NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Laura Frost

Dr. Laura Frost

Don't underestimate yourself.

Professor Emerita (2010), Biological Sciences
University of Alberta

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

I enjoy research, especially working with graduate students and undergraduates in honour projects and summer students. They called me a data junkie. I needed my daily data fix. There is nothing better than going over the results of an experiment with my students.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I studied bacterial conjugation, the process by which bacteria transfer DNA encoding traits such as antibiotic and heavy metal resistance or bioremediation processes between one another. NSERC supported study on the filament that establishes the contact between donor and recipient cells called the pilus.

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

My lab did fairly high level molecular biology, bioinformatics and biochemistry. My students include an investment counsellor in biotech, patent agent, jobs in management in government and industry, bioinformatics at NCBI, jobs at biotechnology firms, teaching, academia. They have done very well and found jobs that I hardly envisioned 25 years ago. My great sadness is that so many of my students went to the US to get a job.

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

Yes. I try to deal with my bull elk colleagues with humour and being prepared. I probably was too easy on them.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I tried to have a mixture of genders, nationalities in my lab and supported what they wanted to do. I hope I was successful. I was Chair of Biological Sciences for 6 years. This was a challenge in some research areas in this large department (65-70 professors). We had 50:50 male:female graduate students, 10-15 % female post docs and then in some areas like fish physiology we had almost no female applicants. The famous leaky pipeline. Other areas like genetics had 40% female applicants. Our department was 40-45% female suggesting we did hire women often.

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

Most female graduate students I talked to, left STEM (academia) because they don't like the lifestyle. Long hours, difficulty in getting grants and papers published, the two body problem where they couldn't find a job in the same city as their partner. There were many reasons why my grad students thought I was crazy and made too little money for all the stress they thought I endured as a professor (almost all of them make way more than I did at their age).

The UofA had spousal recruiting policies that promoted a solution to the two body problem and gave women a break at Faculty Evaluation Committees when they were having children by allowing tenure to be delayed. This was/is good. The biggest problem was keeping the research ball rolling at the first renewal. More needs to be done to make sure the enormous resources put into hiring a young talented researcher don't fizzle out because of lack of funding for first renewals.

First grants should last longer and these new researchers should be in a separate pool from experienced researchers. Also, many new researchers need high priced equipment, usually bought with start-up funds. Grants to keep this equipment serviced need to be more generous and easily applied for.

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

If you are doing well, have good marks, enjoy research, win studentships and publish papers, odds are that you have what it takes to have a career in STEM. If you are not competitive or don't want to compete, avoid the female trap of working as a research associate or sessional lecturer. These jobs offer no security, the pay scale is terrible and your skills atrophy. Suddenly you are 45, your boss moves/retires/dies and you are an expensive middle-aged person who is unhireable. There are lots of good jobs out there that need well trained people with a background in STEM. Don't underestimate yourself. "Lean In" to quote Sheryl Sandburg.

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

I did my PhD in an all male biochemistry department. My supervisor Bill Paranchych was wonderful. My parents were scientists. My Dad was the carbohydrate chemist Ray Lemieux and my Mom had a PhD in Physical Chemistry. They were great role models although I was somewhat in awe of them.

Do you have anything to add?

I want young women to keep going in science but there is too much expected of young researchers these days. Lots of pressure to be popular, tech-savvy, social-media-engaged teachers, productive researchers with multiple grants, CEO and CFO of a sizeable enterprise, mentor grad and undergrad students, meet many regulatory requirements, review papers and grants and participate in University administration. And perform the magic of tech transfer. On top of that, get married and have kids and a decent work-life balance. Whew! It's too much. NSERC and Universities need to better mentor young researchers and allow them to develop the potential that got them hired in the first place. My father had no start-up money, I got $6000 whereas new professors these days routinely get hundreds of thousands of dollars when you add it all up. Many then fall off a cliff when the start-up money dries up. I don't think all that money and responsibility has made it easier nor can it replace true mentorship. It might be good to reduce money and expectations early in new careers and spread the money over several granting periods, making it easier to get money 5 years after the first grant. By year 10 (second renewal) the not-so-new researcher can compete in the regular competitions. I also like the Australian system whereby postdocs/research associates can apply for grants under the auspices of a mentor and then take the grant with them when they get their own position. It recognizes their value to the system and eases the transition to being an independent PI.