In Her Own Words reduxTuesday, December 17th, 2013
You can’t always get what you want but two out of three ain’t bad.
Rolling Stones and Meat Loaf remixing aside, that message was one of the main takeaways for the members of the audience in the Faculty Club ballroom on November 19, as a panel of three distinguished women discussed the trade-offs necessary for balancing career, family and a social life.
For the second edition of “In Her Own Words: Stories from Distinguished Research Careers,” Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier shared the stage with Goodman Cancer Research Centre Director Morag Park and Professor of East Asian Studies Grace Fong in a discussion moderated by Vice-Principal of Research and International Relations, Dr. Rose Goldstein. The researchers described how they chose their specific fields, how they overcame professional challenges and how they decided what they wanted to do with their careers. The first edition of this event was held in April 2013.Park, who was appointed director of the Centre in June 2013, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Scientific Director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Cancer Research and a James McGill Professor of Biochemistry and Oncology. Despite the wealth of prestigious titles she has accumulated, Park said that she didn’t start her career with a grand plan in mind.
“I was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute and I didn’t have a sense of what I wanted to do,” Park said. “I didn’t think I would run a lab. I thought maybe I would be a postdoc forever,” she mused, to audience laughter, adding that she was fortunate to have a supervisor at NCI whom she trusted enough to voice her own opinions when she didn’t agree with his research. It was this same supervisor who encouraged her to start her own lab.
In the North American system of research institutes, Park said, there is a high degree of autonomy. “Your successes are your own but your failures are also your own.”
“You don’t make plans for how your life will unfold, but you have to be ready when you see the right path to take, ready to re-calculate if necessary,” Suzanne Fortier said, echoing Park’s words.
As one of only five girls in her high school science class in rural Quebec, Fortier recalled, she and her four peers were initially disparaged by their science teacher for being “out of place” in a science classroom. The five girls nevertheless banded together to form a study group; they did so well in the class that they had the opportunity to visit McGill for a science fair. It was there that Fortier serendipitously found out about crystallography, the field of specialization she eventually chose for her career.
Grace Fong recounted a similarly circuitous route to academia , a path that she now sees as one of self-discovery. Fong discovered a passion for Chinese poetry during her second undergraduate career at the University of Toronto, where she ended up after dropping out of the science program at McGill.
Now Fong’s projects include a database of hard-to-access documents written by women in China between 1368 and 1911, an initiative that she has undertaken with the Harvard-Yenching Library. The McGill Ming Qing Women’s Writings project has become one of the McGill Library’s most popular digital collection.
The question-and-answer session that followed the researchers’ talks covered a number of hot topics currently much-discussed among academics and among women in academia.
One question raised the issue of imposter syndrome, or the pervasive sense that one is a fraud who is less smart than everyone else and whose accomplishments are simply the result of good luck or privilege.
“Everybody gets feelings that they are not good enough,” Fortier said. “The key thing to do is to look at other high-achieving people as inspiring.”
And another audience member asked the inevitable question about work-life balance, a question that was met with some blunt but insightful answers:
“Between [the three life facets of] family, cultural and social enjoyment, and career, two out of three ain’t bad,” Fortier said, adding that the balance changes over the course of your life but the bottom line remains – “two out of three ain’t bad.”
“You become very focused and productive,” Park said. “Instead of getting the eight or nine hours of sleep you are used to, you get five or six hours of sleep a night instead. And you manage.”