All the Right Questions: an Interview with Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour on Women in Science, Diversity and Life

According to Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour, a distinguished chemist and the Associate Dean of Science, Diversity at the University of Alberta, there are many traits that make a good scientist—but the fundamental one is curiosity.

“The basic curiosity is what starts everyone off,” she says, “How do things work? And leading from that is how to recognize the questions that need to be asked.”

She remembers baking with her mother as she grew up in Scotland. “I was never allowed to eat the dough before it went into the oven, but after, it was very good. And when I discovered chemistry could tell me why it was good—well, it was very exciting.”

Dr. Armour also credits her love of science to a box full of toys she was given to play with as a child. There were “… two train sets, a Meccano set, building blocks of all kinds. Things a boy would play with, and I loved them.” She believes that this kind of informal learning can make a major difference in career decisions. Exploration inspired Dr. Armour to enter into chemistry, and she wants to make scientific exploration and involvement more accessible to all women.

“I stayed in this for one reason. I believe that women should have every opportunity to make choices to choose what they want to do,” she says, believing it is important for everyone to be able to make “informed career choices.”

To this end, Dr. Armour helped found WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology) in 1982, and has watched it grow from an internship program placing ten female students into science labs, to the large network it is today. The idea was sparked a year earlier, when the Vice President of Research Gordin Kaplan (who Armour says “was probably twenty years ahead of his time in thinking”) attended a packed seminar. It was on microprocessors, a growing field, but out of all the participants there was only a single woman.

Dr. Armour remembers Gordon asking, “Why are other women not recognizing that this is the way of the future?” Armour, who had studied the low number of women involved in science during the previous year, threw herself into the project of creating WISEST. And the rest, you might say, was history.

Today, WISEST consists of many different outreach programs aimed at women from elementary school to their early careers. One of the highlights remains the Summer Internship Program, which places around 60 female and male Grade 11 students in research labs focused on less-traditional areas for their gender. WISEST is a chance to “have an experience that some of our undergraduates don’t get until fourth year, and some don’t get at all. You experience doing something real.”

According to Dr. Armour, that addresses one of the main problems with engaging students in high school science. At lower levels, it can be hard to see the big picture, or get excited about formulas and theories if you are not able to link them to real world applications and ideas.  “I liken it to going into an English class and being told ‘alright, we’re going to learn grammar.’ Is there anything more off putting?”

Instead, she suggests, students should read beautiful English.  Dr. Armour believes opportunities to put science into practise outside of the classroom are important, and indeed, transformative. She still remains actively involved in WISEST and is an inspiring mentor to the participants.

It isn’t just women who benefit from increased diversity in the sciences.  “Science is all about asking questions, and people of different social backgrounds ask different questions, which is exactly what we need,” Dr. Armour says. The world is facing new challenges and issues larger than ever before, and anything that allows for a more “in-depth conversation” to occur should be encouraged. While gender diversity isn’t the only type of diversity, it is one of the easiest to measure and target.

Dr. Armour also points to studies that show how more women participating in a group can lead to higher collective intelligence. If women are on boards, the return on sales investment increases. This is a “very strong business case” for encouraging more diversity, but “if diversity is so important, why is it so slow in coming to the fore? And it’s getting an awful lot better, but if you have a group of people who look similar and think similar, if they want to bring someone into the fold, they’ll bring someone who looks and thinks like them. Women do it just as much as men.”

While Dr. Armour is happy about the advancements in diversity already made, she knows that there is still a way to go. More women are choosing science for their undergraduate degree, but there is a major drop in higher levels of science, especially between post doctorate and faculty positions.

“There’s a sense that if you are going to be an academic you have to give your whole life to the work. Part of it is the long hours, and part of it is the long hours you have to look for funding for your research.”

Women seem more hesitant to make that leap. “There are pros and cons. I sometimes wonder if grad students don’t always see the pros,” Dr. Armour says. After all, “You get to do what you love.”

Any more advice for aspiring scientists?  “[You need to have] a certain determination because things don’t always go smoothly. You need to be very committed and very determined.” And don’t forget to stop and look around. “University is all about exploration,” Dr. Armour says. Be curious. Ask questions. And figure out what you love.

 

This article was written by Brynn Lewis as part of the ScienceExpo Ambassador program, which promotes youth leadership in science. Brynn is a high school student passionate about scientific research, and was privileged to first meet Dr. Armour through WISEST summer internship program. 

ScienceExpo is a network of young people who provide enrichment opportunities for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, also known as STEM. It started in Ontario in 2010, and is now currently expanding its reach in Alberta. For more information and interesting science connections, visit our website http://www.science-expo.org/.

Photo Credit: Incidencematrix via photopin (CC)

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