NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Dr. Laura Chasmer

Do what you want to do and keep going. Life is hard and things won't work out at times, but new doors open when other doors close. Just don't give up and you will get there

Assistant Professor. Physical Geography
University of Lethbridge

Laura Chasmer is an Assistant Professor in Physical Geography at the University of Lethbridge. She completed her Ph.D. in Geogaphy at Queen's University (2008). Prior to joining the University of Lethbridge, she worked as a post doctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo. Laura's research focuses on wetland and permafrost ecosystem change in central and northern Boreal environments and the implications of these changes on wildfire, climate and natural resources. She is currently working with scientists from the Province of Alberta to develop the Alberta Wetland Policy; the Canadian Forest Service to improve wildfire models; the Government of the NWT to better understand permafrost thaw and ecosystem change; and industrial partners to improve reclamation monitoring in the Oil Sands. Laura loves art, music and riding horses.

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

I love working in the natural environment. Integrating field work and observations into what is happening over the broader landscape using remote sensing is really interesting! I am also fortunate to spend part of my time operating airborne lidar systems in small aircraft as part of my research program. It is amazing to see the diversity of ecosystems that exist throughout Canada!

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

My research examines how northern wetlands and permafrost ecosystems are changing as a result of climatic changes and disturbance. Canada contains vast amounts of both frozen and unfrozen peatlands, and these have accumulated C for millennia. The changes in climate that we are seeing have a profound impact on the movement of greenhouse gases, water and energy within these ecosystems. I am especially interested in how their rapid changes are affecting wildfire burn severity and what this might mean for these ecosystems in the future. The implications of the research is quite concerning, and this really interests me. I also find it really exciting to be both seeing what is happening 'on the ground' and also measuring these things with highly technical instruments!

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

Most students seem to have little difficulty finding careers with an education in physical geography. Field and environmental process experience provides the necessary background for careers in government and consulting. The ability to put what has been learned doing field work into a computer modelling framework using Geographic Information Systems and remote sensing is highly sought after. Students that I have worked with have obtained successful careers in environmental consulting, academia, provincial and federal government, their own businesses, insurance, survey geomatics, agriculture, computing, and many others.

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

My workplace is male-dominated and even more so here in Alberta than in other provinces where I've worked. There are also more male students in my discipline. Even so, I have always had fruitful and respectful interactions with male colleagues and am equally encouraging to male students. I don't change my feminine attributes and am proud of what I am doing.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I encourage both men and women to work with me on various projects, from single term independent study projects to graduate work at the PhD level. I also work with a variety of people across disciplines, and keep an open mind as to new creative ideas and collaborations in my research area.

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

An education in science is worthwhile! At the University of Lethbridge, we have a great group of women who host Girls STEM days. I think that this is very encouraging! The girls love it, and we should keep doing this through different ages up to late teens. More scholarships for women in science disciplines would be great, as well as opportunities and funding for women to work with female role models. I am also pleased to see that the Federal Government is encouraging of women in science through the CRC program.

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

A career in science and engineering can be extremely fulfilling. I work in the natural environment and it is wonderful. My career is a passion. Perhaps one of the tricky parts with any career nowadays is work/life balance, especially when you leave your job at 5pm, go home and start your next job as 'Mom'. It can be very tiring. A few women have asked me how to navigate this as they want both career and family. I have two young children and an academic husband. I admit, it is hard work, but is worthwhile (I practice my science on my kids every day :) My advice to young girls and women is: With romantic partners, try to find clues that indicate that s/he is supportive of your career path and equality in life while at home (including playing with children, doing chores, cooking, etc.). This will improve your overall sense of balance, health and well-being, and will also help to reduce stereotypes in future generations over time. It is important.

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

My role models have been my PhD and post-doctoral supervisors as well as other people I have worked with in the discipline. Interestingly, these have all been men, but they have appreciated what I bring to the table and have usually always been supportive and encouraging. My mum and dad (nurse and geography teacher) have also been great role models as have my grandparents. My brother has also been terrific (another geography teacher)!