UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Jen is currently an Environmental Project Manager at SGS AXYS, a company based in Sidney that analyzes organic contaminants for a variety of industries and governments around the world. She did her undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the University of Calgary, before moving to Victoria and completing her Master of Science here at UVic. Her position as a project manager allows her to merge her passion for science with her interest in working with others as a team.
What is your field of study and what stage of your education/career are you at? My background is in chemistry, I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Calgary and, more recently, my Master of Science at the University of Victoria. I am currently working as an Environmental Project Manager with SGS AXYS.
When did you first become excited about science? When I was little, my parents always encouraged me to be curious about the world around me; I’m sure I asked them a million questions! My Mom showed my brother and I experiments like the exploding volcano and the popcorn elevator, which helped to get me interested in science. I had some wonderful teachers too - I remember being so impressed with a unit on snakes and spiders back in grade four and both my chemistry and biology teachers in high school were excellent.
How did you get to the position you are in today? Was it a straightforward career trajectory? Nope, it definitely wasn’t straightforward! I worked my way through a lot of different roles starting out as a bench chemist and went back to university to pursue my Master of Science as a mature student along the way. It took a variety of experiences for me to recognise that I wanted to work closely with people and multi-faceted teams in a scientific setting and for this to be a significant part of my day-to-day work.
Describe your research focus. My current focus is on the analytical chemistry side of environmental assessment and monitoring of both legacy (e.g. Polychlorinated Biphenyls) and emerging (e.g. Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products) organic contaminants. As an Environmental Project Manager, I work with our clients to keep their sample analyses progressing smoothly and to facilitate understanding of the resulting data.
What do you enjoy about this field/your work? My favourite part of being an Environmental Project Manager is working directly with our clients and leading my team to bring out the best in everyone. Together we produce high quality, reliable data that our clients depend on and successfully apply in their research and decision making. The results we generate can directly affect what happens in our environment for many years to come.
What have been the obstacles for you during your career? Do you believe any of these were specific to being a female? It took time for me to build up the confidence to be able to deal effectively with spontaneous situations. The idea of a potential client calling me up out of the blue and asking questions I might not be able to answer would have made me very nervous five years ago. Now these calls are a daily occurrence and I’ve developed the skills and knowledge base to enjoy the discussions. I think women are not encouraged as strongly to be leaders when we’re younger, so we tend to learn these skills later on in our careers.
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 critical for encouraging anyone to do their best and to seek new opportunities. Seeing that someone you admire has been successful and believes that you can be too is a great motivator. It can be difficult to recognise our own strengths and a positive outside perspective can make all the difference. Absolutely, I’ve worked with so many diverse, fantastic people and the chance to see them in action within their respective areas of expertise has been a pleasure. Experience is so important in professional development and interacting with mentors is a great way to expand your skills and, equally importantly, to learn from your failures in a supportive atmosphere.
Are there aspects of leadership which you struggle with?Of course. Any time you push yourself beyond your comfort zone it’s a struggle but it’s also the best place to learn! I’ve never been a fan of conflict and I prefer consensus whenever possible but there are also circumstances when a firm and timely decision needs to be made to allow everyone to move forward. It gets easier with practice.
How do you balance your hectic work schedule with your life? I have a young daughter and life is really busy right now. The first while after returning to work was tough but now, nearly a year later, we’ve all settled into our routines and that makes everything easier. I do my best to keep rested and eat well – I think taking the time to look after yourself outside of work allows you to be at your best when you need to focus.
What has been most challenging about having a demanding career and a family? What would you like young scientists to know about this? Keeping everyone moving in the same direction! You really need to understand what’s most important to you to get through that transition. It’s impossible to achieve everything, so I hope young scientists at this point in their lives take the time to consider what the best fit is for themselves and their family. Regardless of the choices others have made in the same situation, at the end of the day it’s your values that you’ll need to live and be happy with.
Imposter syndrome is quite prevalent in female scientists. Is this something you’ve observed during your career? What do you think we can do to counter it? Yes, I would love to see more confidence in our scientists, particularly in younger women. I think everyone builds on their successes, so anything we can do to help make even small achievements possible for the people who are starting out is a great step forward.
What has been your greatest accomplishment in your career? Well, I’m not sure it’s happened yet! To date, I’d say this would be a split between completing my Master of Science and developing strong relationships with both up-and-coming and senior scientists in a number of leading organizations.
What are you still hoping to accomplish? Lots! I strongly believe that bringing my best each day builds a career I can look back on and be proud of. I’ve never restricted myself to a single goal, I progress further and am happier when I’m learning a variety of skills in different ways.
How do you contribute to supporting female scientists that are following in the same path as you?
I’m very approachable for anyone who is interested in what I do or curious about my field and I’m always happy to have a chat. Otherwise, I try to set a strong example for up and coming female scientists.
What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science?
I think science is a great place to focus your career and we need fresh points of view to keep moving forward. You’ll spend your time asking questions and working with some of the most curious and wonderful people around! Give it a try, take some courses and talk to the people you know to find out which area within the scientific community suits you best.