NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Dr. Anita Brûlé-Babel

There is nothing about being female that makes these careers unsuitable for you.

Professor, Wheat Breeding and Genetics
University of Manitoba

Dr. Brûlé-Babel is a professor in the Department of Plant Science at the University of Manitoba working in the area of wheat breeding and genetics. Her winter wheat breeding program focuses on the development of high yield, disease resistant winter wheat cultivars that are adapted to the prairies. Her primary area of research is the inheritance of disease resistance and the identification of molecular markers linked to genes for disease resistance. She has conducted extensive research on Fusarium head blight (FHB) of wheat and is involved in both national and international collaborations. She is responsible for coordinating a large FHB screening nursery in Carman, Manitoba that generates data for all wheat breeders in western Canada. Her group is involved in mapping of FHB resistance genes in hexaploid wheat to be used as a selection tool for breeders. She has also investigated the interaction between specific host resistance genes and different chemotypes of the pathogen, conducted fungicide trials, evaluated screening methodologies and completed expression analyses of the host pathogen interaction. This research is being applied to make improvements to FHB resistance, understand the host-pathogen interaction, and develop strategies to reduce losses to this disease.

As an academic, what is your favourite part of your job?

My favourite part of the job is teaching. I am always excited to work with new students each year and to help them to develop their knowledge and skills in the science of agriculture. I love the enthusiasm and the energy students have. The students in my classes do a lot of hands-on work with plants and problem solving, and each year they help me see the science through new eyes.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

My research focuses on wheat breeding and genetics with emphasis on disease resistance. My most recent work had been to study the genetics of wheat resistance to Fusarium head blight. Fusarium head blight is a devastating disease of wheat that affects yield, end-use quality, and food and feed safety. Through my research, and the work of my collaborators, we are developing wheat varieties with better resistance to Fusarium head blight. Reducing losses to Fusarium head blight will save billions of dollars for the agricultural industry. Working on real life problems that can have immediate benefits to farmers, processors and consumers is what excites me about my work.

What types of professions can students graduating in your field enter?

Students in my field of study have many options for professions. For example, with a BSc. degree they can work as technicians in research programs, as crop extension specialists, in sales, seed production, crop and food inspection, and seed and quality testing. With an MSc. their options will expand to include directing parts of research programs, working as provincial or federal government specialists or crop consultants, managing laboratories, and conducting quality control. At the PhD level, students can become academics, senior research scientists in either government or private industry laboratories, lead teams of researchers at the national and international level, work as advisors to the government, as well as many other possibilities.

Is your workplace male-dominated? If so, how do you negotiate being a woman in a male-dominated workplace and/or field?

I have worked in a male-dominated workplace for my entire career (>30 years). This has not been a serious issue for me. I have the confidence that I can do anything I set my mind to do. I have always treated my colleagues respectfully and for the most part have received the same treatment in return. I let my actions and accomplishments speak for me.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I approach everyone as a person first. Race, gender, or sexual orientation are of little concern to me. If a person has the skills and training to do the job, that is what matters to me. From there, I work to understand the person I am working with, and do what I can to make their work experience positive.

What advice would you give to girls or young women who are interested in careers in science or engineering?

Don't let anyone discourage you from pursuing your passion and interests. There is nothing about being female that makes these careers unsuitable for you. Choose the path that is right for you. Also, you do not have to give up other things in life to pursue these careers. You have the option to work in a way that fits your lifestyle and priorities.

As a professional in science or engineering, who are your role models and mentors?

I did not have any role models or mentors during my University education. During my entire studies I had only one female professor. However, although I never met her, I have always admired Barbara McClintock. She was one of very few female scientists in the early to mid 1900's and worked on Maize genetics. She developed the theory of transposition in the 1940s and 1950s, but was highly ridiculed by her male colleagues. In the 1970s her theories were proven correct and she won a Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery. To me this showed that you need to follow the science and interpret it the way you think is correct, regardless of what the current theories may be. Dr. McClintock showed incredible perseverance and demonstrated a true skill in understanding the organism and explaining the science.

Do you have anything to add?

My advice to young women interested in science and engineering is "do not be afraid". Do not be afraid about what other people may think about your interests and choices. Do not be afraid to take an "unconventional" path. It is your life, and you are the one in charge of shaping what that life will be. You can do it!