Melisa Yestrau is currently the Director of Science Venture at the University of Victoria. Science Venture is a non-profit organization and network member of Actua whose vision is to inspire youth to reach their potential and discover their vital role in the world through life changing science, technology, engineering, and math experiences. Over the past 15 years, Melisa has been actively engaged in STEM education and community-building throughout Manitoba and British Columbia. As an active member of the Actua Network, Melisa has represented Science Venture at national meetings and facilitated professional development on community engagement, risk management, girls in STEM, and Indigenous youth programming.
1. Please tell us about yourself, your education, and your current role.
Born in the Canadian prairies, I grew up in Winnipeg, MB. Before moving to Victoria, I completed a BSc. and Master’s in Environmental Science at the University of Manitoba, focusing on environmental education, community resilience, and experiential learning. Through my work and volunteer experience with various youth programs including Mini-U, Career Trek, the Harvest Moon Society, and WISE Kid-Netic Energy, I have become a passionate educator and leader in STEM outreach.
Since 2009, I have worked for the University of Victoria as the Director of Science Venture - a program that inspires youth to reach their potential and discover their vital role in the world through life changing science, technology, engineering, and math experiences. Reaching over 19,000 youth yearly across Vancouver Island, I support a team of 30+ undergraduate instructors. Science Venture is a network member of Actua, Canada’s leading STEM youth organization with 38 members at colleges and Universities reaching over 250,000 youth in 500 communities.
During my time at Science Venture, our program has been recognized with the Actua and GE Award for Leadership and Innovation, Actua Experience Award for the Indigenous STEM Outreach, and Actua Experience Award for National Girls Programs. As an active member of the Actua Network, I have represented Science Venture at national meetings and facilitated workshops on community engagement, risk management, girls in STEM and Indigenous youth programming.
2. What motivated you to choose science communication and outreach as a career option? How did you find your way to a career in science communication?
In the 3rd year of my undergrad, I took a travel study course in Churchill, Manitoba. During the course we hiked the tundra/boreal forest, had language lessons from local first nations, and observed beluga whales swimming in the estuary. This experience influenced my future studies in environmental science and stewardship. During this time, I learnt the importance of communicating scientific topics to promote action for environmental challenges. During my studies, I was heavily involved in several youth outreach programs that allowed me to develop my confidence in science communication.
3. Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science communication?
While completing my Master’s degree in the Environmental Conservation Lab at the University of Manitoba, I was surrounded by other grad students who were conducting research in very interesting and diverse areas. Science communication took on many forms from documentaries to community performances to public forums. The creativity, energy and passion of my lab mates has been a driving force in my science communication journey.
4. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced during the transition from university into your current role? How did you overcome it?
Academia can be challenging – the looming thesis deadline. Any grad student experiences this feeling, which only goes away after you defend your thesis and submit your revisions. Luckily I landed my dream job as Director of UVic Science Venture and defended my thesis all within 6 months. I love my work, and with no time to really transition, I jumped in without looking back. I may be an anomaly but the transition was smooth.
5. Can you think of any skills you learned in university that prepared you for your current role?
During my Master’s studies, the lab I was working in was incredibly supportive. We helped each other with each other’s research and built a strong sense of community: both of which require creativity. I continue to apply these skills in my work today. Building community with staff teams, program participants, and other stakeholders is something I really love about my job. The creativity required to launch new programs and design innovative curriculum keeps me interested and excited. The incredible research at UVic further inspires me to ensure youth are aware of what’s currently happening in STEM fields.
6. How different is a role in science outreach compared with more conventional academic/industry careers?
I absolutely love being in an academic setting where I get to learn about new research and experience the energy of student learners. Being involved in science outreach within a university setting allows me to be involved with many elements of the university while also engaging different audiences and stakeholders. My specific job involves human resources, budgeting, program development, community partnerships and science communication. It’s akin to running a small business, but having incredible infrastructure and systems in place.
7. What do you enjoy most about your work?
I derive satisfaction when I see the impact of our programs on youth. Having been involved with Science Venture for over a decade, I have seen campers start when they are elementary school age and now I’m hiring them to deliver programs! It’s the sense of community that comes with being part of Science Venture that keeps me excited and motivated to come to work every day.
8. What has been your biggest accomplishment to date?
Besides being a mother and director, I am proud that I was able to create a sense of belonging in STEM among young girls through special programs.
9. How do you maintain your work-life balance?
My prairie roots keep me going from sunrise to sundown, so maintaining a work-life balance has been a learning process. I’ll be honest, my house is not always clean and dinner is sometimes comprised of organic bunny pasta and cheese.
10. In your opinion, what steps need to be taken at the university level to support students who are interested in science communication careers?
The move toward universities implementing experiential learning as part of the curriculum for students is a positive step towards supporting science communication careers. Understanding the needs of the community, meeting with various stakeholders, and self-reflection are skills that need to be taught at the university level to further support students in pursuing science communication careers. For example, in the UVic Engineering department, there are nearly 10 different student teams that compete in engineering design challenges which involve science communication and outreach. Positive learning experiences outside the classroom through the university can help students prepare for success in science communication.
11. What advice do you have for young women who are interested in science communication careers?
Don’t wait – jump in and learn! Most universities will have some kind of STEM outreach program such as Science Venture. Also, there are many non-profit STEM organizations that need help sharing their mission with the community. Look for volunteering opportunities. Reach out to lab instructors and profs to find out about TA opportunities. Learning how to teach others is a crucial skill that will take you a long way in your science communication journey.