NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Sarah Plosker

Dr. Sarah Plosker

The majority of men in mathematics have been extremely supportive. I don't feel I need to negotiate my way through any sort of systemic sexism.

Associate Professor, Mathematics & Computer Science
Brandon University

Dr. Sarah Plosker, born and raised in Regina, SK, completed her BSc (2008) and MSc (2010) at the University of Regina, and subsequently moved to Guelph, ON for her PhD in Applied Mathematics (2013). She started as an Assistant Professor at Brandon University in Brandon, MB directly following her PhD, and is now an Associate Professor.

She is a Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information Theory; her research is also supported by NSERC and CFI.

She and her husband are building an earthship on a small acreage outside of the city. They have two dogs, two goats, and four hens (and probably have more animals by the time you are reading this!)

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

I like the flexible schedule and that I am not tied to my desk from 9-5 Monday to Friday. If I am making good headway on a problem, I will work on it for hours without thinking how late in the evening it is or that it happens to be Saturday. On the other hand, if I'm not being productive and have hit a wall on a Tuesday afternoon, I will leave the office and go home or go for a walk to clear my head. Overall, I am much more productive than if I had a strict punch-in punch-out schedule.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I work on matrix analysis and operator theory applications to quantum information theory. I enjoy learning new things and solving problems. I am always excited to collaborate with other researchers and students.

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

People I knew from graduate school have gone on to all sorts of exciting professions. Some have gone into the tech industry and work at Microsoft, IBM, and Google. Others have gone into financial math and work for large corporations and banks, or work for governmental intelligence agencies doing things like cryptography. Some have stayed in academia, becoming professors or lecturers, while others have gone into math education at the high school or college level.

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

Funny enough, our small department consists of twelve people, five of whom are women, so it is not really male dominated. Definitely my field overall has more men than women, which is noticeable when attending conferences, but the majority of men in mathematics have been extremely supportive. I don't feel I need to negotiate my way through any sort of systemic sexism. But that is just my experience.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I hired a female Aboriginal mathematics student to organize fun math events at the Indigenous Peoples' Centre on campus throughout the academic year (things like Sudoku tournaments, Pi day celebration, etc). My hope with this initiative is to promote mathematics and increase the number of Aboriginal math majors and minors. I am also a mentor for our "Success-1" program, which helps students at risk of failing or dropping out of first year. Many of the students at my university are from a non-traditional background (e.g. mature students who are often single parents who took some time away from school to raise their children).

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

It would be great to showcase female talent at each institution. When I was doing my MSc, the University had a Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) chapter that hosted events where female faculty gave short presentations on their research. As a student, I found it very inspirational. I hope other institutions adopt a similar event.

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

I would say to stick with it. At the undergraduate level in Canada, women outnumber men. At the Master's level, it drops a bit but it is still close to 50-50. Then, once it comes time for a PhD, it seems many women stop to have kids, so at this stage it is mostly men at university. Being a prof allows for an incredible amount of freedom in your schedule, so in my mind it's a great profession to have if you want to have kids. So, I would say to continue your education and don't stop after one or two degrees--- go for the PhD!

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

A long time informal mentor of mine is a collaborator and friend, whom I started working with during the first year of my PhD. He is incredibly supportive and on several occasions, a good year after he's given me some particular advice, I realize that he was completely correct. Don't limit yourself to only female role models and mentors.