UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Madelynn Slade is a non-status member of the Michel Cree Band and has a degree in Child and Youth Care (CYC) from the University of Victoria and is a current biology undergraduate student at UVic. Madelynn is an Indigenous youth rights advocate and has worked with Actua Canada to engage Indigenous youth with STEM fields. Madelynn also helped found ISSS (Indigenous Student STEM Society) a new club and support network for Indigenous scientists.
Can you introduce yourself please? My name is Madelynn Slade. I am a non-status member of the Michel Cree Band. I was raised on Treaty 6 territory in Alberta and have been living in Victoria on the Lekwungen speaking people’s lands since September 2009.
I have a degree in Child and Youth Care (CYC) from the University of Victoria and I am a current biology undergraduate student, also at UVic.
Can you take me through what you did you get where you are today? Many, many different things. I have been: a social worker, a behaviour interventionist, an international Indigenous youth rights advocate, a logistics coordinator for large scale events, a nanny, a science outreach instructor, I could go on-and-on. I enjoy discovering new opportunities and exploring them with all that I am. Everything I have done has guided me back to doing more school and inspired me to apply to medical school as I love aspects of working with people and the rather amazing scientific world around us.
Where did you see yourself going when you were beginning your post-secondary education and where does that line up with where you are now? I think I wanted to be a neurosurgeon or a marine biologist when I first started university at UVic in 2009. While I am still fascinated with neural processes and all sea life, I don’t see myself in those careers. I think I just thought they were cool because of Grey’s Anatomy and the Discovery Chanel.
Now, I am a CYC graduate, bumbling biology undergrad, hopeful medical school applicant and I do a lot of Indigenous rights advocacy, focusing on children in the child welfare system. It is always interesting to think of where you’ll end up, plan it out and end up with life gives you at the end of it anyway.
Do you have a hard time dividing your personal and career life? No. And yes. I try to find jobs that I both excel at and want to do all the time. My last position was with Actua Canada, I travelled non-stop for months at a time and delivered science programming to some of the most remote communities in Canada. It was work, it was life and it was incredible to have the two inextricably connected.
What do you still hope to achieve in your career? Discover something new, create real meaningful change wherever I go, earn that M.D., return to work in Nunavut, maybe find a new passion, master some kind of musical instrument and maybe get a Ph.D. to top it all off. We will see what actually happens!
Tell me about your work with Actua. I started working with Actua in May of this year (2017). I was hired to do both outreach workshops and summer camps in Nunavut. It was an incredible experience. I got to see a polar bear, explore a few icebergs, meet with community and elders in 12 different communities and to top it all off, I engaged with Inuit youth aged 5-13 with fun and engaging science activities ranging from robotics, engineering, dentistry, mining, nursing and many more.
What was the response from the children you taught like? The kids loved the programs! They were so engaged and awed by the cool tech we brought up (cubelets and ozobots) and the fantastic experiments we ran (you can never go wrong with elephant toothpaste). My favourite part was when the kids would ask how they could do what I did. That’s how I knew they thought it was fun and were going to be the next generation of radical scientists.
What is an obstacle you have faced in your education/career? How did you overcome it? Finding funding and staying connected to community have been my greatest challenges as a student. The First People’s House at UVic has been instrumental in my success in these areas, always willing to help me find funding and always ready with cultural and emotional supports.
Career wise it has been finding something that keeps me entertained and passionate for longer than 6 months. I have a great love of learning and thinking about things in new ways, one day I hope to find a career that can evolve in that way with me!
What is your proudest STEM contribution? Teaching youth in Nunavut that their traditional knowledge around sea ice formation and hunting was a form of science and seeing their faces light up at the idea that not only could they be scientists, they already were.
What is your proudest non-STEM contribution? Presenting to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, Switzerland and to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in New York, NY about the discriminatory funding and treatment of Indigenous children in child welfare, education and healthcare. The continuation of this work is one of my life goals and greatest achievements to date.
Can you tell me about ISSS? After I began my science journey in 2009, dropped out, and then started again in 2016, I realized that an Indigenous Science club/support system did not exist. After discussing this with a few Indigenous science students we have decided to make one: ISSS (Indigenous Student STEM Society). Starting in January 2018, we will be hosting get togethers, talks from senior science students and professionals, and holding support groups for every Indigenous student in STEM. We are also creating an Indigenous Medical Student Association, in direct response to the need for guidance, financial aid and support through the medical school applications and admissions process. I am very excited to bring together brilliant and aspiring students in the new year!
What programs/events would you see as being most useful for first peoples in science here at UVic? I think that ISSS will go a long way in helping Indigenous students engage with STEM at UVIC. As well, I would love to see more engagement specifically with Indigenous students on-campus through events at the First People’s House. To do so effectively, faculties and professionals in the STEM fields on campus need to begin engaging in a way that fully recognizes the great achievements and contributions Indigenous people made and continue to make in the STEM fields. Seeing traditional and scientific knowledge as separate, but equal forms of knowledge will go a long way in engaging students with Indigenous backgrounds.
What difficulties are unique to indigenous women in STEM? Invisibility in STEM fields, lack of funding, inability to see ourselves in scientific roles, as we do not have as many visible role models to look up to, systemic and overt racism. Each of these difficulties can be addressed if we get more Indigenous women into the STEM fields and fully support their success from the ground up.
Is there anything we can do to encourage and support first nations women in science? Make science accessible! Bring science to Indigenous communities, directly, openly and enthusiastically engage Indigenous women and girls. Let them know that they are needed, valued and capable in any STEM field they may choose. Support goes a long way!
Words of advice to future first nations women in STEM? Be brave and try it. That first 500-person biology class is overwhelming, you may well be the only Indigenous person in the class, but as you take more classes, meet more people and have the opportunity to speak with your professors, STEM will open up a new fascinating world for you to explore and share with your nation and community. Your bravery will lead to more Indigenous leaders in important STEM roles helping guide what the future of science can be.
What’s next for you? My next big adventure is as a participant of the United State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. The focus of this year’s program is women in STEM and I am incredibly excited to be one of 50 international women (and the only representative from Canada) attending this year. We will be exploring some of the top science facilities in the US and discussing different tactics that each of the countries is developing and using to engage and retain women in the STEM fields. I am honoured to attend and I look forward to sharing what I have learned once I return with UVic and the greater community.