Dr. Heather Buckley

Dr. Heather Buckley is an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering and an Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at the University of Victoria. Her interdisciplinary research team (which is recruiting chemistry and engineering grad students and co-op undergrads!) tackles challenges at the interface of green chemistry, civil engineering, and public health, centering their efforts around creating tools for better monitoring of drinking water contaminants and the design of safer alternative technologies in water treatment.

1.     What is the core expertise in your group? How did you end up in this field?

My research group bridges green chemistry and civil engineering, with a focus on greener approaches to safe drinking water. Our focus on greener technologies to improve drinking water makes it inherently interdisciplinary; we tackle challenges from a technical, chemical, biological, social, and even humanitarian point of view.

I started my PhD in inorganic chemistry at the University of California Berkeley working on non-platinum fuel cell catalysts. I wanted to use chemistry to help make the world better and more sustainable, with a decreased dependence on fossil fuels and precious metals. I was living in California during this time and was exposed to the water crisis there. This made me more aware of the global water crisis we are currently facing: 10 percent of the global population doesn’t have reliable access to safe drinking water. I felt there was an opportunity to do something that would have an impact on a large scale, as well as a surprising number of gaps in fundamental knowledge in terms of analysis and treatment of drinking water. During my first post doc, I began to venture into green engineering when I was asked to be involved in a project developing waterproofing alternatives for roofing in low-income communities in India. I was excited to be able to design inherently safer products and processes using my knowledge of green chemistry, which was not a widely known concept when I started my PhD. I was also involved in a collaboration with Method and the US Department of Agriculture developing safer alternative preservatives in personal and home-care products. The chemistry developed in this project is what fuelled my current research into preventing biofouling in drinking water systems.

2.     What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I have always enjoyed science and been curious. Ever since I was 8 years old I wanted to be an astronaut and having this goal pulled me toward science and technology. I saw science as a way to use my curiosity and skills to help people and make the world better. I applied to the Canadian Space Agency a couple of years ago and made it into the top 120 applicants; I realized that what motivated my astronaut ambition was the opportunity to have a tall platform from which to promote women and diversity in STEM. Merging my love of teaching, research, and mentorship inspired me to apply shortly after that and interview for the position I now have as an assistant professor of civil engineering and adjunct professor in chemistry at UVic.

3.     Who are your role models?

 Canada’s first female astronaut Roberta Bondar and fellow astronaut Julie Payette were role models for me as a young girl. I was always in environments with strong female leadership growing up, and had wonderful female and male science teachers in school. During my undergrad and eventually MSc at UBC, my advisor, professor Jennifer Love, hugely inspired me. She created space for diversity in our group and understood the importance of balancing life and research. Another faculty member at UBC, prof. Laurel Schafer, was also a huge mentor to me during my undergrad. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to have mentoring from diverse peers and colleagues. I’ve found wonderful allies, including other early career female researchers in both the civil engineering and chemistry departments here at UVic. Having that core network has been really helpful as I’ve been starting up. Working in a male-dominated field, it’s important that we all work together and support each other, and support other folks who are underrepresented in our communities. Find the good people in your life who you trust, who have your back. It’s also important to have support in all facets of your life: find people to bounce technical ideas off of, for emotional support, and those who help you with work-life balance. 

4.     What is the most interesting project you have worked on and why?

In terms of projects that have reached maturity, I would say working with Method Home on safer preservatives in home and personal care products that I mentioned above. I enjoyed being able to think about the wide-ranging impact of doing something so that somebody doesn’t need a PhD in green chemistry to look at their soap bottle to decide if it’s safe. I was able to see a very real impact on the general population and work with a company that is trying to make greener alternatives accessible to everyone. 

As far as projects that are still ongoing, I’m really excited about the biofouling and sensors for drinking water projects happening in my lab. My two Master’s students recently presented at a conference and received very positive feedback, so I’m eager to see where these two projects are going.

5.     When have you felt most proud of your work and why?

I’m most proud of my work when I see my students shining. One of my students very recently received a poster award at a conference. Seeing her take an idea, run with it, and then receive that positive feedback makes me extremely proud as a mentor. I love that I can be a part of the foundation for them doing that work. It makes me so proud to see the people who are part of my team own their projects and take them out there because we can accomplish so much more working together. 

6.     How do you spend your free time when you are not doing research or teaching? 

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I love to be out in nature. I windsurf, hike, cycle, and just generally enjoy being physically active outdoors. I find it grounds me, restores me, and reminds me of how small I am. There is both a humbling and reassuring effect from spending time in nature. I feel like it’s all going to be ok; if I’m doing my best and we are all collectively doing our best, since we are each such a small part of the whole, then that’s ok.

7.     What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing science?

Find mentors who inspire you. You may not find them where you expect to: in your advisor or academic world. But don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Find people who will support you, give honest criticism, and will have your back no matter what. It’s also important to find work that you love doing. Keep in mind you’re not always going to love every aspect of it (like paperwork!) but it’s not always about working harder; sometimes it’s about having balance and being happy. One of the things I’ve really kept in mind through all the chaos during my first two years as a prof is that if this isn’t a job I can do and still love my life, then it’s the wrong job. Make sure to take time for yourself and do the things that make you love your life. 

My other piece of advice is to find the question that drives you. I have written on my office whiteboard: “how is this improving people’s lives?” I look at this question everyday and it motivates me.

8.     In your opinion, what steps need to be taken to increase representation of women in STEM?

As a society and an academy, we need to recognize the biases that women are currently facing and the reality that women are working 50 percent harder to achieve the same things as men. We need to approach these biases proactively when making hiring decisions, recruiting, and designing undergraduate and high school courses. We need to be mindful of these biases even in the way we interact with children and being sure that we are encouraging girls to think creatively and scientifically. We also need to teach girls to value themselves for their skills, curiosity, and creativity and not just the traditionally valued female attributes. 

One of the questions we should be asking ourselves is what could all of the amazing women in STEM be accomplishing if they weren’t spending a significant portion of their time fighting just to have their voices, and the voices of the women around them, heard?

I have written on my office whiteboard: “how is this improving people’s lives?” I look at this question everyday and it motivates me.

9.     How different has your experience as an independent investigator been compared with working under someone else’s supervision? 

It’s terrifying being the one to ultimately decide if an idea is good enough. It is my job to find people who will be constructively critical of my work and I must then also evaluate and provide guidance for my students. This encourages me to help my students find ways to do this for themselves: make their own decisions and judgements, and then bring me their ideas for validation after they have already done some evaluation. I encourage them to take ownership of their work.

One of the questions we should be asking ourselves is what could all of the amazing women in STEM be accomplishing if they weren’t spending a significant portion of their time fighting just to have their voices, and the voices of the women around them, heard?

Although I had many opportunities to TA during my PhD and even taught a graduate course, teaching full time is a very different experience. Teaching well takes a lot of work. Doing something other than standing at the front of the classroom and blathering for 80 minutes is hard! I try not to do this and am working hard to be a good teacher.

10.  Tell us about your “green design” project in the 4th year civil engineering course you teach.

Students work in teams of 3 and are assigned a trace metal contaminant that shows up in drinking water and an anthropogenic source it comes from. They then map out the contaminant from source to tap and design alternative, greener methods or processes to reduce contamination. They write a consulting report for a fictional client, although I’m working towards being able to partner with real clients in the future.

Chloe Christensen