy, science communications, or science outreach, and making science more accessible for the general audience. That transition is difficult not only because it’s a less conventional career path but also because the transition from academics to industry is almost discouraged in some academic circles, which has made it harder for me to tailor my graduate degree to my next career move. Although I really like my research, I’m not sure it’s what I want to study for the rest of my career. I’ve also grown tired of the culture within my field and my program, that’s certainly played into my decision to take a step back from academia, at least for now.

I want to take a step away from academia for now and transfer to an industry or government position related to policy and science communications, or science outreach, and making science more accessible for the general audience.

Describe your research focus. I am studying a population of ganglion cells in the retina, ganglion cells being the cells that go from your eye to the higher order brain centres. We use mouse models to study a population of these cells that responds to  motion in the visual scene. In mouse models specifically, they could be important for predator detection for example, or anything that moves quickly across the visual scene. My work has focussed mainly on  understanding how that motion-coding circuit works and is wired up in the retina.

What do you enjoy about this field/your work? I really like how, in the retina, we are able to study really complex phenomena. There’s already a huge breadth of knowledge about how it works, and in that way retinalretinal research is decades ahead of a lot of work in other cortical areas. The retina is a really simple model of the brain. It has similar cell types, but it is only three layers. Since it is a sensory organ, we can really easily stimulate the cells in a natural way, by shining light on the surface of the retina directly, to evoke responses, as opposed to having to artificially injecting current. We can actually take recordings from an entire retina, which hopefully means that our recordings are hopefully more physiologically accurate! Also, the tools we use are really quite amazing-  we can manipulate the circuit in almost any way you can imagine. I also really love electrophysiology, it allows us to look at the entire circuit or at least 2/3 cells within the circuit. I did my undergrad degree in biochemistry, which is quite small scale. Physiology is just that one step up in size where what you are working with is still undoubtedly small so you can still be really certain of your findings, but it’s large enough that you feel you’re really starting to make progress in our understanding of vision.

I received frequent questions about my intentions to have a family or doubts of my ambitions in my field. Many people feel as through a woman has to choose between having a career and having a family.

What have been the obstacles for you during your education/career? Do you believe any one these were specific to being a female? I’ve had a generally great experience throughout both my undergrad, and PhD, and I’ve really loved my experience overall at UVIC, but I’ve certainly dealt with some obstacles. In my experience, at least within the circles I’ve operated in for my PhD, there’s a very real and pervasive culture of misogyny in science, and a total lack of tolerance for people who do not identify as cis-, straight, able-bodied white men. Despite the fact that I’ve operated in male-dominated fields most of my life (including working as a reservist on an army military base) the first time I felt truly discriminated against, was when I came to grad school (which, for the record, is a huge testament to my privilege). Within my program, faculty members have frequent questioned my love of science, my desire to have a career, have asked about my intentions to have a family, or have point blankly made horrendously sexist comments.

In addition to that, it’s also my opinion that the types of tasks myself and other women in the program are asked to do differ significantly from my male colleagues. I’ve done a much larger fraction of the administrative tasks (purchasing, cleaning, and other administration), and done a significant fraction of the training and mentoring of new students. At one point in my career these tasks amounted to 15 hours per week of work, which is obviously a huge disadvantage when you’re being measured by the same metrics as people who have to do a lot less of that work.

The most unfortunate part of all this is that I’ve found my experience incredibly difficult, and have questioned whether my success is possible, or worth the cost, despite the fact that I’m a fully funded, domestic, white, straight student. So what does that mean for the incredible people coming up in the program who don’t have the kind of privilege I do. It’s not easy for people dealing with discrimination, it’s certainly not fair, but at some point, people perpetuating these behaviours have to realize that it’s also bad for science!

Having said that, I know that a lot of the heat and blowback I’ve received over the last 5 years has been because I’m very vocal in my expectations of others, and in what kind of behaviours and language I’m not willing to accept. Speaking up against people in powerful positions, telling them what they can and can’t do or say has incited a lot of conflict, so maybe some of this is self-inflicted.  

What do you think about mentorship? Have you had any strong mentors during your career? And do you think it’s an important component of professional development?  Mentorship is really important at all levels. I’ve had quite a few students that I’ve mentored in some capacity and I’ve always really enjoyed this. Grad students have a really important role to play in mentorship, especially grad students (or post-docs)  later in their careers. We need to be engaging with undergrads/volunteers, in the same way that people did for us when we were training. It is also just so important for new students to have somebody that can talk to and share their struggles with.  

When it came to the end of my undergrad and I was looking into grad schools, I had a strong network of grad students around me that I was able to talk to, and ask questions of, which was super useful. They taught me what to look for in a supervisor, how to go about applying, but also taught me what an amazing community of grad students looked like, and how to support each other through grad school.  Sometimes, we don’t take time to celebrate successes in grad school, I’ve certainly been guilty of that. So having people around who are there to celebrate with you, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, force you to go home when you are burnt out, is very important for succeeding in graduate school.

Balancing academia, volunteer commitments, and work at the GSS [Graduate Student Society] can be difficult, but I need those other things to gain perspective and remind myself of the bigger picture.

At UVIC I’ve also met some pretty amazing people I look up to. Over the past couple of years I’ve had lots of interactions with Valerie Kuhne (UVic provost), and I really look up to her. The way she runs meetings really encourages participation, dialogue, and respectful debate in a way that’s still so productive.  I also have a number of close friends in my program  who are so intelligent, hardworking and unbelievably resilient. They also have a level of passion for their science that reminds you why you’re there. It’s always inspiring to be surrounded by passionate people.

How do you balance your hectic work/school schedule with your life? What are your interests outside of school? I like to keep  pretty busy. On  top of my academics I’ve been very involved on campus, and within the community. Balancing academia, volunteer commitments, and work at the GSS can be difficult, but I need those other things to gain perspective and remind myself of the bigger picture. I’m also somebody who needs to spend time outdoors, and I need to exercise to stay on top of my physical and mental health. In my undergrad I was on the Nova Scotia Provincial Biathlon Team, but then moved here and realized there was no snow. So I joined a masters swim club, and started doing triathlons, and have started climbing. My partner and I started bike touring a few years ago. Last summer, we took a 1000 km trip down to San Diego, which was so fun! We have also done a lot of bike camping in Washington, California, and on the island.

Imposter syndrome is quite prevalent in female scientists. Is this something you’ve observed during your career? Do you experience it? What do you think we can do to counter it? During my undergrad, I heard the term quite a lot, but I never really felt it because of my academic and athletic commitments. When I transitioned to grad school and became chair of the GSS, it was expected that I was going to contribute to meetings. That was when I really felt that my self-confidence didn’t exist to nearly the same degree as it did when I was in undergrad. I was convinced that people wouldn’t want to hear what I had to say, or that they would be dismissive of my opinions. As I started my job search, I felt like I had nothing to offer, in spite of my commitments and achievements. Working with the GSS, and with a lot of great people on UVIC committees made me realize that a lot of people do value my opinions and believe what I am saying. I didn’t realize how much grad school had affected my confidence until I had to be in front of people again, so working with these terrific and patient people, especially on topics I don’t know a lot about, was great.

In terms of what this group could do to counter it, I think it’s really important for people to have safe spaces where people seek support and be vulnerable. I’m not exactly sure what this would look like, maybe some smaller group events which could cater to specific topics or specific groups of people? It also might be cool to bring people together to practice public speaking or to practice voicing their own accomplishments Everybody can be dismissive of their skills sometimes, so being able to vocalize and communicate one’s achievements might help.

What has been your greatest accomplishment in your education/career? One of the things I’m most proud of is the development of the sexualized violence policy. I’ll be the first to admit that’s a project I came into pretty late in the game, with some amazing people having spent (literally) years forcing the government to mandate such a policy exists. I got involved as a member of the working group once that mandate existed, as a representative from the GSS. Everyone on the committee worked so hard on it’s development and the result is a policy that’s miles ahead of any other policies in the province, if not the country. I’m very happy with how intersectional it is plus it’s the first time I’ve seen power relationships included in a policy. Given the hierarchical structure of science in Canada and the ways in which I’ve struggled within many of those power relationships, being able to acknowledge them was so validating. Being on that committee taught me a lot about spending the time that you need on things, and doing things properly the first time, even when it takes longer, and I’ve certainly applied that mentality to my thesis. Sometimes slowing down and thinking carefully can have a huge effect on your mental health and your future success. I probably learned more from the committee than I contributed to it, but I hope I represented graduate students well, and I’m really optimistic about the policy that’s been implemented.

Sometimes slowing down and thinking carefully can have a huge effect on your mental health and your future success.

What are you still hoping to accomplish? I’m hoping to finish writing my thesis in the next month, as I’m right in the middle of writing it now, and then defend! It’ll be the last big tick on my checklist. Then after graduation, I’m guess I’m really hoping to get a job doing something I’m equally passionate about.  

How do you contribute to supporting female scientists that are following in the same path as you? I try to be there to support people, in whatever ways people need. Something I know I can offer people, because of my work with the GSS, is that I’m very well versed in university systems so I try to act as best I can as a channel for people to get connected with a lot of supports and resources. When people think of supporting each other, I think we often tell people to  “come find me if you need anything”, but if you’re struggling, you’re so much less likely to seek help. Or in my experience, I’ve struggled not knowing what help is possible, or how much I can ask of people. So I try as best I can to just be there for people when they need it, and be genuine in what I can and can’t offer to help. More generally though, I’ve just tried to build a sense of community within my program. Finally, celebrating accomplishments is also huge,  no matter how small. A lot of people are fighting an uphill battle and recognizing that resilience and celebrating them for it is hopefully supportive.

What programs/events would you see as being most useful for women in science here at Uvic? Having the guest speakers works really well! Bringing in people from within academia would be great, also encouraging people to talk about struggles. I think it would be really important as a next step to start hearing from more diverse voices,  shine some light on people on people who don’t often get the spotlight enough in science.

Learn to advocate for yourself, ask for what you want, and to navigate university systems or whatever system you’re in.

What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science? Find some great mentors, and go for it! Learn to advocate for yourself, and make sure you take care of yourself. Know what resources are available to you and what your rights are as student or employee, even if hopefully you’ll never have to utilize some of those resources. Make every effort to build community. Science is so much more fun, exciting, and manageable when you’re surrounded by a group of people who also care about science and you, and are as invested in seeing you succeed as you are.

Interview conducted by Lauren McMillan, Communication Committee Member, Summer 2017