Dr. Katherine Elvira
UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Dr. Katherine Elvira is a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Victoria. Her research focuses on designing and fabricating lab-on-a-chip devices to create artificial cells for drug discovery.
What is your field of study and what stage of your education/career are you at? My field of study is ‘microfluidics’ (or lab-on-a-chip) devices for drug discovery and healthcare. I am a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair and Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Victoria.
When did you first become excited about science? I can’t remember a specific instance where I knew I wanted to work in science, but I have always wanted to make decisions based on objective observations and logic, which is the basis of the scientific method!
How did you get to the position you are in today? Was it a straightforward career trajectory? I think that if you look at my CV it seems like my career trajectory was straightforward. I did a combined undergraduate and Master’s degree in 4 years (common in the UK), a PhD in 4 years (also common in the UK), was a postdoc and senior scientist for 4 years and was offered this position at UVic, all by the time I turned 30. I am also very privileged to have studied and worked at some of the most famous universities in the world during my career. However, the reality is that it was very hard to find a good faculty position. I feel that I could just as easily not have gotten one, not because I can’t do the job, but because you need a lot of support and a lot of luck to make it as an academic. This is not something that can be taken for granted as a woman working in science, even if you have a fancy CV.
Describe your research focus. My research group is currently focused on designing and fabricating lab-on-a-chip devices to create artificial cells for drug discovery. We create very simple cell membranes (lipid bilayers) that allow us to study and quantify the transport of drug molecules into the cell. In the future, we will also be making microfluidic devices for hospital-based patient analytics.
What do you enjoy about this field/your work? I love that being an academic involves so many different skills: I teach undergraduates, I come up with research ideas and write grants (although I don’t enjoy writing grants that much), I mentor graduate students, I lead a team of researchers, and I network and meet incredibly interesting people. I also love the fact that I have the freedom to make choices regarding what I want to spend my time and funding doing. This is the first time in my career that I have had this much freedom! My research field is multidisciplinary, it sits at the interface of chemistry, biology and engineering. I really enjoy using ideas from many different fields to solve problems, and not being confined by the expectations of one research field. I also enjoy the fact that, as a Professor, I have more influence to change things in science (even if it shouldn’t be this way). I am really excited to be part of the newly formed Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee in the Department of Chemistry (Chem EqDI). Our aim is to ensure that working and studying in our Department is a positive and inclusive experience by tackling problems associated with harassment and discrimination.
What have been the obstacles for you during your career? Do you believe any on these were specific to being a female? It saddens me to say this, but the one and only obstacle in my career so far has been that I am a woman working in science. Academia is very hierarchical, very male-dominated, and there are lots of potential pitfalls on the path to becoming a professor. There is also very little accountability in academia. This means that, to a great extent, success depends on your relationship with your advisor, and your advisor has all the power in this relationship. They choose who to send to conferences, who to introduce you to, whether to mentor you properly or at all, who to give lab resources to etc. At my last job, I was the subject of extremely demeaning and relentless sexual harassment and bullying. The university did not deal with it, and neither did my advisor. I was left stranded and had no support when looking for faculty positions. Thankfully, I found another mentor to help me through the process.
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? Good mentors have a huge effect on your career. I have only had mentors in the last few years, and they have supported me in ways that I couldn’t imagine before I had a mentor! In my opinion, the best mentor-mentee relationships develop naturally based on a mutual desire to help each other. The problem with this is that you often “click” with people that are more similar to you, which means that in a non-diverse environment, minorities find it very hard to find mentors. It does happen though. Go out and talk to people as much as you can, ask questions to lots of different people, and eventually you will find a mentor. And, of course, don’t forget to pay it forward by being a great mentee and mentor yourself.
How do you balance your hectic work schedule with your life? Work-life balance is not something that comes naturally to me, but it is extremely important. On our first day as undergraduate students at Imperial College London, the professor in charge of pastoral care told us that we would have to work very hard throughout our degree, but if we didn’t also play hard and enjoy life we would not survive. He was completely right. Having a full life outside of work, and clear boundaries between my work and the rest of my life (e.g. very rarely checking emails outside of working hours) motivates me to be super efficient and not waste time.
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 still have impostor syndrome sometimes! It’s hard to be confident when working as a minority in science because it’s competitive, we are always being questioned about our research and we are taught to question ourselves. Mentors can help you balance your biased perspective of yourself. I also think it is good to be as critical of others as you are of yourself. This should not lead you to regard others with disdain, but may help you to realise that we all have strengths and weaknesses. I think that our lack of objectivity regarding scientists as human beings with failings, and the near-celebrity status that some scientists attain, is a big problem in science that does not help, among other things, impostor syndrome.
What has been your greatest accomplishment in your career? Frankly, sticking with academia long enough to get this job! I was so close to giving up due to bullying and sexual harassment.
How do you contribute to supporting female scientists that are following in the same path as you? I try to be a good mentor and help them find ways to achieve the career they want. I am very open about my career, including all the hard bits. I hope that talking about my experiences as a woman in science is not off-putting, but rather helps younger female scientists know that they are not alone. Hearing other people’s stories can hopefully help mitigate the humiliation and isolation that accompanies these incidents.
In general, what types of skills do you see females lacking in research? Although I find that impostor syndrome is more prevalent in female researchers, this does not denote a lack of research skills, just a lack of confidence in themselves. I think it is even more impressive when female researchers succeed because they have had to fight so hard to do so. Because of this, female scientists tend to have a very interesting and unique skill set.
What programs/events would you see as being most useful for women in science here at UVic? I find the panel discussions that UVic WiS has organised really informative. The audience gets to ask lots of questions, and so it turns into a thought-provoking and inspiring discussion between the audience and the panelists. I also think that fun events which allow women to find friends and feel less isolated are crucial because they can create a support network when life gets hard.
What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science?Go for it! Don’t be scared to do whatever makes you happy. There used to be a very specific way to be a scientist, but the world is changing and now more than ever we do not have to try and fit in. And it is never too early to ask lots of questions so you know what you should be doing to boost your CV.