NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Bernadette Ardelli

Dr. Bernadette Ardelli

Persevere. Focus. Report anyone who tells you that boys are better at science than girls.

Professor of Biology
Brandon University

I received a B.Sc. from Cape Breton University in 1992, a M.Sc. from the University of Guelph in 1994 and a Ph.D. from the University of Guelph in 2000. After completing my doctorate, I accepted a postdoctoral position at the Institute of Parasitology, McGill University (2000-2006). While at McGill, I was the recipient of postdoctoral fellowships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada and Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Nature et les Technologies (FQRNT). I accepted a tenure-track position at Brandon University in July 2006.

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

The favourite part of my job is when a student succeeds. The success could be failing a test but working harder and passing the subsequent test, to receiving a scholarship or publishing their first manuscript.

Becoming an academic wasn’t my original career choice. I grew up outside Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The unemployment rate was high and job security was a constant discussion in my household. When I finished high school I decided to attend university (I was the first in my entire family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) as I felt advanced education would enable job security. I continued my education beyond the undergraduate as I felt, at the end of every degree, that I needed to know more. After completing my MSc I worked as a research technician for a year. There were many avenues that I wanted to pursue in that lab, but as it wasn’t my research program, I had to do exactly what I was paid to do. That’s when I decided to pursue a PhD as I felt it would give me the ability to explore my own research interests.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I have a few research themes in my laboratory all focused around control of infectious disease. With my NSERC funded research we focus on mechanisms of drug resistance using two models – a parasitic protozoan and a parasitic nematode. The bulk of my drug resistance work has involved the ‘wonder drug’ ivermectin and focuses on a group of proteins known as ATP-binding cassette proteins. I have also received funding from a number of agencies (e.g., MHRC, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) for applied health research. One of my current projects is trying to repurpose drugs that have become obsolete due to resistance.

To find out about my research, publications are listed on my webpage. I am always happy to have visitors. We have biweekly lab meetings that are designed like ‘mini’ conferences.

How does your research affect people’s everyday lives?

I am a firm believer in the utility and safety of vaccines. Unfortunately, for the diseases I study, vaccines don’t exist and are unlikely to be developed in the near future. Drugs are the only means of control and the development of widespread drug resistance can have devastating effects – from morbidity and mortality to billions of dollars in economics losses observed in the livestock industry. We need to understand drug resistance to try to circumvent or overcome it.

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

Many of my students have gone on to professional careers, mainly medicine. They could easily transition into industry, such as pharmaceutical, or become sales representatives for biomedical companies. In terms of government jobs, public health would be one of the sectors along with granting agencies. A number of my colleagues have gone on to become scientific / medical writers for a number of publishing companies as well as work within the publishing industry.

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

Absolutely male dominated. It’s tough being a woman in this environment. I often feel like I “have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as a man”. Oddly enough, despite the women in my field taking on more responsibility at home as well as in the workplace, they are actually more successful (e.g., all of the women have maintained NSERC funding for decades).

I learned a long time ago to be very self-sufficient. I think it’s the reason I’ve been successful.

I’ve found our Chief Human Resources Officer (a woman) to be very helpful and supportive.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

Diversity is extremely important.

In terms of encouraging diversity, whenever we are hiring I make sure that we adhere to the job description. It’s difficult to foster and encourage diversity here – I feel like the only approach is to point out when it hasn’t been encouraged in the hopes that people will do better the next time.

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

“Lead by example”. While it can be tough, we have to really promote the rewarding aspects of a career in science and engineering. When I went for promotion to full professor, I asked a number of former students to write letters indicating how my instruction was helpful in their career (as per our Collective Agreement). All of the students commented that I was a great role model, but the female students really took notice of some qualities that they said made them feel confident in their career choice because I was a woman who had succeeded.

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

Persevere. Focus. Report anyone who tells you that ‘boys are better at science than girls”.

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

My role models and mentors are my female colleagues. They are a constant source of information and support as well as great listeners. My students inspire me as well as my son. I think it’s really working with my son (he’s only 4) as he constantly tells me he wants to be a girl just like me when he grows up. I work very hard to change gender stereotypes with him as he is the future.

How do you manage work-life balance?

By being very organized and having defined boundaries. I work when I’m in the lab and I don’t bring it home with me. As well, my personal life does not enter my workplace.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would undertake my PhD in a different laboratory.

Do you have anything to add?>

Women need to be supportive of one another. I don’t like to see a ‘divide and conquer’ attitude amongst female colleagues. We already get that from men.