NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Shelagh Campbell

Dr. Shelagh Campbell

Find helpful mentors. Always try to figure out what you don't understand.

Professor, Biological Sciences
University of Alberta

Undergraduate degree (Bachelor of Independent Studies) from U. of Waterloo where I majored in cell biophysics and then worked as a research technician in a Physics laboratory with cultured mammalian cells for 2 years. Wanting to learn more I undertook an MSc (Molecular Biology and Genetics) at the U. of Guelph where I created a Drosophila mutant affecting how animals cope with oxidative stress. These mutants are still used by researchers around the world as a model for studying aging and neurodegenerative disease.

Leaving Canada, I took my PhD (Molecular and Cellular Biology) at the U. of Connecticut where my research involved cloning and molecularly characterizing a gene that controls cell growth and proliferation in flies and also in humans where it has been associated with cancer. I then undertook postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco, where I created another model system for studying genes that act like 'brakes' to control the cell cycle. Working to understand how these brakes work to integrate cell proliferation with development has continued to challenge my own laboratory for the past 20 years. My research trainees have made many interesting discoveries relating to how cells respond to developmental cues and DNA damage.

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

Thinking up new experiments and then figuring out how to do them.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I am a developmental geneticist. I want to understand how our genes coordinate all the complex processes required for the development of a fertilized egg into a morphologically complex organism. I am fascinated by the complexity and beauty of life in all of its magnificent forms. The fruit flies that I work with are an incredibly useful model system for studying almost any biological question that you might be interested in.

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

Biomedical research, biotechnology are the most direct application, however a knowledge of genetics can also be useful in many other fields, for example law, business and agriculture.

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

Aren't they all? It’s a life-long learning experience. I try to remain positive.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I try to treat everyone with respect and give as many students as I can a chance to see if they enjoy doing scientific research. Not everyone does and that's ok, too.

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

Many do start, but then get discouraged when they see how difficult it is to succeed in an environment where science is increasingly thought of as a commodity instead of an open-ended journey of discovery. This pernicious ideology has driven the proliferation of 'glam' awards (CERC, CRC etc) going almost exclusively to male scientists in the past ~10 years or so and has had a very corrosive effect on the Canadian scientific community in general, in my opinion.

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

It will never be easy but if you find science fascinating and research fun then it could be an excellent career path for you. Find helpful mentors, always try to figure out what you don't understand, consciously look at problems from different perspectives and keep up regularly with new advances in your areas of interest.

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

Other scientists - former mentors and colleagues. Also people I consider leaders in my field who are genuinely kind and interested in other people's work. Female scientists who inspired me: Barbara McLintock, Ursula Franklin, Marie Curie, Veronica Rodrigues, Terry Orr-Weaver, Elizabeth Blackburn, Gertrud Schupbach.