UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Karina Giesbrecht is a fifth year PhD candidate in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at UVic. Her work focuses on how diatoms influence the marine biogeochemical cycling of silicon in the Arctic. As a part of her research, Karina has done fieldwork all over the world, including cruising through the Northwest Passage.
What is your field of study and what stage of your education/career are you at? I am currently finishing up my PhD in Oceanography at UVic in Diana Varela’s research group.
When did you first become excited about science? When I was around 7 or 8, my parents got me the book “The Science Book for Girls (and other intelligent beings)” by Valarie Wyatt. It was full of experiments you could try at home and I loved trying all of them out. My favourite was the experiment to see the ‘handedness’ of your cat. The idea was to stick a treat in a jar and then observe which paw your cat used to try to get it out. My cat was left-pawed. While I loved that book, I think it was my Chemistry 11 class that really made me realize how much I loved science. It was the first time I could remember actually being excited to do my homework!
How did you get to the position you are in today? Was it a straightforward career trajectory? I suppose you could call it pretty straightforward, though it definitely didn’t feel like that on the way there! I didn’t start out knowing that one day I would do my PhD. University felt like the next logical step after high-school, and I went straight into undergrad from high-school. It was my supervisor from a co-op work term who encouraged me to pursue grad school. Once I returned from my work term, I switched into the Chemistry Honours program to get a taste of research, and I haven’t looked back since!
When it came time to start making decisions about grad school, I struggled a lot with trying to find a topic of research that I felt ‘meant’ something. I lamented about it to one of my long-time mentors (and good friend). She suggested I look into Oceanography, since it could give me the chance to apply my favourite part of Chemistry (analytical) to real world problems. And so, I did an MSc in Chemical Oceanography, which I started right after finishing my BSc.
Grad school was a very different beast from my undergrad, and I ended up taking a couple years off between my MSc and PhD. In fact, I had thought my MSc would be the end of my education. During my ‘gap years’, I worked in a few different positions as a technician and research assistant. I really enjoyed the work I did during that time, but it also made me realize my ideal job was one where I could have more control over the direction of my research. And any job like that definitely required a PhD. And so, back to school I went (though hopefully I’m only here for a few more months!).
Describe your research focus. My research focuses on diatoms! They are unicellular microscopic algae with cell walls made from silicon. I’m more specifically looking at how diatoms influence the marine biogeochemical cycling of silicon in the Arctic. I like to think about it as looking at how the biology affects the chemistry and vice-versa, with a little physics thrown in just for fun.
What do you enjoy about this field/your work? Oceanography is an inherently multidisciplinary field. You need to understand how the oceans move and flow to understand the patterns you see in the chemistry and biology, and understand how the physics, biology, and chemistry can affect each other. It’s like a giant puzzle where you get to apply a little bit of each discipline to try to answer the questions you’re asking. I really enjoy that part of it.
My research has also taken me all over the world, both for fieldwork and other research activities. Just as part of my PhD, I’ve had the chance to sail through the Northwest Passage, have our ship be stalked by a hungry polar bear when we were stopped in sea ice, and watch walruses feeding from ice floes in the Chukchi Sea. Last year, I spent nine weeks in Europe attending a conference in Spain, and then conducting sample analysis in Switzerland. It’s been a busy PhD, but I feel incredibly thankful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded.
What have been the obstacles for you during your career? Do you believe any on these were specific to being a female? I think most of my obstacles have revolved around my self-confidence, but I wouldn’t specifically attribute that to being female. I’ve had a lot of self-doubt over the years about my capabilities and whether I was cut out for science at all, but I’ve been lucky enough to have some really great mentors throughout my career that have helped me realize my potential.
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? I’ve had many strong mentors during my career, and somehow most all of them have been women! I didn’t purposefully set out to work with only women, but rather it was women who were doing the work I was most interested in. I think mentorship is extremely important. I would not be where I am today if not for the support and guidance of the many female scientists I’ve had the good fortune to work with along the way.
As I get further into my own career, I’ve also had the chance to be the mentor rather than the mentee. It’s been an amazing feeling to be on the other side of that relationship and I’ve found I get so much fulfillment from helping others. I think mentorship is definitely an important part of professional development. Science is carried on by those who follow after you, so I think good mentorship skills are extremely important to being a successful scientist.
How do you balance your hectic work schedule with your life? With great difficulty! I try to make sure I maintain interests that lie outside of my research and science in general. Earlier on in my research career, I let myself be sucked into an ‘all work and no play’ mentality, which was detrimental to both my physical and mental health. Having friends and hobbies that exist outside of the research ‘bubble’ keeps me sane, and to be quite honest – more productive! It’s definitely not an easy balance to strike though and fighting off the guilt of ‘never working enough’ can be very challenging at times.
What has been most challenging about having a demanding career and a family? What would you like young scientists to know about this? I think the decision of when to start a family has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve recently faced. My husband and I very much want children. What has been difficult is the ‘when’. Should we wait until after I finish my PhD? What if I start a postdoc and need to take leave part way through? Should we wait until I find a full-time position somewhere? Where will that be, and how long will that take? I’m 33 years old right now – how much time are we willing to wait to start a family? If we wait, how much trouble might we have with actually conceiving? These are all questions we’ve struggled with.
I can’t say there are easy answers to these questions, but I bring them up to hopefully make other female scientists aware of the issues she might face as she continues in her career. In the end, we decided to start trying as I approached the end of my degree and see what happened, as it’s not always an easy road to conception regardless of one’s age. In very happy news, I’m pregnant and due two months after my tentative thesis defense date! For me, the timing works out great, though I’m not sure whether having a newborn will be more or less tiring that finishing a PhD thesis…
Imposter syndrome (phenomenon) 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? I suffered from imposter syndrome throughout most of my MSc. My BSc was a straight Chemistry degree. I switched to Oceanography for my MSc. I went into my MSc knowing that the oceans had water and that was about it! It was a steep learning curve and I was very hard on myself when I didn’t understand something. I think my biggest issue with all of this was not talking to anyone about it, though I think that is part of imposter syndrome. You don’t want anyone to find out you don’t belong there!
One of the best things I think we can do to counter imposter syndrome is to raise awareness of it. When I came across the description of it around the start of my PhD, it was like a light went on. This is what I was always feeling! Other people feel it too? Once I realized I wasn’t alone, that went a long way to help me deal with the feelings when they cropped up.
What has been your greatest accomplishment in your career? I know I’m not done yet, but I have to say my PhD. The fact that I’m even here doing it is still amazing to me. As I said before, I suffered from a lot of self-doubt, especially earlier on during my BSc and even my MSc. If you would’ve told me fifteen years ago that I’d be where I am today I wouldn’t have believed you!
What are you still hoping to accomplish? Well, finishing my PhD would be great! After that, finding a career path that allows me to maintain some semblance of work-life balance would be ideal.
How do you contribute to supporting female scientists that are following in the same path as you? I try to be open and honest about my struggles and experiences with any young scientist I work with, male or female. Everyone has a different path they will follow, so I try to be supportive of that. My strategy is usually to give some perspective on how I got to where I am now in the hopes it might better inform decisions about their own future.
What programs/events would you see as being most useful for women in science here at UVic? I think what the Women in Science are doing at UVic is fantastic. I especially enjoy these interviews, as it’s interesting to read about all of the different female scientists here at UVic!
What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science? At the risk of sounding cheesy, I would say number one is to believe in yourself. Whatever aspects of science you’re interested in, whether it’s research, industry or otherwise, try them out as soon as you can. There are many opportunities available, but you’ll often have to go searching for them. Find people you enjoy working with and work you enjoy doing. Figuring out what you enjoy is half the battle.