NSERC Chair for

Women in Science & Engineering

Britt Hall

Dr. Britt Hall

Study gender issues early in your career.

Associate Professor, Ecology
University of Regina

My research focuses on environmental controls regulating the formation and bioaccumulation of methylmercury (MeHg) in aquatic, specifically prairie, ecosystems. Prairie lakes and wetlands are critical wildlife habitats, providing cover and nesting sites for hundreds of game and non-game wildlife species and containing the some of the most important waterfowl breeding habitat remaining in North America. Wetlands in this region have the potential to produce high levels of MeHg which can bioaccumulate in both aquatic and terrestrial organisms. Examining environmental factors regulating mercury cycling in prairie wetlands will provide information necessary to protect wildlife populations inhabiting these vulnerable habitats.

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

Working with data, writing papers, and working with undergraduate research students.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I examine mercury cycling in prairie wetlands. These systems are under-studied and under-valued. They are at considerable risk due to land use and climate change. I specifically am interested in the geochemical and microbial controls on the methylation of mercury, a microbial process that produces the highly toxic methylmercury, which is bioaccumulated preferentially in aquatic organisms and those that consume them.

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

Academia, government, consulting... basically any job that is ecological or technical, or both. Students trained in my lab develop a combination of field ecology and precision analytical measurement skills.

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

Yes. In our department there are 13 members and only two are woman. I am the only woman faculty member with children. I helped organize a study group that evaluates the issues of gender diversity and bias at our institution and we are in the process of preparing a document designed to educate our colleagues on the issue. As well, I have been involved in rewriting our criteria document for faculty review and have been instrumental in adding language geared towards recognizing the challenges that women academics face.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

In addition to being a male-dominated work place, we have no faculty members that identify as visual minorities. We recognize that is a problem in our department. I am cognizant of cultural differences that are present in my students and try to recognize that western values and criteria for evaluation may not be appropriate (for example, I know that students with English as an additional language are less likely to participate in class, therefore marks for participation are biased against them).

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

One that comes immediately to mind is preferential hiring into academic positions. The NSERC UFA program was fantastic for that.

What advice would you give to girls or young women who are interested in careers in science or engineering?
Study gender issues early in your career. Understand bias (conscious and unconscious) so you can work within the constraints they present. Recognize that things are getting better all the time and that discussions surrounding these issues, while difficult, are worthwhile!
As a professional in science or engineering, who are your role models and mentors?

I have been so lucky in my career to have many role models and mentors. Growing up, biogeochemists Drs. John Rudd and Carol Kelly, my uncle and aunt, always provided me with an outlet for my love of science and ecology. During my graduate student years, the team working at the Experimental Lakes Area provided me with a rich learning and cultural experience and those scientists continue to provide valuable mentoring roles. I have wonderful peers here at the University of Regina. Finally, my cohort of fellow mercury scientists, whom I consider as some of most brilliant and influential people in our field, continue to learn together and from each other, a most rewarding gift that I value immensely!