Dr. Rana El-Sabaawi
UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Dr. Rana El-Sabaawi is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at UVic. Her work focuses on the effects of nutrition on ecosystem processes and how nutrition changes over the course of evolution. She uses applied biological stoichiometry and model organisms to look at the effects of nutritional constraints and phenotype distributions.
What is your field of study and what stage of your education/career are you at? I am an ecologist, and I just became an associate professor at the University of Victoria. I started in July 2012.
When did you first become excited about science? I first became excited about science when I was a kid. Both of my parents are scientists, and they have always encouraged me to pursue science. My maternal grandfather was trained in natural sciences, and we were very close. He gave me books to read and saved me interesting magazine and newspaper articles about science. I have always loved biology, but I fell in love with physics, chemistry, and calculus because I had great teachers. I was tremendously lucky to be surrounded by people who loved science, and who passed on their love to me.
How did you get to the position you are in today? Was it a straightforward career trajectory? My career trajectory was traditional in the sense that I followed all of the academic steps leading from graduate school to my current job, but beyond that, very little planning was involved. I have mostly followed my passion, going from one thing to the next, and applied for opportunities as they came up. I worked in many different areas including cell biology, oceanography, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better or more strategic to have a focused plan, but I love where I am.
Describe your research focus. I am a food web ecologist. I love thinking about the role of nutrition in nature, and how changes in the dietary demand of an animal can influence not just its own life, but the lives of other animals and even the physical and chemical structure of its environments. My work combines several different perspectives including ecology, nutrition, evolutionary biology, and biogeochemistry.
What do you enjoy about this field/your work? I enjoy thinking about problems from different perspectives, and I enjoy the ability to work across disciplines. I also love fieldwork – my students and I do field work in many interesting places in British Columbia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. We get to work with amazing scientists from many different countries.
What have been the obstacles for you during your career? Do you believe any on these were specific to being a female? Logistical obstacles come up when you’re doing exciting research. You actually learn a lot by solving them and getting around them, so I consider them important learning experiences. The logistical obstacles I have faced in the field have made me a better scientist. However, there are some obstacles that are specific to being female or to being a member of a minority group. For example, harassment, sexism, and safety are a major concern for women in remote field sites. I am hopeful that situations are improving because of increasing awareness and reporting, but I feel that we still have a long way to go.
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 think mentorship is absolutely crucial, and can make or break an academic career. I had fantastic mentors, but very few female mentors. This is why I consider mentorship to be my top professional priority.
How do you balance your hectic work schedule with your life? Mostly by adhering to a strict work schedule. I don’t work on the weekend unless it is an emergency or I am in the field, and I shut down my computer in the evening so that I can completely disconnect. I have lots of non-science interests and hobbies that keep me balanced.
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 have struggled with imposter syndrome ever since I was an undergraduate student. I think it happens to a lot of people, especially scientists who are detail-oriented and trained to question everything. I don’t have a magic solution, but over time I have learned some strategies that have helped me, mostly by developing awareness and mindfulness. First, I recognize imposter syndrome for what it is – an elaborate story that is going on in my brain that has no base in reality, but that feels very real. When I hear this story, I name it for what it is…. “oh here’s my imposter syndrome again!”. This is where working on mindfulness and awareness have been tremendously useful. Imposter syndrome feels so urgent and real because it isolates you, and convinces you that no one knows what you’re going through. So my other strategy is to talk about it with people I trust and love. Once you realize that is a shared experience, that many people you love or admire felt imposter syndrome at some point, it loses its power. There are other strategies out there, but these are the two that work for me.
How do you contribute to supporting female scientists that are following in the same path as you? I contribute to supporting female scientists following the same path as me in various ways: by practicing what I preach about work life balance, by committing to increasing diversity and representation in academia, by sitting on as many graduate student committees as I can, by talking openly and honestly about my experiences, and by constantly listening to and learning from other women.
What programs/events would you see as being most useful for women in science here at uvic?I loved the UVic STEM symposium I attended last year! I think it is a great forum, and I look forward to seeing how it continues and evolves in the future. There are many amazing STEM women mentors here at UVic, but the community is relatively small. Continuing to hire and support diversity in STEM is critical for increasing the accessibility to diverse mentorship for future generations of students.
What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science? Diversify your experience in STEM as much as possible. There are many ways at UVic to do this: the co-op program, work-study, directed studies courses, and honours theses. Many labs hire students in the summer to work on research projects. Try working in different labs because you never know what you’ll fall in love with. Don’t restrict yourself based on a self-limiting belief. I have met a lot of students in biology who avoid coding and theoretical work because they believe they are “not good at math”, but most of us simply didn’t have access to good math teachers, or have internalized a lot of negative messages from society about it. Establish a support network among peers, and look for good mentors. Before you join a lab for a graduate program or post doc, look into the mentorship style of the advisor, and if you can, interview their past students.
Interview by Lauren McMillan