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Women in science and the search for good mentorship

By Eleni Kanavas  •  May 22, 2015

A year ago when Dr. Brandy Callahan was preparing her application for the L’Oréal Canada-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards, she never thought she would win. Then, Nov. 25, 2014, at a ceremony in Ottawa, Ontario, Callahan was presented with an Excellence in Research Fellowship, which gives Canadian women scientists the opportunity to pursue and expand their research projects.

“I was surprised to receive it. This award came at a good time because I was starting to feel a bit discouraged with my research and it was the ego-boost I needed,” says Callahan, a postdoctoral fellow supervised by Dr. Sandra Black, director of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI). The award, worth a $20,000 stipend, will enable her to study further the role of cerebrovascular disease in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Trained as a clinical neuropsychologist at the Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Québec, Callahan came to work with Black to learn how to use neuroimaging, a new area of focus in her research. “I’m learning how to use neuroimaging techniques that are specialized to detect white matter changes in the brain, which may give us some kind of hint as to whether someone is at a higher risk for developing dementia,” says Callahan.

Here, she talks to Eleni Kanavas about what it’s like to be a woman in science and why it matters to find good role models to stay motivated in the field.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in research?

I’ve been pretty lucky to have had consistently very good mentors, and some of them have been women, but most of them have been men. My thesis supervisor with whom I worked for six years was an excellent mentor. He encouraged me to explore my interests and curiosities. He was present and provided guidance, but he also let me explore new ideas on my own, which allowed me to discover my scientific identity.

Dr. Black is an amazing role model for women specifically because I think she is a phenomenal example of how productive and prolific someone can be while having a family, teaching and being a clinician. I feel she’s very involved and very good at everything. She’s really been an inspiration and a great mentor to me.

Why is it important for mentors to encourage young women to pursue science?

I think having role models in science can definitely encourage girls to think about careers that they might not have otherwise considered. Having female role models in science conveys the idea that there is a place for women in these kinds of jobs.

Are there certain characteristics that make a good mentor standout?

Someone who is able and willing to play two roles: the supervisor and someone who will listen and be receptive to your ideas.

How would you describe mentorship in the Black lab?

One thing I love about working in her group is that we do a lot of peer mentoring. She has other postdoctoral fellows and graduate students that work for her, and even though I’m not formally anybody’s supervisor, other students can come to me for questions or supervision. I often see the other postdocs and bounce ideas or questions off them.

What advice do you have for female trainees uncertain about a science career?

My first piece of advice is definitely to try it out because I’m so happy that I did. I was lucky to have a good supervisor and a good environment, but it ended up being so much more rewarding and fun than I expected. The other piece of advice for women considering a career in science is to find a supervisor or a mentor that you love working with because grad school is long and difficult and science in general can be quite discouraging. But if you have someone there whom you can talk to and who will let you explore your own ideas and guide you, then it can be the most rewarding experience.

Dr. Brandy Callahan