Marie Vance

UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Marie Vance is a Ph.D. student in the Centre for Forest Biology, Department of Biology at UVic and a Forester in Training. Her work focuses on studying the population genomics of subalpine Larch while simultaneously working as a Forester in Training. In addition to her research, Marie has worked as a grad rep to contribute to the Sexualized Violence Policy in implementing effective strategies to protect students.

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Can you walk me through your academic career thus far? I grew up loving nature and the outdoors but I didn’t take a Biology course until I arrived at UVic. I came to UVic to do a degree in Earth and Ocean Sciences but, after taking two mandatory Biology courses (BIOL150A/B), I was hooked!

I became involved in research during my third year, as an international exchange student at Mahidol University International College in Thailand, where I completed a Directed Studies. In my fourth year, I did an Honours research project with Dr. Patrick von Aderkas, looking at the acquisition of cold tolerance in somatic embryos of interior spruce. Patrick encouraged me to apply for an NSERC USRA, which gave me the opportunity to work for Dr. Brad Anholt at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. I then travelled to the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to do an MSc in Plant Ecology and Evolution.

In January 2013 I started a Ph.D. at UVic with Dr. von Aderkas, studying the population genomics of subalpine larch, a long-lived deciduous conifer that only grows at timberline in the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains. During my Ph.D., I registered as a Forester in Training with the Association of BC Forest Professionals, and I completed a Co-op with the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD). Last summer, I was hired by FLNRORD, so I’m now working full-time as a Research Scientist and Tree Breeder in Vernon, BC, while I finish my Ph.D.

  A subalpine larch cone observed in Marie's field work.

A subalpine larch cone observed in Marie's field work.

I enjoy trying to answer questions that don’t have answers and I find it satisfying to overcome the practical challenges associated with research.

By the end of your undergrad, you already had 3 research experiences (directed studies, honours, NSERC USRA). Was research something you always knew you wanted to do? What draws you to it? I didn’t grow up knowing that “researcher” was a possible career option. I started working when I was 14 and I’d already had a number of different jobs before I discovered research, so I knew that it was a good fit for me. I enjoy trying to answer questions that don’t have answers and I find it satisfying to overcome the practical challenges associated with research. And of course, I love spending my days studying nature, especially trees.

Tell me about your first research experience in Thailand. Did being abroad for this affect your research? I did the third year of my undergrad in Thailand. I wasn’t planning to do a Directed Studies but Mahidol had a limited number of English-language Biology courses and it was an exciting opportunity. My supervisor was growing coral on a floating nursery structure that he had set up on a small island near the Cambodian border. The Islanders wanted to restore a coral reef that had been degraded by sedimentation. So for one semester, we would travel to the island every two weeks and I would collect settlement tiles off the nursery in order to identify the larvae that had settled there (hoping to see coral). I definitely could not have had that particular research experience in Canada! Overall, studying abroad gave me a profound appreciation for the international nature of science.

...studying abroad gave me a profound appreciation for the international nature of science.

What are some conflicts you’ve faced while in grad school and how did you overcome them? I had a difficult MSc experience. I originally travelled to Switzerland to do a Ph.D. but eventually switched to a MSc in order to get out early. My supervisor was brand new, with her first big grant, and I’m sure she was under a lot of pressure to succeed. It’s also important to realize that academics rarely have any management training and may not be particularly good at managing people. Ultimately, it ended up being a toxic work environment characterized by poor communication, mercurial micromanagement and a great deal of negativity.

At first I was eager to please and I thought things would improve if I just pushed myself harder; however, I only succeeded in becoming exhausted and depressed. It was still difficult to leave. All of my grad-student friends advised me to tough it out. But I knew that I couldn’t stay several more years. I was living far away from my friends and family, and I wasn’t sure I could do counselling in French, even if I could access it through Switzerland’s private healthcare system. I’m not sure that staying to finish a MSc was a good idea – I stayed another eight months with the same supervisor, finishing up my experiments while taking courses (required for the MSc) and working part-time as a bartender (MSc students weren’t paid and Switzerland was expensive), and then I spent another six months in Canada writing up my thesis while working full-time as a research technician.

Now I know that it is crucial for prospective grad students to ask lots of questions and think carefully before joining any research lab.

At the end, I was completely burnt out. Fortunately, I had some money saved and I was able to take time off to rest and recover. Looking back, I did learn a lot from my MSc - about myself, science, work environments, management styles, interpersonal relationships, professionalism, mental health, etc. But it was rough. I wasn’t the only student to have problems in that lab, and I know that most universities can have a problematic lab environment. Now I know that it is crucial for prospective grad students to ask lots of questions and think carefully before joining any research lab.

How did your relationships with your mentors affect your professional development? I’ve had some amazing mentors over the years. During my undergrad, they encouraged and inspired me. During my MSc, they supported me when I needed it the most. Throughout my Ph.D., my co-supervisors, Dr. Patrick von Aderkas and Dr. Barbara Hawkins, have given me the freedom to pursue both my research and a career in forestry. For example, I was the first graduate student in UVic Biology to complete a Co-op term and it was Barbara who sponsored me to become a Forester in Training. I’ve also been lucky to find mentors outside of academia at the FLNRORD Forest Improvement and Research Management Branch (FIRM), who provided me with invaluable training opportunities and career advice.

  Marie sampling subalpine larch foliage somewhere in the Whitefish Range.

Marie sampling subalpine larch foliage somewhere in the Whitefish Range.

Tell me about being involved with the GSS Student Affairs Committee. In your first year, you aided in creating a Graduate Supervision Policy, and in your second year a Sexualized Violence Policy. Tell me about those and what inspired you to get involved in this way? Grad reps at the GSS must serve on committees and I chose the Student Affairs Committee because they were planning to consult with the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) on the Graduate Supervision Policy. After my MSc experience, I felt I had something to contribute to that discussion. I ended up sitting as the grad rep on the FGS working group and I’m proud that the final document covers a lot more ground than the original. For example, there’s now language stating that it’s a conflict of interest for supervisors to sleep with their graduate students! Of course, the Sexualized Violence Policy goes even further, stating that there cannot be consent where one person abuses a position of trust, power or authority over another person. I think it’s great that we’re finally starting to address these issues.

Still, the Graduate Supervision Policy has some major weaknesses. First, it’s a guidance document, not an actual University policy

Still, the Graduate Supervision Policy has some major weaknesses. First, it’s a guidance document, not an actual University policy, which means that academic units, grad advisors, supervisors and supervisory committees can break the “policy” without facing serious consequences. Second, FGS cannot prevent an abusive supervisor from taking on new, naïve graduate students - they can only require that students be co-supervised. Third, while there is now language that specifically references the UVic Resource Centre for Students with a Disability (RCSD)*, it’s not clear how graduate students with certain disabilities (e.g. anxiety or depression) can be accommodated within their programs without having to take an unpaid leave of absence. Finally, the whole “policy” is currently being grieved by the Faculty Union. All of this leaves students vulnerable.

*Note the RCSD has since been renamed the Center for Accessible Learning (CAL).

Why is a Sexualized Violence Policy necessary and what is special about having a policy for grad students? I think having a standalone sexualized violence policy clarifies the policy and the procedures around reporting, accessing support services and pursuing a formal complaint. UVic used to rely on four separate policies, which made the process difficult to navigate.

There’s no graduate-specific policy but the SVP working group did consult with the GSS Executive and the GSS Student Affairs Committee, which is how I got involved. I think the main point that came out of those consultations was that graduate students often have a complex relationship with the institution: we’re students and employees, often simultaneously; some of us are in course-based programs while others are in research-based programs; we study and work on-campus and off-campus, locally and internationally; and we interact with many different groups of people through our programs (students, faculty, staff and the public).

It’s important for the University to recognize that vulnerability and support graduate students who do come forward.

And then, of course, there’s the supervisory relationship. Many grad students work closely with supervisors or co-supervisors and this often involves spending a great deal of time together in private (e.g. in laboratories, offices, at field sites, at conference venues, etc.), creating spaces where sexualized violence can occur. A study on sexualized violence in the field found that 64% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment (n = 666), 20% had experienced sexual assault, and that sexualized violence was disproportionately targeted at trainees such as graduate students (Clancy et al. 2014). It’s difficult for graduate students to report their supervisors because a) they can’t do so anonymously and b) the supervisor relationship is a power relationship. Graduate students are often financially dependent on their supervisors (e.g. for research funding, stipend funding, research assistantships, teaching assistantships and scholarships) and depend on supervisors for academic program facilitation, mentorship, permission to publish, access to professional networks and career references. International students may believe they’re dependent on their supervisors for their student visas. These factors make graduate students vulnerable within the supervisory relationship. It’s important for the University to recognize that vulnerability and support graduate students who do come forward.

Pay equality is a huge issue. Studies show that pay tends to drop as more women enter a field, so sexism and implicit bias needs to be challenged.

What other areas do you think women can be making movements to achieve equality in the workplace? Pay equality is a huge issue. Studies show that pay tends to drop as more women enter a field, so sexism and implicit bias needs to be challenged. Women should also be encouraged to pursue careers in high-paying technical fields like engineering and computing.

I also think it’s important to have representation at all levels of decision-making. For me personally, I’m inspired by people like Barbara Hawkins, the current Chair of UVic Biology, and Diane Nicholls, the current Chief Forester of British Columbia.

Finally, I think having strong social programs can help women succeed at work. Maternity leave should be extended to part-time, low-paid workers (who are disproportionately women). Parental leave programs should be expanded so that all parents can contribute to domestic/family life. And daycare should be affordable so that parents can afford to return to work.

Where did you see yourself at when you were 20 and how does it compare to where you are now? At twenty I had no idea what I wanted to do, except that I thought Biology was really cool. Now I’m part of a small group that’s responsible for managing British Columbia’s forest genetic resources (genetic conservation, climate-based seed transfer, tree improvement through traditional breeding) and I love it. I get to do applied research and my work contributes directly to the landscape-level management of BC’s forests. For me, it’s the dream job.

 Now I know that it is crucial for prospective grad students to ask lots of questions and think carefully before joining any research lab.

Now I know that it is crucial for prospective grad students to ask lots of questions and think carefully before joining any research lab.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment/ something your very proud of thus far? I’m very proud of my Ph.D. research. I study patterns of genetic variation in subalpine larch, a conifer species that may end up being one of the big climate change losers. This species already grow on mountaintops so it can’t migrate any further upward in elevation in order to escape warming. It’s also unlikely that it will adapt to its rapidly changing environment because it has a long generation time (average 500 years) and doesn’t reach sexual maturity until it’s 100 – 200 years old. My research aims to characterize the amount of genetic diversity in the species, the amount of genetic connectedness between populations, and identify genetically unique populations and regions that should be targeted for future management and conservation.

The whole project has been very empowering. I spent over two months hiking in the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains, collecting tissue samples from timberline populations of subalpine larch. I figured out how to extract and standardize genomic DNA from the tissue I had collected. And then I figured out how to communicate with a supercomputer so that I could process all of my DNA sequence data - over 3 billion DNA sequences, or 450 billion individual nucleotides. Sometimes the process has been frustrating but it’s also given me a lot of confidence in my ability to solve problems and answer difficult questions.

What do you still hope to accomplish in your lifetime? It’s an interesting time to be starting a career in forestry. I would like to spend my career ensuring that BC’s forests are healthy and productive so that they can be managed for multiple values* despite the many challenges imposed by climate change. I would also like to be part of reconciliation in our province. I’m hopeful that we are on the brink of something new – that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) will actually be adopted, as promised in the NDP-Green Confidence and Supply Agreement, and implemented.

*"Managing for multiple values" means that a forest is managed for more than just timber - also for wildlife habitat, recreation, carbon capture, etc.

  Marie with a krummholz subalpine larch at 3,000 m on Trapper Peak, Montana.

Marie with a krummholz subalpine larch at 3,000 m on Trapper Peak, Montana.

Karen Lithgow