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Diversity and Inclusivity in Science

Scientists make discoveries by building on previous discoveries made by scientists before them. But what happens when the next generation of scientists is not an accurate representation of the population? What happens when we fail to bring in fresh perspectives? On this episode, we talk about the importance of diversity and inclusivity in the world of science.

Transcript

Joel Houle

There’s this famous quote by one of the most influential scientists of all time, Isaac Newton, where he says: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What Newton meant by this was that he was able to make his scientific discoveries by building on previous discoveries made by scientists before him. This is how science moves forward. We publish advancements and discoveries to make them available to the next generation of young minds to build on them, bringing fresh perspectives and different life experiences to the table.

But what happens when the next generation of scientists is not an accurate representation of the population? How is our collective scientific knowledge supposed to progress if we fail to bring in these fresh perspectives? On this episode, we talk about the importance of diversity and inclusivity in the world of science.

Welcome to a new episode of Simply Science — the podcast that talks about the amazing scientific work that our experts at Natural Resources Canada are doing. My name is Joel Houle. And joining me is my cohost Barb Ustina. Barb, how are you?

Barb Ustina

I’m doing just fine right now. And I really like how you explain how science is built on a series of previous discoveries. In other words, science today reflects science from yesterday, last year, last century, even as far back to the dawn of time, really. Even if they didn’t call it, quote, science back then. And science, like everything else in life, is always evolving. It’s important to keep up with changing times.

Joel Houle

So true. That’s why I think it’s important to talk about diversity and inclusivity, specifically in science in this case. What can you tell us about our guest today?

Barb Ustina

Today’s guest, Cécile Siewe, is a director general at CanmetENERGY Devon, Alberta. She’s a chemical engineer who oversees a research and development team exploring technology solutions for the oil and gas sector. Specifically, they’re looking for ways to be competitive and environmentally responsible. It’s a long way from Central Africa where Cécile grew up. And when she’s not at the office, she’s involved in mentoring young people who are interested in STEM, or careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Joel Houle

I’m looking forward to talk to Cécile. Should we bring her in?

Barb Ustina

Yeah, let’s bring her in.

Joel Houle

Joining us today is Cécile Siewe. Cécile, how are you?

Cécile Siewe

I’m very well, thank you.

Joel Houle

Perfect. Can you start by telling us a little bit about what you do? You are a director general at CanmetENERGY Devon, which is in Alberta. But more specifically, what does your work involve?

Cécile Siewe

I run a research facility with about 100 people, and our focus is how to make the production of oil and gas more environmentally friendly. So that’s it in a nutshell.

Barb Ustina

Wow, that sounds like pretty interesting work. It’s very forward-looking, that’s for sure. So today we‘re talking about inclusivity and diversity in science. And I’m wondering, why do you think it’s important to have a variety of voices represented in science and research?

Cécile Siewe

Well, at the very basic level, research and science are trying to find solutions to the problems for all of mankind, not just for one group. So it really helps to have the input of the different groups that are represented in those solutions that are being designed to address the big issues that face us.

The second thing I would add to that is just the level of intelligence and brainpower that might be untapped in these underrepresented communities — bringing them in to the fold so that society at large can also benefit from having those voices. We don’t know where the person who might find the next change solution and curing cancer — we don’t know where they might be today. And we might very easily lose out on the opportunity to hear from them or have their input if they don’t find a way to make it into science and make it into a scientific discipline.

Barb Ustina

So really, it’s about listening and it’s about providing space at the table for all kinds of stories, realizing that every person brings a different story to the table. So it’s a matter of just being prepared to listen to those stories and give value to everybody’s story at the table.

Can you think of any examples of when a specific voice might have come to the table or sort of an example of how a variety of voices have helped shape a particular mission or a particular science?

Cécile Siewe

A couple of examples come to mind. Not so much in my discipline, because my area of research tends to be a lot more, how can I put this, group-agnostic. So we make cleaner oil and gas. We try to reduce the GHG emissions to the environment that impact everyone.

But if you think about areas like the field of artificial intelligence, we know that developing those tools — the people who design and develop and optimize those tools, they use what they know as examples. So that’s how you end up in a situation where facial recognition really identifies white men very easily, but it struggles when it comes to identifying people of color and even distinguishing between men and women. So that’s just one example.

The second example is if I have a bruise or a rash, I would want to look into a textbook or look on the web. So what could this be? Chances are 90 percent of the features that I would see, the bruise or the rash would be on white skin. And it presents differently. If I go to a doctor and they look at it, they’re seeing it on brown or black skin, and it presents differently to them from what they are experienced with. So having representation in those fields and ensuring — putting in place solutions — that would be acceptable and benefit everyone in society.

Joel Houle

That makes a lot of sense. Let’s talk about you and your own experiences growing up. When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in science?

Cécile Siewe

I grew up in Africa. I grew up in Cameroon, which is in Central Africa, West Africa. Until I was in high school. And I was brought up believing that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. So I had this really strong belief in myself. Plus, I just enjoy the sciences. I really, really enjoy the sciences. It was challenging. But, you know, when something was difficult, it wasn’t, Oh, I have to give this up, it’s not for me. Because why not? You can do this. You can absolutely do this. So I can’t claim to having had a call to science. It was just a space I enjoyed and I like doing. And when I went into university, I didn’t have a specific career in mind. But I knew that I wanted to explore the scientific area more.

Joel Houle

I see. There seems to be, maybe this is more of a North American thing, but there seems to be a lot that’s said and written about how young girls don’t really — that they often decide that they don’t want to pursue a career in science at a very young age. Why do you suppose that is?

Cécile Siewe

The first thing is, I don’t know that it’s the young girls who decide not to do science, right. I would maybe reframe the premise of that question a little bit. I don’t think young girls say, I don’t want to do that. It’s more that, from a very early age they have been bombarded with signals from society at large that either this is a space that’s not for you, it’s not cool or it’s too difficult. And by the time they get to be 12 or 13, they might think, well, they don’t want to do science. And they really think they’re making a decision, but we don’t know the extent to which the decision has been informed by signals from society. So that’s one thing.

And the real shame is that, research has shown that those young girls almost never go back to science. So you end up with a whole group of young women who have closed the door to opportunities to contributions that they could have made to society without fully realizing the consequences of what they could do. So I’m not expecting that — I’m not trying to suggest that every young girl can or should grow up to be a scientist. I would just like them to keep the door open long enough that they are making an informed decision at some point in time.

I don’t know that it’s particularly a North American issue. When I was growing up, some of those signals from society — I mean, I could see how my teacher would have almost a peer-to-peer discussion with a male counterpart who asked the question. And me asking a question was almost like, you’re interrupting the flow of things. And if you ask the second question, there’s just random impatience from the teacher. So there were things like that going on. But it’s a challenge. And I think young women face or encounter it all across the world, not just in North America.

Barb Ustina

I do want to take you back to when you were a young child growing up and first discovering for yourself that you do want to pursue a career in science. What kind of role models did you have to sort of talk to at the time?

Cécile Siewe

I cannot say that I have role models to talk to. A huge influence in my life is the fact that my parents had a very strong belief in the importance of education. With good education, there isn’t anything that you can’t accomplish. So that was the deciding, guiding factor in my life, so to speak.

But with respect to female role models, the first one would be my mother and maybe some of my aunts. My mother was a very strong woman who also overcame great odds to pursue a career. And she was a midwife nurse. And she had that career for a very, very long time. But I was in a discussion just the other day when I realized that after I left high school, essentially since I left Africa, I did not have a Black teacher for all my years of university. I do think that has improved somewhat, but the people that I spoke to who encouraged me were all white male.

Barb Ustina

Role models have a very wide and important influence on people, especially at that age, when they’re just sort of entering their careers or university. Do you feel like you would have benefited by having role models like young Black women and young Black men as role models when you’re at that age?

Cécile Siewe

Oh, undoubtedly. I think eventually one figures things out. But instead of reinventing the wheel, there are some things I could have figured out much sooner. There are some signals or some of those unwritten rules that I could have realized and leaned on much sooner. There are some things I learned after I have been in the workplace for like 10, 15 years and I’m going, Oh my gosh, is this true? Is this real? So having a role model who can give you some of that constructive feedback in informal settings would have been very helpful for sure.

Joel Houle

Have you had the chance to be a role model for the younger generation?

Cécile Siewe

Yes. I did recognize when I came to North America — but if I hadn’t been born where I was, there was no guarantee that I would have ended up with a career in the sciences. I really was allowed to believe and I truly believed that I could do anything, I could be anything. Just make a choice, and I could do that. So I can see how, without some of those influences, it would have been easier to just default to a path of dissipation and go that way.

I also had some very, very strong support from supervisors along the way. So this is an academic setting — my PhD supervisor, my post-doc supervisor, people who for no reason took my interest. Because I benefited from some very good managers. For all those reasons, I always felt it incumbent to give back or pay it forward.

There’s a program that we have called Operation Minerva; it’s been a while since I was engaged in that program. But the idea is to get young, Grade 8, Grade 9 students to go spend a day with a female professional in the sciences and just shadow them for a day and get to see what a career in science is like in action. Hopefully to spur that interest and really make science come to life and real for these young ladies.

Joel Houle

So you’ve worked in the oil and gas sectors for years now, which is a very traditional field. What attracted you to that field in the first place?

Cécile Siewe

For that, I would have to go back to my undergraduate years. The program I was in, we had to do a one-year internship, a one-year co-op program as you might say in Canada. And I happened to do mine as a research scientist for British Petroleum, BP research, in the U.K. And I really enjoyed what I did there. The thing I was working on, the challenges of it — it was very interesting. And I decided I wanted to make a career in that space. And that’s when I decided what I would do for my PhD. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Barb Ustina

Were there any particular challenges for you at that stage in terms of being a young Black woman, starting in a scientific field like that?

Cécile Siewe

So here’s what I would say to that. I was studying in England. I was doing chemical engineering in the late 90s. So that was an area that did not have a lot of women. So you quickly become the only female, the only Black person, or the only Black woman around. And after a while, you stop noticing, right? You just get on with it. This is the space I enjoy. I have colleagues I like working with. I am working on something that’s interesting, and you just get on with it.

So I cannot really speak to any overt impediment, something that really made me feel like I wasn’t welcome. That wasn’t the stage I was meant to be. Now I’m sure many other people have had different experiences. I was always in academic settings. I was in research institutions even when I was in the private sector, which I guess is different than being in the field. Women who have actually worked in the field would definitely have different experiences. And as I said earlier, I really benefited from leaders around me who took an interest in my career and would just make sure that I was getting advice and I was getting the benefit of their time and their insights.

Barb Ustina

Now we hear about academic institutions, especially universities, becoming more diverse. You can go to any university in Canada. Their student body, it’s very diverse. What’s the expectation that will somehow then translate into, further on, into other institutions, other workplaces? Have you seen things change, or are you seeing things change in terms of diversity?

Cécile Siewe

I’m sure things have changed from when I was a student at those universities. As I said earlier, I never had a Black person as a professional, an instructor. And I can probably count the number of women I had. I’m just trying to think here. In fact, I think the first female instructor I had wasn’t even an instructor. It was my postdoctoral fellowship supervisor. So things have changed just to those who are in academic settings today, would like to have one or two Black professors or female professors, but it still would be one or two. So I don’t think the numbers are anywhere near where they need to be when compared to the wider population.

And the question there is, What message does that send to the students if they’re not seeing themselves represented in the people who are teaching them? And I’ve been getting messages that that’s not a space that they can aspire to, those are not careers that they can aspire to. So we all have a long way to go. It’s a good thing that the student body, the diversity in the student body has increased. It’s definitely come a long way. We have to make sure that that moves further downstream into the academic institutions, into research and scientific institutions, as well as into faculties.

Joel Houle

You mentioned earlier the importance of a positive work environment. What are we doing at Natural Resources Canada to try to encourage greater diversity and inclusivity?

Cécile Siewe

This past summer, the Deputy Minister actually stood up for a working group on diversity and inclusion to really put a strategic framework around all the things that may have already been going on in the department on an ad hoc basis. So that work has progressed to the point where a proposal has been put forward now for a NRCan strategy for diversity and inclusion. I think there was also recently the creation of a Black Employee Association network that’s specific to NRCan, but that’s also developing linkages into the different employment, equity groups and other diversity groups in different parts of the public service.

Barb Ustina

So we can have programs like this, but it’s a matter of having, you know — we invite people and have people at the table, but it’s a matter of having their voices heard as well. It’s sort of another aspect of diversity. How do we make sure that everybody’s voice is heard?

Cécile Siewe

That is very true. One of the best analogies I ever heard about this, diversity is being invited to the dance. Right. So that’s diversity. Inclusion is where someone actually asked you to dance. And I thought, That is so true. And that speaks to.... You can have people in the room, but are they being heard?

So it then falls on the leaders. You know, you have the official leaders and the unofficial leader, those who might not have the position of the manager or supervisor, but people look to them. If they’re close to those people in the room — to create a stage to make sure that all of the voices are being heard. That point of having a wide range of perspectives in the room. You want that input into decisions that are being made, solutions that are being found.

So if I go back to that analogy of being invited to the dance, the leaders, the managers, the supervisors are the hosts of the party. You threw a party, invite people, and people show up. You want everyone to have a good time. I know this is really simplistic, but you want to have a good time. So, if you notice someone doesn’t have a drink in their hand, you offer them a drink. If someone is not dancing, you’re going to invite him to dance. This is not something that comes naturally to everyone. And as in most things, some training might be required. But we have to learn how to create the space for the people at the table, for the people in the room to make sure that their perspectives and their inputs are captured.

Joel Houle

I really like that analogy. So, Cécile, how would you encourage young people listening right now who are interested in a career in science? What would you encourage them to do or say to make sure that their voices are heard?

Cécile Siewe

Science is such an interesting space — I know I have a biased view — It’s so interesting. Science is all around us! And so many different things that young people can do.

So the first thing I would say is, Ask questions. And if you feel like you’re not getting a response or you don’t understand the response, just keep asking the question. Ask, and ask again, and make sure that you are heard. Talk to people around you. Ask people what they do, people in your circle. Ask to be introduced to people to find out what to do, why they chose their career. You find that people are so interested in the things that they’ve done, the things that they’ve chosen to do, the things that they’re planning to do.

And if you ever find yourself thinking, Oh, this is not for me, just stop and ask yourself, Is that really you saying that, or is it just the messages that you’ve been receiving on internalizing without realizing. So, I just want to repeat again that not every young person can grow up and not every young girl can grow up to become a scientist. But I do still want them to be making an informed decision. And if you say it is not for me — and I know this because I have come to this point. I did not close the door when I was in Grade 6 or Grade 8. I remained open to the possibility until I found something that I like more.

Barb Ustina

And even if they think they are not interested in science when they’re in Grade 5, in Grade 10, they might change their mind, or when they’re graduating from university, they might change their mind. You don’t want to pigeonhole yourself too much early on in your life.

I just want to get back to the work that you do. The sector that you’re working in now is clean energy. It’s a relatively new field. It’s evolving. It’s really super exciting. But I’m wondering if the newness of everything to do with clean energy — does this offer more opportunity for diversity and inclusion? It’s brand new, and there are no sort of traditions set up yet.

Cécile Siewe

I’d be hesitant to say it offers a brand new opportunity. It’s definitely offering exciting opportunities. But the challenge with the recruitment and retention that we’ve experienced in other fields will still remain.

This is the question I ask everyone, and we all have to ask ourselves these questions. After the events of last summer and after the Black Lives Matter protests that we saw, all institutions and companies and organizations really have good intentions and they mean well. But the thing is, what are we going to do differently? If we want different outcomes, we have to do something differently. The people at the front lines, the gatekeepers, have got to really absorb those good intentions and translate them into doing something differently.

So this is true of the clean tech space. It’s an exciting space. There are lots of innovative challenges that can apply here. But we have got to think differently to attract young people into this field. The same young people, young women, young Black women, into this space. The same as we need to do in all areas.

Joel Houle

So if people would like to know more about diversity and inclusion in the world of science, are there any resources online available?

Cécile Siewe

Well, a quick Google search would really pull up so much that people can kind of look at. You have some exciting young female scientists on TikTok, on Instagram, on Twitter, and it’s really easy to find these people. There are some resources, there are organizations that make resources available.

One thing — but I think this might be overlooked in this space — is on the one hand we are saying, which is true, to these young women that it’s so hard to get into the space based on the representation. We have to make more of an effort to tell them why should they get into this space. What’s in it for them. If it’s so hard and they’re not going to see themselves represented around them, why should they be getting to this space. So we also have to make sure that we give young women the messages of the contributions that they can make. The exciting careers that they can make. So that they can see what’s in it for them to pursue careers in this space and not just for them to do it for the benefit of society.

Joel Houle

Thank you so much, Cécile, for taking the time to come and chat with us today. The information you provided us and the insight are really important. We really appreciate you taking the time to come and chat with us.

Cécile Siewe

It was my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

Barb Ustina

Thank you.

Joel Houle

It was great to talk to Cécile and see things from her point of view.

Barb Ustina

For sure. She has such an interesting background. She’s a real trailblazer when you think about it. She really came up with a great analogy. I loved when she compared it to a dance card. It’s great to be invited to a dance, but real inclusivity happens when you’re invited to the dance floor. She said it a lot better than I just did. So, yes, we need to talk about diversity, inclusivity, and what it means. Could this be a time for profound and meaningful change? Let’s keep the conversation going.

Joel Houle

I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s really important to keep that conversation going, you are absolutely right.

For you, our audience members, we have some links in the episode description that might be of interest to you. There’s a link to an article called “17 ways to get excited about STEM,” where we asked NRCan scientists about what or who inspires them. It’s basically a list of cool ways to get excited about STEM careers. We also have links to some of the work being done at CanmetENERGY in Devon. If you like this episode, feel free share it with your friends. And if you share over Twitter, make sure to tag us @NRCanScience. Or you can tweet at us directly. I’m at @JoelScience.

Barb Ustina

And I’m @SimplyScienceB, that’s the letter B. I might remind everyone that Simply Science also has a website and a YouTube channel, which you should check out. We have in-depth articles of interest and videos that showcase the fascinating scientific work that we do at Natural Resources Canada. And you can find those links in the episode description as well and social media channels.

Joel Houle

Thank you, Barb! And thank you so much, everyone, for listening! We’ll see you at the next episode!

Barb Ustina

See you next time!

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