NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Maria Velez

Dr. Maria Isabel Vélez

Talk to an advisor, look for a mentor, read books.

Associate Professor, Geology
University of Regina

Maria Isabel Velez, born in Colombia. Holds a BSc in Geology from EAFIT University Colombia, and MREs from the University of Edinburg and a PhD from U. of Amsterdam. She researches the changes in freshwater ecosystems induced by climate and anthropogenic activities through paleolimnological and paleoenvironmental reconstructions using diatom and sediment analyses. She is currently collaborating with the Universidad del Norte, Los Andes and Universidad Nacional (Colombia), Universidad del Sur (Argentina), UNAM (Mexico), Indiana-Purdue (USA), STRI (Panama), Leicester (UK) and U. of Amsterdam (The Netherlands).

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

Doing research with my students and nurturing my classes with data from my own personal research. I enjoy immensely the contact with students and young people.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I reconstruct past climates and environments using diatoms and sediment analyses. I enjoy every step of the way: from collecting cores in the field to plotting a diatom diagram; also, the correlation between tools or proxies is very exciting. It is a beautiful process, of putting pieces together like in a big puzzle. I am also very excited about the possibility of using my paleo data in the risk analysis of water bodies! I think soon I will be able to make my results more relevant to society.

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

They can work on any geoscience field, from resource exploration to exploitation, to environmental management.

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

Yes, it is. The department and the faculty are male dominated. I did not know I had to negotiate, I thought Canada was already a gender discrimination free country. Now 10 years down the road I realize the system is discriminatory, my male colleagues don´t know they are being harsh and unfair to us. One way to negotiate, was to be part of the update of the Criteria Document and the Strategic Plan for the Faculty. This active participation came after forming a study group with other female colleagues in Science, to understand better the phenomenon on gender (and minority) discrimination.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

Oh that is a difficult one. Mostly in my classes: I celebrate all knowledge and science produced by women and since I am constantly reading on the subject on women in academia, I bring a lot of this discussion for the short breaks I give in class. I do however actively recruit female students for my research, I invite them to volunteer in my lab.

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

Outreach at high schools by female profs, and to prepare better high school teachers. Math and physics are taught towards males mostly! At least from what I know (my son is in high school). Chem, Physics and Math need to be better taught and in a way that will interest women! Mentoring is also a very important activity, it takes a lot of time but is worth doing it. Institutions could give us more time to mentor girls and early career academics (particularly if coming from outside Canada).

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

Talk to an advisor, look for a mentor, read books on the subject, look for the resources around you and use them.

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

Mostly men, my supervisors, but I did have a female supervisor that helped as a model.

Do you have anything to add?

Yes: please consider that there are still a lot of systemic biases in academia that prevent women for advancing in their careers. Particularly in research: lack of funding, higher rates of rejection in publications, not very many invitations to be a keynote speaker, etc. make us look bad in the evaluations systems. For instance, my lack of funding has been equilibrated by me actively searching for collaboration, but this is perceived somehow by males as nothing very valuable. Also, it feels sometimes that my training to undergraduates is also not very valued!