NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

 Susan G.W. Kaminskyj

Dr. Susan G.W. Kaminskyj

I would suggest taking some courses in business management and entrepreneurship.

Professor, Biology
University of Saskatchewan

Dr. Susan G.W. Kaminskyj joined the Department of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan in 1997. She has been a full professor since 2008. She completed her PhD in Biology at the University of Toronto in 1994, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Purdue from 1994-97.

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

Two answers: 1) helping and then watching students get turned-on to exploring research questions, and 2) designing projects to study questions that I think are important for the future. There's nothing quite like the thrill of having an idea, developed from reading or from observations, designing one or more experiments to test that idea, and then being the first person to know the answer. Of course, this is especially sweet if you are correct. I didn't decide to become an academic, in many ways I fell into it by accident and a lot of luck. That was 25 years ago. Now becoming a faculty member is far more difficult, and very much more competitive. Equally, there are far more options for PhD's in government, industry, as entrepreneurs, and even in fields like law.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I study fungi, a model species called Aspergillus nidulans, and another called Trichoderma harzianum. The genus, Aspergillus includes species that help in the food industry (A. sojae and A. oryzae) and in aspects of the drug industry (A. terreus, A. niger). Some aspergilli are plant pathogens (A. flavus, A. parasiticus) and some are human pathogens (A. fumigatus, A. flavus). Yes, A. flavus does both. A. fumigatus is the most serious inhaled fungal pathogen in the world, and it is increasing in its virulence. Most people who are infected with A. fumigatus already have an underlying disease such as HIV or TB, and frequently the combination is deadly.

Nowadays, some A. fumigatus strains are primary pathogens that can infect otherwise healthy people. There are only a few anti-fungal drugs, and fungi are able to develop resistance very quickly because of how they grow. Fortunately, what we learn from one species we can often apply to others, a powerful method that harnesses evolutionary biology to understand function. However, we are usually playing catch-up against pathogens, since their abilities to mutate and adapt are fast and efficient. Trichoderma harzianum strain TSTh20-1 was isolated from a dandelion that was growing on coarse tailing (CT) sand in the Athabasca oil sands region of Alberta. This strain has the unusual ability to not only allow the original plant to grow on CT: we can transfer the same ability to other plants.

We hope to be able to use TSTh20-1 to help grow plants on oil contaminated land and to decontaminate it. I am trying to develop this into a business, and I am beginning to make progress with this idea. Here is a link to my website, although it is not quite up to date.

How does your research affect people’s everyday lives?

I began the Trichoderma work because I hope to make a difference (in a small way) to humanity in my life time. Oil spills and leaks create local islands of environmental stress, which are difficult to remediate. The Aspergillus work is continuing to add to the knowledge of how fungi grow and how we might be able to control their pathogenic tendencies in the future.

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

One of my Trichoderma students is now an environmental scientist at a firm that does remediation work. The other two are in medical professions. My Aspergillus students are faculty (2), headed for a faculty position (2), or in the technical and medical professions (4).

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

Essentially all STEM fields are male dominated. My daughter is a software engineer for Microsoft, and she says the same thing. Generally we just learn to cope, grow a thicker skin, and get on with our jobs. There are Employee assistance programs for short term counselling, if needed. Usually by the time you have reached university levels you have already developed coping mechanisms.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

Most of my students have been from international recruitment, and currently I am considering people from Mexico, China, and Bangladesh. This trend is highly likely to continue. Diversity is important, since people bring skills beyond 'book learning' to their careers. When I started at the University of Saskatchewan, the vast majority of faculty and students were Caucasian, and most faculty were men. Now, at least for students, there is tremendous cultural diversity. There are more female and visible minority faculty. Change takes longer at the higher admin levels, because those people are selected from faculty. Nevertheless, we have several Deans, and at least two Vice-Presidents who are women. We have also had a woman president, and there are several in other western Canadian universities

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

It is ideal to begin to teach science and mathematics from the earliest possible time, even before kindergarten. Many children have natural talent that can be wasted by too much screen time, even if the screen is displaying math and science shows. The most fun is by trying things. STEM activities are fun, and should be approached with an open-ended and exploratory mind-set, rather than always working toward finding a particular answer. As a society, we need to be more focussed at teaching arithmetic, and then mathematics. Although the US and Canadian systems put a lot of work into teaching basic arithmetic skills, compared to the Japanese, Chinese, and European systems of math education, we are tremendously behind. While it is true that the best North American students are world class, the average student is not. Memorization and drilling is faster and more effective for basic facts. The same thing goes for reading, in that phonics and practice is far more effective than whole word recognition.

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

There are five important areas: literacy, numeracy, software and computer skills, presentation, organization and time management. I recommend taking every science and math course you can. Go to summer camps aimed at science and technology. Take the 'hard' sciences, including physics and chemistry and geology, as well as biology. Definitely take computer science, starting as early as possible. Whatever else you do in your career, computers will be an integral tool. Learn to write in clear English, and to organize your ideas into paragraphs and then into essays and manuscripts. Unless you can communicate your science, your results won't make a difference. Learn to manage your time effectively. We each get 168 hours a week, but some people use their time better than others. Include social activities and sports -- people who are well-rounded have stronger careers.

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

My role models are people (women and men) who are at or slightly ahead of me in my scientific career. My plan has always been to find someone whose work and attitudes I admire, and then to emulate them.

How do you manage work-life balance?

Not very well. However, I know many people who have a much better handle on this.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would also take some courses in business management and entrepreneurship. Many scientists become at least part-time entrepreneurs, and I am learning the basics of this new field far later than would have been optimal.