NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Jillian Detwiler

Dr. Jillian Detwiler

Pursue and experience as many opportunities as you can.

Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences
University of Manitoba

Jillian Detwiler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. She earned a B.S. (Biology), B.A. (music), and M.S. (parasitology) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her Ph.D. at Purdue University focused on the molecular ecology and phylogenetics of freshwater trematode parasites.

From 2004 – 2008, Jillian was funded by two National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate fellowships which promoted better teaching at the college level (GAANN) and K-12 level (GK12). She began postdoctoral work at Texas A&M University in 2010 to investigate how the interplay between transmission and mating systems influenced parasite inbreeding.

In 2012, she was awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) NRSA postdoctoral fellowship for a grant proposal entitled “Testing mechanisms of parasite-mediated selection on MHC genetic diversity”.

Also in 2012, she received the prestigious Ashton Cuckler New Investigator award from the American Society of Parasitologists. Her current NSERC-funded research program explores the impact of host ecology and evolution on patterns of host specificity, and the importance of chemical communication in parasite-modified host behaviour. She also maintains a strong interest in the nature of learning and teaching science.

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

Doing research with my students in the field or in the laboratory.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

One aim of my research is to characterize helminth parasite diversity to better understand what processes have led to speciation. This area is exciting to me because we are discovering new species, and addressing a really complex problem. We have also started working on determining the role of chemical communication in parasite-modified host behaviour. This topic is intriguing because we've found that in some cases parasites alter host behaviour, and in other cases they do not. We are now trying to figure out if different chemical signals are responsible for the variable behaviour responses. People rarely investigate the mechanisms underlying the behavioural changes - so it is exciting and challenging to try to do so.

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

With a biology degree, students can do anything because a degree in biology requires scientific literacy, curiosity, problem solving, and communication skills (speaking and writing). The best students also have a good work ethic and strong interpersonal skills.

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

Yes - even though the ratio is better in biological sciences relative to other fields of science, we still have less than 50% women in our department. For example, I was the last woman research faculty hired as of 2013 and since that time several males have been hired. It can be tough at times because there are cases where I feel like men just aren't listening and take credit for ideas that women brought up. Further, there is really good research to suggest that students treat women faculty much different than male faculty, so that can be tough to deal with as well.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I do my best to learn about my students so that I can appreciate their background, perspectives and world views. I also encourage them to interact with each other and learn about each other.

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

I think more women are earning degrees and considering careers in science than ever before, so that it really encouraging. However, it is tough for many women to have a career and a family especially with all the social science research that suggests that women are often at a disadvantage relative to men. For example, studies show that women continue to do most of the household work despite being equal pay earners or at least working the same number of hours as their male partners. Often, I find women in science need to "do it all" which can be daunting and discourage future professionals from pursuing a science career.

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

Pursue and experience as many opportunities as you can to try different fields and learn from different mentors.

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

To this day, my MS advisor, Dr. John Janovy Jr (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) remains my most important role model because he taught me that good scientists are also engaged citizens. I have also picked up important skills from several mentors including my PhD advisor Dr. Dennis Minchella who has a great temperament in pressure situations and is a fantastic teacher of large lecture sections. I learned about mentoring graduate students effectively from a PhD committee member, Dr. Andrew DeWoody. As far as women go, I would consider the former head of Biological Sciences, Dr. Judy Anderson, to be a mentor for leadership. Otherwise, I didn't have many women professors and the few I did I would not consider to be role models.