NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Tanya E. S. Dahms

Tanya E. S. Dahms

Find your own way of pursuing your goals and establish your own path.

Professor, Biochemistry
University of Regina

Tanya studied Biology and Chemistry at the University of Waterloo (BSc 1990), Biophysics as a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) scholar (PhD 1996) at Ottawa University and the National Research Council (NRC), X-ray crystallography at Purdue University as an NSERC postdoctoral fellow, and microscopy as a NSERC visiting fellow at NRC. Tanya was appointed an Assistant Professorship at the University of Regina (Uof R, 1999) where she launched the atomic force microscopy (AFM) facility, expanded to include integrated correlative AFM-confocal microscopy. Now a Full Professor she studies the impact of xenobiotics on microbes and human cells using advanced microscopy and biochemical methods.

As an academic, what is your favourite part of your job?
I very much enjoy research. It is really fun to mentor new students and witness their excitement of discovering new results and watching them grow into independent researchers.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

The Dahms group currently studies microbial responses to external stimuli, including mechanisms associated with carbohydrate remodeling and cell wall integrity. We pioneered techniques to study the surface ultrastructure and physical properties associated with mechanisms of polarized and non-polarized growth in whole, live cells of moss (Physcomitrella patens) and fungi (Aspergillus nidulans) by atomic force microscopy (AFM).

More recently we have been exploring invasion mechanisms for pathogenic (Escherichia coli, Pantoea stewartii, Neisseria gonorrhoeae) and symbiotic (Rhizobium leguminosarum ) bacteria, and opportunistic fungal/yeast pathogens (A. nidulans, Candida albicans and krusei). We use a battery of microscopy techniques including atomic force microscopy (AFM), fluorescence, laser scanning confocal (two-photon), transmission and scanning electron microscopy, and near-field interferomic infrared AFM (ALS, Berkeley) to complement traditional and modern (metabolomics, proteomics) biochemical approaches.

Of special interest to the group is how the cell surface responds directly to environmental stressors (i.e. metals, 2,4-D, antifungal agents) and how it is remodeled during growth, differentiation, and biofilm formation in wild type and genetically engineered microbes. It is exciting to be able to develop new tools for environmental impact assessment and antimicrobial combination therapies on the nanoscale

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

Former group members have gone on to study medicine, work as team leaders in pharmaceutical companies, research analysts in the health region, patent lawyers, government researchers, laboratory managers, and professors.

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

As a graduate student I was often the only female in my laboratory and when I arrived at the University of Regina, I was the only female in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Biology and Physics. The situation is somewhat improved, with two women professors in Biology and two in Chemistry and Biochemistry. When I was a graduate student, I mostly adopted male qualities to fit in. Now I do research, teach and supervise in my own way and push to have women’s challenges acknowledged at the departmental, faculty and university level.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I foster global partnerships, sharing of information, exchanging students and resources to address global problems. The majority of my research group is made up of students and research associates from other countries. We honour and celebrate each other’s cultures and customs. I foster a harmonious work environment in which we can learn from one another, celebrating unique perspectives. Young women tend to flock to my laboratory, likely since they seek a strong female role model.

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

It is important for institutions to provide ways to help young women feel as though they belong in male-dominated careers. Certainly it helps to have equal representation of women in these underrepresented fields, as evidenced by the number of female mentees that are inspired by female leaders. We need to create learning environments in which women feel safe to express and explore their ideas. Creating and supporting women’s groups on campus helps shine a light on bias and discrimination so that it can be adequately addressed.

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

My advice is to pursue your dreams and don’t let your unique character get lost in the process. You do not have to act like a male to inhabit a male-dominated career. Find your own way of pursuing your goals and establish your own path, rather than trying to fit in.

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

With a lack of female role models, many of my mentors were men who did not discriminate and celebrated the fact that I chose a different path than my male peers. I gained inspiration from stories about female scientists who were empowered and productive, even while raising families. A good example is Jane Shelby Richardson, an American biophysicist, who developed a streamlined method of representing protein 3D structure (Richardson diagrams) during a time when her children were very young.