NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Julianne Gibbs

Dr. Julianne Gibbs

My current lab celebrates its diversity with potlucks where we bring food from our different cultures.

Associate Professor, Chemistry
University of Alberta

Juli Gibbs is originally from northern Arizona. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University in 2000 and performed research there with Ian Gould in the Department of Chemistry. She then joined the group of SonBinh Nguyen at Northwestern University to pursue graduate research on the development of polymer-DNA hybrid materials with novel recognition properties. After completing her dissertation, Juli worked with Franz Geiger and Karl Scheidt as a Dreyfus Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Chemistry.

In 2008, she began her independent career at the University of Alberta where she is now an associate professor. Juli has been recognized with multiple awards such as the Petro-Canada Young Investigator Award, the Rising Star Award from Grand Challenges Canada and a Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship. Her research spans the development of new biodiagnostic and therapeutic agents based on DNA nanotechnology to fundamental research aimed at understanding processes at surfaces relevant to biodiagnostics as well as environmental and biological systems.

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

I love working on research with students. It is exciting when we puzzle over results together or identify a new idea or research question that we have to try. The meeting of the minds in pursuit of exciting scientific questions, that's my favorite part of the job.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

We have two different research areas in my lab. The first is trying to develop novel biodiagnostic platforms that will ideally operate at the point-of-care, which means in doctors' offices or in remote clinics. Our main strategy is to make biomarker enrichment and detection steps that happen at room temperature since this temperature would be ideal for simple diagnostics (no heat required). The other half of my lab is studying how surfaces like the chips used in many biosensors as well as environmental solids like sand influence the local chemistry. Surfaces reduce chemistry to quasi-two dimensions, which can change things quite a bit. Surfaces can also react so that molecules are stuck to them, removing the freedom of motion the molecules would have in solution. We like to study these effects to help better understand important surface processes, from biochip optimization to strategies to deal with tailings waste from oil sands processing.

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

Chemistry allows for jobs in many different sectors of industry in North America: from drug development to the manufacturing of computers, solar cells, batteries, paints, coatings, improved oil extraction and catalytic conversion of combustion products, etc. And there are options outside of the lab, in patent law and consulting, to name a few. In my lab, because of the different projects we work on, graduate students have different possibilities after graduation. Some work in analytical laboratories and in waste services. Others have been involved in start-up companies working on point-of-care diagnostics. A few have gone on to become professors where they can do what I do, identify interesting research areas, mentor students in their development as independent researchers, and teach. One former Master's student is now in dental school, so there are many options!

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

My lab is currently not male dominated. I actually have more women working in my lab than men at the moment. Within the faculty, however, we are mostly men, which is typical for many chemistry departments. I think women should not let themselves be isolated, and make sure to find a lunch or coffee buddy amongst their (male) colleagues. I am lucky in that it doesn't really bother me to be the only woman at the table. I also think it is important to root for women in science; I discuss researchers with my group whose work I find exciting and I make sure that I include women in that list. Regarding mentorship, I try to encourage all of my students, including the women, to really stretch themselves and not be afraid to put themselves out there. I also challenge my students to defend their ideas and to be willing to use criticism to refine and improve their research efforts. I guess my mantra is, just go for it. Stick your neck out and do your best. If you get caught off-guard or make a mistake, then go back and think about it, so it doesn't happen again. Everyone is improving, and no one is right all the time (despite what some may claim). So jump in there and be a part of it.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I have been very fortunate to have recruited a diverse group of men and women of many races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, from places all across the globe. I am convinced, the diversity of people that pursue graduate education in North America is one of the reasons our continent has dominated research in the sciences for the last several decades. Grad school for me was eye-opening in many ways because I became friends with people from everywhere. Perhaps my appreciation for the beautiful mix of people that I had the good luck to work with as a grad student has allowed me to recruit such a lovely, diverse group without much effort.

My current lab celebrates its diversity with potlucks where we bring food from our different cultures and talk about our different traditions. We also try to eat around the world, going to different restaurants around Edmonton. Finally, I try to be aware of innate bias in myself and everyone (the research is pretty intriguing and unsettling), so I challenge myself to see where my biases lie and try to address them so I can give all I interact with a fair shake. In the future, I would like to do more local community engagement, including with the First Nations communities of the Edmonton area.

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

I think people should consider diversity more broadly, gender diversity but also including under-represented minorities, those with different socioeconomic backgrounds, and other under-represented groups. When you look around at the science faculty, it is helpful to ask how much they reflect our current student body (undergraduate and graduate). It is also helpful to ask how well Alberta's diversity is reflected in the current student body. Science and engineering are about problem solving and having diverse backgrounds at the table increases the likelihood to not fall into the trap of group think (which is a universal human pitfall) and to think outside of the box. So increasing diversity is win-win. In terms of specifics, I think being mindful of representation is very helpful during hiring. Role models are incredibly useful. Regarding women in academia specifically, I believe that spousal hiring programs are very important, as many female academics are partnered with other academics.

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

Go for it. It's fun

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

My mom has always been comfortable discussing her views or expertise with people and she is naturally curious about how certain things work. Indeed, most of my family is pretty outspoken, so I have always felt compelled to speak up in class or meetings when I had something to say. My dad challenged us to always try to be better at whatever we were doing, whether we were naturally gifted at it or not: the effort and the improvement was what he valued. And both my parents encouraged my sister and I to see what we could bring to the world, rather than what the world could do for us. Kind of like the JFK quote. It made me feel like I had endless options, and that I could do anything. Finally, my parents were excellent role models because they are always trying to improve at work, so they listen to criticism, consider it, and then take what is helpful and discard what is not. I have done that throughout my career and it is very helpful. In this job, you have to have faith in yourself and your ideas, which means knowing when to listen to and when to ignore the naysayers. Regarding my scientific mentors, my graduate advisor helped me discover the beauty of chemistry and how to enjoy the voyage of discovery, which can be a frustrating process. My postdoc advisors made me feel like I was colleague material, that I could be an academic, which was essential to my future success. Until I heard those words: "so you're going to be an academic, right?" I was too nervous to imagine myself as a professor. Finally, I have had a couple of colleagues here that I admire who have taken the time to offer me advice and have shown interest and excitement in some developments in my lab. Their wisdom and confidence have been helpful and reassuring, and their own exciting research programs inspire me to ask significant questions in my research.