NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Helen Booker

Dr. Helen Booker

Work hard and do what you enjoy most.

Associate Professor, Plant Science, Flax Breeder
University of Saskatchewan

Dr. Helen Booker is a flax breeder developing cultivars for production in Western Canada. Her research program centres on understanding the genetics of traits of economic importance in flax. Helen Booker was raised in Southern Ontario. She received a BSc and an MSc from the University of Guelph and a PhD in plant science from the University of the West Indies, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Canada’s seed bank, Plant Gene Resources Canada (PGRC), Saskatoon Research Centre (AAFC). She then worked as a Research Associate in Cereal Breeding at the University of Alberta. Her move to the University of Saskatchewan in 2009 brought the opportunity to apply her training in plant breeding and experience with other self-pollinating crop plants (legumes and wheat) to the only university-based flax breeding program in Canada.

Dr. Booker has co-developed, with Dr. Gordon Rowland (her predecessor) six flax cultivars and she coordinates national pre-registration and Saskatchewan provincial variety testing for flax. Dr. Booker has authored or co-authored 21 published peer-reviewed papers, 2 published cultivar descriptions, and contributed to a book chapter. She holds the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture (SMA) Strategic Research Program (SRP) Chair for the Flax Program and, since her appointment, has served as a director at large on the Board of the Flax Council of Canada (FCC) and as a Scientific Advisor to the SaskFlax Development Commission (SFDC). Moreover, she co-developed a course on Tropical Crops of the World and coordinates a course on Global Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Saskatchewan.

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

I like the variety of working in the field, in the lab and in the classroom. I enjoy interacting with producers, other scientists, and students. I like the fact that my work will have an impact on an industry.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I lead a breeding program that develops flax cultivars for Western Canada. My research program centres on understanding the genetics of traits of economic importance in flax. What is excites me is when a cultivars from my program are taken up by seed growers across Western Canada. Also, when we discover the gene for a particular trait like rust resistance and can follow material in the breeding program using molecular markers developed for that trait.

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

Student graduates have gone onto careers in the Life Sciences industry and academia.

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

Yes, my workplace is male-dominated. However, I would rather not focus on the gender of colleagues but rather appreciate the collegial process and support within our department.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

One of the many advantages of working at a University particularly in our department is that we have students and scientists come from around the world it makes for a diverse and interesting workplace. I've also worked and lived in different parts of the world so I have learned to appreciate many different cultures and ways of thinking.

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

I think having women science teachers at the elementary and high school levels as well as at post secondary institutions helps to give girls the confidence that they can do the job as well.

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

I have a daughter so my advice to her would be to work hard, take as wide a range of subjects as you can at high school and at University and do what you enjoy most.

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

My role model is my mom, she went back to school and got another degree in her 30s. Also other women scientists I have had the privilege to work with over the years.