NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair

Develop your skills. Learn your own passions.

Professor, Biological Sciences
University of Alberta

Colleen Cassady St. Clair is a professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta where she has been on faculty since 1998. Her lab group studies how animal behaviour contributes to both problems and solutions related to conservation biology.

Some current project goals include reducing conflict with urban coyotes, assessing the importance of personality in town-dwelling elk, and mitigating train strikes on grizzly bears in the mountain parks.

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

The thing I love best is learning new stuff, which I do every single day. I especially enjoy learning from unexpected people and, sources while exploring both questions and answers with others who love to learn.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I combine the fields of animal behaviour and conservation biology with a goal of increasing coexistence between people and wildlife. I do this mainly with birds and mammals in field settings that have ranged from remote seabird islands to tropical forests to urban and agricultural landscapes to mountain parks.

My students and I try to determine how animals adjust their behaviour to cope with rapidly changing environments. From there, we try to figure out how we can reduce, manipulate, or enhance those behavioural changes to increase the persistence of wild animals in human-dominated landscapes.

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

Students I've known have ended up with jobs that educate (at all levels, including science outreach), manage wildlife and other natural resources (for federal and provincial governments), determine conservation and sustainability policy (for government and NGO's), and assess impacts of development (as consultants to industry, government, and NGO's).

Many have gone on to seemingly-unrelated careers that make use of science-relevant skills such collecting and evaluating evidence, critical and creative thinking, and problem-solving with innovation, collaboration, and tenacity.

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

In science faculties across the country, women now comprise a slight to substantial majority. In my own development, it did not occur to me that gender could influence academic achievement until I started my own faculty position in 1998. Interestingly, as my career advanced, I have witnessed more gender-based hurdles, revealing the so-called glass ceiling wherein women – including me -- are decreasingly likely to occupy increasingly-senior positions.

I don't see this as a product of discrimination per se; more the product of differences in the average priorities of men and women and a tendency for many women to choose not to behave in the ways required for effective leadership of larger groups of people. These traits include seemingly innocuous things like decisiveness, compartmentalization, and a willingness to promote product over process. These traits can be difficult to mesh with personal preferences for cooperation, equality, and nurturance of individuals.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I try never to accept students or hire employees in relation to their gender, race, cultural background, or any other similar categorization. Instead, I pay a lot of attention to evidence of high capability and curiosity, the ability to work both independently and collaboratively, the presence of relevant course and work experience, and passion for the kind of research we do. I enjoy having a diverse team, but see this as an indirect consequence of my hiring strategy.

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

Actually, I see science as a way of knowing about the world, not as a discipline. We could encourage this approach to absolutely any profession or career, not just in STEM, by emphasizing the relevant skills.

I see the core ones as: how to identify questions and hypotheses; gather, quantify, and compare evidence; synthesize information; understand multiple perspectives; think creatively and critically; and solve problems via innovation, collaboration, and tenacity. I believe that everyone has to develop these skills for herself before there can be any authentic confidence in their relevance and use, whether that's for every day or as a career in science.

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

Develop your skills, learn your own passions, culture the ability to work hard, moderate the effects of both criticism and praise to tame your emotions and ego, and practice optimism, patience and tenacity in most things you do.

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

My mentors include many men and women who are both older and younger than I. I especially admire and learn from people who are generous with their ideas, careful to match what they offer and deliver, interested in the public good, and open-minded to new ideas.