NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Barb Thomas

Dr. Barb Thomas

Get on with what you love and do your job.

Associate Professor, Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences
Industrial Research Chair in Tree Improvement
University of Alberta

Barb Thomas has a BSc in Horticulture and an MSc in Forest Genetics from UBC, completing a PhD in Forest Biology and Management at the UofA in 1996. She ran her own industrial consulting business in forest genetics from 1994 to present, joining the UofA as an Associate Professor after developing an Industrial Research Chair in Tree Improvement in 2014. Since joining the UofA, Barb has successfully obtained a Discovery Grant and working with a team of other researchers, is the Lead of a 2016 funded Genome Canada (LSARP) grant. Barb has twin daughters and she and her husband, live in Edmonton.

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

Problem solving, and finally getting a chance to look at some graphs of the data to discuss results.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I work on trees, their genetic variation and phenotypes. Understanding how plasticity plays into the performance of a tree’s success on the landscape and how to improve selection for climate change and forest health.

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

Academic, industry, government, consulting in both forestry and reclamation.

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

Yes it is male-dominated - it is forestry. I negotiate it by not over emphasizing anything feminine, I don't expect males to do more or less than females in the lab or for myself, and I don't make a fuss over male versus female discussions or sexism, I just ensure everyone gets on with the job. That being said, sometimes women are better at some skills than men and vice versa - this isn't always true but in all cases, peoples’ strengths should be taken advantage of and not discriminated against - either way.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

My current set of graduate and summer students include: men, women, foreign students, Canadians, gays, married people, etc. it is a real mix because that is who was best for the job and/or position. The seven summer students I have this year have all met and become friends with people that they would likely have otherwise not interacted with. They have done field work together and been required to work on data together back in the lab.

What kinds of systemic support could institutions provide to help encourage girls and women to pursue careers in science and engineering?

This is a tough question - some of the ideas I have aren't very 'academic institution' types of support. Maybe a weekend training session for - what my dad never encouraged me to do.... such as: how to use and handle a hammer, how to use a chain saw, how do electric screw drivers really work and other basic tools: changing bits, using a level, measuring properly etc. How do tie-down straps work, loading a quad on a truck. Adding oil to the engine on the car/truck. Some of these basic skills in my line of work would be useful when considering hiring a student - common sense type skills that unfortunately most girls don't have - and also lots of boys now as well given the increase in 'city' kids going into forestry and possibly engineering - I don't know. These are just a few examples of skills that would help students - in my view. This might also include - going in the 'field' - bugs, bites and a bit of self-preservation.

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

Get on with what you love and do your job. Don't try and be tougher than you are, and don't shy away from jobs that men would typically take on naturally, learn how to do it. Ask for help when you need it - as anyone should. In addition, often going after a higher degree used to mean there are fewer opportunities to find a partner - this is a tough one but in general, I would suggest that a partner that doesn't support someone to do what they want, may not be the best partner after all. Also, not flaunting being female at work, doesn't mean you can't 'dress up' either!

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

I was very fortunate, given I grew up in the 60s, as my parents were both professionals (medical doctors) - which I thought was normal. Achieving one’s potential was the main thinking in the house no matter what it was that you wanted to do. Whether it was picking up a hammer and helping to build something, or going into a non-traditional field for a girl, the issue never came up to not consider it. Also, there was never an expectation that someone else would look after me, I would support myself. To answer your question - it was probably my parents.

Do you have anything to add?

Leading by example is probably the best way to show other women what is possible. I had twins in the middle of my PhD, maybe not recommended but it all got done. I don't think people having kids in grad school is that unusual anymore but lots of people didn't think I'd finish my degree. I then went on to start my own business as a geneticist consultant in forestry in Alberta and only moved to the UofA in Sept. 2014. Careers can have multiple phases and things don't always go according to plan. The only other thing I learned working in industry is - everyone is replaceable - not a lesson most academics ever learn. It has been useful.