Honestly, if you enjoy it, just do it.
Margaret Docker is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and has been at the University of Manitoba since 2006. Her research focuses on the evolution, systematics, and conservation genetics of freshwater fishes, particularly lampreys. She’s worked on this fascinating group of ancient fishes for over 30 years, starting in the lab of Bill Beamish at the University of Guelph, where she did her PhD on sex determination and sex differentiation in lampreys.
Her recent interests include developing and applying environmental DNA techniques for monitoring aquatic invasive species and species at risk (i.e., being able to detect a species’ presence based on the DNA it leaves behind in the water), the evolution of alternate life history types in lampreys (i.e., closely-related species that are indistinguishable as larvae but, following metamorphosis, adopt dramatically different feeding and migratory habits), and the genetic basis of sex determination and sex differentiation in lampreys (which, despite my PhD on this topic, still remains poorly understood). See a list of references on lampreys here.l My greatest professional pleasure to date has been editing a book on the biology of lampreys for Springer’s Fish and Fisheries series; Volume 1 came out in 2015 and I am currently working on Volume 2.
Honestly, there aren’t many parts of my job that I don’t enjoy. However, I think the favourite part of my job—and this applies to both my teaching and my research—is being able to indulge my passion for learning and curiosity about how the natural world works and to share my findings with others. There is a deep satisfaction that comes from discovery, and being able to share that with students, collaborators, and the scientific community and general public is very rewarding. I’m happy to come into work every day, and I feel very privileged that I have the opportunity to do what I do—and to get paid for it!
Most of my research uses genetic tools to better understand the evolution of lampreys, a group of jawless fishes that has been around for more than 500 million years and represents one of the few survivors of the early vertebrate lineage (Reference) and to apply these tools to help conserve native lamprey populations that are in decline (which is common in many parts of the world) or, in the one case where a lamprey species invaded a new environment (the Great Lakes) and became a significant pest, to help control or eradicate the problematic species. The research into lamprey evolution is exciting because new advances in genetic technology are providing us with exciting new insights into vertebrate evolution and how lampreys have survived through at least four mass extinction events. The research related to conservation and control is equally exciting, because it allows me to apply my knowledge to “real world” environmental problems.
In addition to a career in academia, students with training in fish biology, conservation genetics, evolution, and ecology could work as governments biologists (e.g., with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment Canada, Manitoba Department of Sustainable Development), biologists at consulting or public utilities companies, genetics lab technicians, teachers, science or technical writers.
Biology isn’t as male-dominated as other scientific disciplines might be; I’ve always felt welcome.
I think I’m lucky in my field and place of work. I feel that there is already good diversity in terms of faculty, staff, and students (e.g., good female role models, women in positions of leadership) that diversity is naturally fostered. This doesn’t just apply to gender or ethnic diversity, but also diversity in terms of personality types (e.g., not everyone needs to be a “Type A” personality; there’s room for all types in science—we all have our strengths and weaknesses and they complement each other).
I think the biggest challenge isn’t necessarily attracting girls and young women into studying science, but rather retaining them in the profession and allowing them to rise to more senior positions. There is much discussion about ways to stop this “leaky pipeline” and I don’t think I can say anything in a few lines that hasn’t already been said, but providing girls and women with access to female role models and opportunities to pursue research and other career opportunities as students (i.e., so that they can see themselves as scientists and engineers and not just as students) are very important first steps.
Honestly, if you enjoy it, just do it. You belong and you have a lot to contribute; don’t second-guess yourself or let anyone else make you feel that it’s not for you because you’re female.
I’ve had a number of excellent role models—many of them men (who inspired me to do research because it just seemed like so much fun to them), and also a few females in more senior positions (who showed me that you can be a strong leader and female at the same time).