Joanna Wilson: McMaster Professor, Scientist, Mom

Joanna Wilson: McMaster Professor, Scientist, Mom

As a child, Dr. Joanna Wilson loved animals. She thought she might be a veterinarian.

In her third year of McMaster University’s biology and pharmacology program, she completed a co-op with Environment Canada and fell in love with toxicology, the study of the effects chemicals have on living organisms.

That was the first time she worked with fish. “It was super cool,” she remembers.

Joanna was the “outlier” in her program. While most of her peers entered into the pharmaceutical industry, human health research, or medical school, Joanna wanted to focus on environmental science.

Her research examines how different species, particularly ones who live in the water, are able to deal with human generated stressors like chemicals we create or put into the environment by industrial activities.

Joanna was the 2015 Women of Distinction Awards winner in the sciences or technology category. Dr. Joanna Wilson is a scientist, a researcher, and a professor at McMaster University. She is also a mother, a role model, and a proud Hamiltonian.

This year, she decided to join the committee to honour the incredible contributions women make in our community.

In addition to all the YWCA does for the women and children in Hamilton, Joanna says the gala itself is really important for women in all sectors, especially those in male-dominated fields like hers.

“Most of the women I know who work at McMaster and other places are often doing a lot, both at their institution and in the community. They’re really quite amazing women.”

As Joanna reflected on the cocktail nomination reception, she remembers many of the nominees saying the same thing: that someone else should win or someone else should be nominated.

“Everyone is so humble about their achievements. It really struck me for the first time how universal this response is for amazing women to question why they are here. They are here because they are incredible, whether they win or not. They are a really amazing collection of women.”

In her field of biology, approximately half of the undergraduate program is comprised of women. But there is still an attrition that takes place as women move into higher degrees, most notably, the transition from PhD and postdoctoral training into faculty positions, she notes.

After completing her undergraduate program at McMaster, Joanna continued on to the University of Victoria to complete her Masters of Science in Biology and worked with a research scientist who was part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. That was when she realized she wanted to be a researcher.

Later, she earned her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. It wasn’t until her PhD that she was taught by a female instructor.

As someone who had always worked predominantly with male mentors, having a female instructor was an important moment for Joanna.

Now, she says, undergraduate students have a different experience. There is a lot of women in the biology department at McMaster, so it would be difficult for a student to not be taught by both men and women.

“It was the visibility of seeing another woman in the classroom, teaching, and doing research, especially the ones that I knew had a family and children and were successful at managing those things. It was important for me to understand that this was a possible career track for me.”

Joanna had her first child when she was completing her PhD. She said she worked on her degree a little slower than she would have without him, but was able to manage because of the internal support within her lab.

“It worked really well for me in part because my PhD supervisor was very supportive of me both as a scientist and as a mom. He really trusted that I could do both.”

Her son became part of the lab on days she had to bring him in.

Joanna’s daughter was born when her eldest was a year and a half old, making her transition into the faculty position a little easier.

While it worked for her, Joanna recognizes the factors that contribute to the loss of women in science is very complex.

“People will talk about the fact that the timing is often related to women having children and the demands of being a mother competing with those of a career. I think a portion of it also has to do with the difficulty women have with being recognized and judged fairly. And that’s not just a male thing, it’s men and women in the field.

“There is a lot of data showing that if we look at evaluating applications for awards, oftentimes female candidates rank poorer, not because of the quality of their applications is worse, but often from other factors. The standards are not the same in terms of how good we are at judging male and female candidates equivalently.

“There is a lot of internal work to be done to find better and effective ways at promoting bias-free valuations of candidates and making sure that male and female trainees are being supported equally and promoted equally.”

It has been almost ten years since Joanna has been back in Hamilton. She returned to accept the offer at McMaster University as an assistant professor in the department of biology (she is originally from Newmarket, ON).

She says her schedule is busier now than it was during her studies. She has the responsibility of supervising graduate students, teaching undergraduate courses, administration, and continuing with her own research. Not to mention her duties as a mom and community member.

Joanna teaches a third year pharmacology course, a third year physiology course, and coordinates the senior thesis course where she oversees 50-80 students per year who are doing independent research for the first time.

She is also involved in science outreach, occasionally visiting elementary and preschools to foster interest in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – to children at a young age, particularly women.

Other times, she brings the young students to McMaster’s diverse campus to show them that science looks like different types of people.

Hands on activities like building working models of the heart, exercising to show differences in blood pressure, and observing animals are just some of the ways she engages children to get them interested in science and apply what they’re learning in the curriculum.

She says data supports that young girls are very open to the STEM fields and there is a point around middle school where they start to conceive math and science as more male activities.

“We need to encourage people who are in underrepresented groups – whether it’s different ethnic or racial backgrounds, gender orientations, or women in science – to take an active part.

“More diverse people at the table come up with better ideas of how things should be done. Science, engineering, and math are about trying to figure out how things work and we want the most creative and the best minds at the table for that.”

In her spare time, Joanna is involved with the local hockey club and other activities her children partake in. On her days off, she loves to explore the green spaces in Hamilton, like the trails and waterfalls. She also plays with her pets – a dog, cat, and rabbit.

“We’re trying to stop at three at the moment.”

While Hamilton is home, Joanna enjoys to travel. Her work has brought her to places like Sweden and Japan, but she continues to return to Cape Cod, where she completed her PhD and where her children were born.

“It’s a beautiful place that we keep returning to. Places that are near the ocean are often very nice,” she laughs.

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