Dr. Barbara Hawkins

UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Dr. Barbara Hawkins is the Chair of UVic’s Biology department and a professor and researcher for the Centre for Forest Biology within the department of Biology at UVic. As a tree physiologist with a background in forestry and silviculture, her work has examined how trees function and respond to the environment through studies on tree nutrition.

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What is your field of research? I think of myself as a tree physiologist. I came from a forestry background, but was always most interested in the forest regeneration side of things. I began my research career addressing applied questions - working on projects to improve tree survival and growth - and over time this grew into more academic interests. That led me to ecology and eco-physiology, studying interactions between trees and the environment.

When did you first become excited about science? I’ve always been interested in plants, an interest fostered by my mum who was very interested in native and garden plants and plant identification. My father was an engineer, so I was always exposed to logical thinking. I loved my high school science classes. My chemistry and biology teachers in Grades 11 and 12 were women and they were just amazing teachers, so I loved those sciences right from high school.

It is not just luck - it’s partly being prepared and keeping yourself open to opportunities. Try and give yourself as flexible an education as possible, so that if you see an opportunity, you’re able and ready to grab it.

Could you describe your career trajectory up to this point? I always knew I wanted to go to university. When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist because I love the ocean and intertidal organisms; however, I was told that if I wanted to get a job in marine biology I would have to get a PhD. I thought, well, I do NOT want to go to school for that long, so marine biology is not for me.

With encouragement from my parents, who were both very practical and recognized my love for biology, I applied to UBC with physiotherapy as my first choice and forestry as my second choice. I got into the forestry program and loved it from the beginning! After graduating, I went to work as an assistant silviculturalist for a now-defunct forestry company in northern BC. It was a great experience, but after a few years I began to think that maybe this wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

Reflecting on the enjoyable experience I had doing research for a summer at the Maritime Forest Research Centre after my third year, on which I based my Honours project, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. I secured a Commonwealth Scholarship and decided to go to New Zealand, partly because New Zealand had an amazing resource: an enormous area of well-managed radiata pine plantations with a really intensive silviculture program. In the end, I chose to work with an excellent supervisor on a project studying the physiology and genetics of the native conifers in New Zealand, the Podocarpaceae. This was a serendipitous opportunity for me, because at that point, there was little work on Podocarpaceae, so everything I did was new and different, and there was a lot of interest in my results. In New Zealand there is no coursework required for graduate studies and my project went really well, so I ended up getting my PhD in just a little over 3 years.

While in New Zealand, a friend passed me a job ad for a tree physiologist for the newly established Centre for Forest Biology at UVic. Through a long series of events I applied for that job and that’s how I ended up here! I think that the fact that I had a forestry degree and experience as a forester  - and perhaps because I’m a woman – might have checked off some boxes and helped me get the job.

And now I’m the first female Biology Chair - how did that happen?! Through so many twists and turns, I have been very lucky to have had all the opportunities that led me to where I am today! The message I take from this is that although I was incredibly lucky at all these different junctions, it is not just luck - it’s partly being prepared and keeping yourself open to opportunities. Try to give yourself as broad and flexible a background as possible, so that if you see an opportunity, you’re able and ready to grab it.

  Dr. Hawkins pictured on one of many trips into the field on BC’s west coast

Dr. Hawkins pictured on one of many trips into the field on BC’s west coast

What are you currently working on? One of the main elements of my research program is tree nutrition. Trees grow typically on very nutrient-poor soil, and yet they are often the dominant vegetation, and can grow vigorously for hundreds of years, so I’ve always been interested in how they do this. One of the things I am most interested in is genotype-environment interactions. Are there families or groups of trees that are more nutrient-use efficient than others, or are they better able to take up nutrients? For quite a few years I worked on nutrient uptake and allocation within the plant, enquiring as to whether different species or different families are superior to others. But every time I gave a seminar, someone would bring up how trees in the field grow in association with mycorrhizal fungi. I decided I could no longer study roots alone, and what I really needed to be looking into was mycorrhizae. I now am exploring the interactions of tree species, mycorrhizal species and soil properties with the help of an enthusiastic collaborator, Dr. Marty Kranabetter at the BC Ministry of Forests.

I love designing experiments! It’s so much fun thinking about a question and then how to try and answer it.

Another research focus is tree cold-hardiness. Over the years I’ve done a lot of work with scientists in the BC Ministry of Forests tree improvement program to ask questions such as: Why are some varieties of trees faster growing? Are they starting growth earlier in the spring? How does that affect their hardiness to late frost? Are they pushing the growing season into the fall? How does that affect fall cold-hardiness? I’m still doing some of that, and will be co-supervising a Masters student with Dr. John Russell starting in September exploring cold-hardiness development in cedar.

What part of your work do you enjoy the most? Well, I love designing experiments! It’s so much fun thinking about a question and then how to try and answer it, so it’s always fun and exciting in the design stage. Then there’s the actual execution part, which can be a bit discouraging because it never works out quite the way you planned. But then you get the data, and I love to play with numbers and to try to pull out patterns, and weave it all into a good, fact-bound story. I enjoy all those elements of experimental design and analysis.

I also love being in the field, but I don’t think I’d be very good at molecular work. I did some early work of this type with isozyme analysis in NZ and I found it very frustrating. I like to be able to see what I’m working on and see where things go wrong - I’m definitely a bucket chemist!

The other part of my work that I really enjoy is teaching. I like the challenge of gathering and synthesizing information and presenting it in a way that is stimulating and thought-provoking. I find the interaction with students who are excited about their learning to be very inspiring.

What are some obstacles that you’ve encountered in your career? Have you found any of these to be specific to being a woman working in the STEM fields?

I don’t remember any particular obstacles, at least not that I really recognized. Certainly, when I was working in forestry there weren’t many other women working out in the field, but most people were respectful. I did have one negative experience while working in a very remote logging camp, but even then, the majority of my male coworkers were looking out for me.

In academics, everyone in the department has always been supportive. The main obstacle I can think of, having done my graduate work outside Canada, is that I didn’t have a professional network. When I first went to plant biology meetings, everyone else seemed to know each other from studying together or mentoring each other, but I didn’t have the same network of connections to draw from. I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of an “Old Boys network”, it’s just a network, and I didn’t have that network.

Over time I did form those connections. I discovered the Symposium on the Physiology of Roots of Woody Plants in the late 90s, and it was the most wonderful thing. I had gone to all sorts of plant biology meetings where I didn’t know anybody, and felt like a fish out of water, but then I went to this woody roots meeting and everybody was doing what I was doing and it was so exciting! That was a wonderful moment and I made lots of connections through that group. I found a home that affirmed for me that what I’m doing is interesting, and other people think so too!

I like to be able to see what I’m working on and see where things go wrong - I’m definitely a bucket chemist!

Imposter syndrome (phenomenon) is quite prevalent in female scientists. Is this something you’ve observed or experienced during your career? Oh yes. During my first three or four years here I was miserable, because I didn’t think I could do it. I hadn’t had a postdoc position, and I felt like I’d just been dropped in the deep end. When I arrived in my lab it seemed like a total disaster. It was being renovated, I didn’t know anybody, and I was just handed my start-up money and told to set to it! I didn’t know what questions were important to ask or even how to order any supplies, and it was a very, very steep learning curve. I was fortunate to be in the newly created Centre for Forest Biology because my colleagues (Patrick von Aderkas and Nigel Livingston) were at the same career stage and were very supportive. The first couple of years were especially difficult when I didn’t get an NSERC grant. I was in a Biology department and I felt like a forester, and it seemed like people didn’t appreciate forestry as much as “pure” science, so it was tough. But once I got my NSERC grant, I felt like I do have good ideas and I can do this.

After 4 or 5 years here, there was a meeting on campus for women on faculty and someone started talking about this feeling that tells us, “you don’t belong here, you shouldn’t be here, and one of these days somebody is going to find out that you are faking it” and I thought, that’s exactly how I feel! It was an amazing revelation that other people were feeling that way. So yes, I definitely felt that way at the beginning [of my career], but fortunately I don’t feel that way anymore. I know that some of my male colleagues feel the same thing, so it’s not something only women experience.

Can you describe your experience balancing a hectic work schedule with a personal life and raising a family? What advice on this could you offer to young scientists? It is challenging, but I’ve been lucky to have a very supportive spouse. It is a pretty demanding career, so we started our family late and chose to have only one child, partly because it’s so busy - I wanted to get tenure and take my study leave, and was involved in a project in Thailand where we were doing lots of traveling. So, you do make choices, but you can certainly manage it. And there are definitely advantages - you maybe have less energy if you start your family late, and maybe don’t have as many kids (which isn’t a bad thing for the world), but then you have more money! So there are pluses and minuses for everything.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment? I think my greatest accomplishment was spearheading the CFI proposal to build the Bev Glover Greenhouse Facility. Prior to building the facility, we had two old greenhouses on the far side of campus with very poor environmental control. I wrote the proposal and created the initial design for the BGGF, and it has been such a wonderful facility for the Centre for Forest Biology and has allowed us to do all sorts of great research.

In addition to research, I also love teaching and am always very happy to run into students years later who tell me how much they enjoyed my courses and how I influenced their careers positively in one way or another - that’s very rewarding.

Is there anything that you’re still hoping to accomplish? One thing I would dearly love to accomplish as Chair would be to find funding to renovate the UVic Aquatics Facility. The Aquatics Facility could be a world-class teaching and research facility and play an important role in outreach. What better place to build such a facility than UVic, with our proximity to the ocean and our strengths in marine biology?

Do you have any advice for other women starting careers in STEM fields? I would recommend that if you’re pursuing a career in science or research, something that’s really important is that you find it fascinating. Don’t do it because it seems like a good career. You want to do it because you really love it and can’t wait to ask more questions. Pursue your interests, take as many opportunities as you can, and don’t care too much about what other people say about who you are or what you’re doing!

What programs/events for young women entering STEM fields do you think would be useful? I feel awkward about things that are exclusive; I think that programming around building self-esteem and confidence would be useful to anyone, but I think women in particular struggle with self-esteem and confidence issues. Something like that could be useful to women in particular.

For undergrads in their 4th year, a practical workshop or program about where and how to apply for scholarships for further studies would be very useful, because there are so many opportunities now, and I really feel that students don’t have enough information - and it’s really hard for them to figure out themselves. Workshops specific to each field of study with grad advisors to come and speak about what different scholarships and programs exist at different schools around the country and the world could really help make the most of the opportunities that are available.

Karen Lithgow