NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Jay Kormish

Dr. Jay Kormish

Critically think about what your goals are in your personal life as well as your career.

Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences
University of Manitoba

Dr. Kormish is currently an assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Manitoba.

In 1998 she obtained her BSc at the University of Alberta with a specialization in Molecular Genetics and in 2005 completed her PhD training at the University of Calgary under the mentorship of Dr. Jim McGhee.

It was at Calgary that Dr. Kormish was introduced to the field of developmental biology and she researched the genetics behind intestine development in the nematode C. elegans. Following her doctorate she trained as a postdoctoral associate at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia under Dr. Ken Zaret researching transcription factors and epigenetic marks influencing early liver development in the mouse. This was followed by a short research position at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital under Dr. Aaron Zorn investigating signaling and transcriptional events that were patterning the frog embryonic digestive tract.

In 2009 she returned to Canada and C. elegans research and with a CIHR Fellowship in Genetics, Child Development and Health at the University of Calgary under Dr. Jeb Gaudet. There she started the research of her current program looking at the signaling pathways directing cellular migrations during development of the upper digestive tract of the nematode. In 2012 she started her current position at the University of Manitoba. Her research program focuses on organ development within the digestive tracts of C. elegans and the root-knot nematodes of the Meloidogyne spp.

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

As an instructor I enjoy being able to directly impact the direction of learning. I develop courses and help shape the developmental biology program. As I witness the evolution of the growing field I like to discuss emerging advances in the context of historical perspective. As a researcher I like to think and come up with creative ideas to model developmental processes.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

How organs develop has always been a fascination of mine. Individuals start from a single cell to become a complicated network of cells with highly specialized functions. During embryo development the cells are constantly communicating with each other to coordinate their functions. The process is extremely complicated yet reproducible and exquisitely precise. The elaboration of this simplicity fascinated me during my undergraduate training and still does. Developmental biology and genetics are rapidly growing fields. I enjoy teaching about the subject and solving the biological puzzles.

In my laboratory we have two major streams of research. We use the nematode C. elegans as a powerful genetic tool to study the genetics and cellular basis of organ development. How cells interact and coordinate their movements and shape changes during organ morphogenesis is modeled. Live imaging microscopy and genetic pathways elucidate the details behind cellular signaling events and movements.

A group of cells in the root-knot nematodes in the upper digestive tract produce secretions that mediate host-parasite interactions for these obligate plant parasites. The gland cells are similar to salivary glands in more complex organisms. Glandular secretions allow the nematodes to invade the roots of plants and change root cells into cells that can be used for feeding. These nematodes have a significant impact on agricultural plants in Canada and world-wide. Using what we know about these cells from C. elegans we are trying to understand how these cells have changed their function in order to adapt to their parasitic lifestyle.

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

Developmental biology and genetics can serve as a basis for many different types of career paths. Students can enter the academic and research fields at multiple levels such as undergraduate or MSc trained technicians. PhD training can transition into research associate positions. With successful postdoctoral research experience people with doctorates can apply for jobs at the university and college level as instructors and or principal investigators running a research program. I recommend making use of the honours thesis programs and coop work term programs to gain laboratory experience.

A master’s degree after undergraduate training is becoming more common. This gives students a chance to specialize in their field and gain research, writing and presentation skills. Perhaps the most important part of graduate training is the networking that can occur. This exposes your skills to people in hiring positions and makes available work opportunities that are not always well advertised. I think we live in a time where individuals need to expose themselves and create their work opportunities. Keep in touch with your mentors and present your work as frequently as you can.

Many of the students in my laboratory have extensive genetic training. My undergraduate and graduate students have entered the medical fields as technical liaisons in pharmaceutical companies, genetic counselling, laboratory technicians, bioinformatics and medical school. The plant parasite has potential applications in agriculture. Students have gone on to work as technicians in soil science.

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

During my university and postdoctoral training women seemed to be well-represented in the field. This representation changed at the assistant professor level particularly in the prairies. I feel that women will achieve true success in their field when the unique perspectives, approaches and talents that they bring to science and education are equally valued when compared to their male counterparts. My advice? Stay true to yourself. There is a pressure for women to change themselves to succeed in a male-dominated field. Science benefits from diversity. Assert those skills that are unique to you.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

Don’t be afraid to become involved and voice your opinion concerning diversity issues in the work place. I am currently on the equity and diversity committee for our faculty union. When appropriate I voice my concerns of female representation and pay equity within the Faculty of Science. Keep the issue on the radar of people who can make important hiring decisions.

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

I became interested in research through a research scholarship attempting to encourage women into the field of science and engineering. Several high school students from rural areas of Alberta were selected for an internship at the University of Alberta. These types of scholarship opportunities should continue to be supported. Many of the individuals that participated in this program remained in science.

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

Although I think that society is changing, the balance between a woman’s career and her personal life is challenging. Our careers encourage travel, long work hours and periods of low-income during extensive training. Critically think about what your goals are in your personal life as well as your career. Be prepared for your goals to change later in life. Don’t be afraid to put your health and personal well-being at the forefront of your decision making. A happy life is about balance.

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

During my undergraduate training my mentors were exclusively women. Dr. Jutta Preiksaitis at the U of A in the area of Virology, Dr. Susan Rosenberg in E. coli genetics also at the U of A and Dr. Judy Chernos in the cytogenetics laboratory at the Calgary Children’s Hospital. They supported my talent and gave me ideas for career directions relevant to my training. I observed their personal lives and the decisions they made concerning the balance between their work and personal lives. To me, each had seemed to take very different paths but all appeared to be happy and successful in their careers. I have to commend my PhD mentor Dr. Jim McGhee. Although he was my first male mentor, I never felt at any point in my training that my gender was relevant. He is one of the most intelligent people I have met and he has continued to be one of my strongest supporters throughout my career.