Interview to Professor Anne Condon
Gender Committee Student Representative, The Engineering Academy of Japan
Department of Robotics, School of Engineering, Tohoku University
Master Course 2nd Year, Jin Yi
As a female international student studying at Tohoku University, I have observed that the ratio of both female faculty members and female students in my department is fairly low. I have been always thinking about this phenomenon. Is it only happening at universities in Japan, or is it actually pretty common everywhere in the world? Is there anything we can learn from the other universities in other countries? To this end, I interviewed Professor Anne Condon (currently a professor of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, and a previous NSERC* Chairholder for Women in Science and Engineering) who has been active on the front line of gender equality promotion.
In the following interview, we discussed the current situations regarding gender equality and the possible solutions to the existing challenges, especially in the field of STEM* academia.
* NSERC: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
* STEM: Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
Stories with Research:
Author (following omitted): What was the trigger that made you choose to be a researcher? And, what made you choose your current research field?
Professor Anne Condon (following honorific titles omitted): I started to do research when I became a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle. I grew up in Ireland, and there I did not ever do much research in my university. I think I was extremely lucky I had a wonderful PhD supervisor who was very encouraging. He let me switch topic a few times before I converged on my research topic. I like to think about the solutions to problems, writing, and solving puzzles. So, theoretical research suits me very well. That trigger is probably really a good experience I had with my PhD advisor, and he really made efforts to help me build confidence and to get off to a good start. I think the advising relationship is very important.
―― If you were not engaged in research, what kind of career would you pursue?
Anne: I came from a family of teachers. My mother taught in elementary school, and also my grandmother, my aunts. So, my guess is that I would be a teacher. But I think in computer science, there are so many opportunities also in industry. It’s hard to know what I would have done (if not engaged in research), but maybe teaching.
General Challenges for Researchers:
―― How do you balance your time if you do both research and teaching?
Anne: It’s not always easy. Right now, in computer science, class sizes have grown. It’s a very popular subject, so teaching takes more time. Sometimes when I am teaching, I don’t get a lot of research done. But at my university, we just have to teach one course per semester, so teaching load is quite manageable. Also, having good students can really help: when they do research, my main role is to keep track of what they are doing, provide a little guidance, and support them．
―― What is the biggest challenge that you think female students and researchers are facing during their research activities?
Anne: It’s tough to say what is the biggest one, but maybe gender bias is tough. Sometimes, people assume women are not smart, or women are there because of special privileges. It’s clear that there are biases on assessing the work of people. Also, when people are getting jobs, there can be bias in the recruiting process. Another big challenge is isolation: the feeling of being alone, or the feeling of not being a part of the communities. I also think as people get further along, balancing family life and work life is a challenge, not so much for students necessarily unless they have children. But eventually, when you get into a certain stage or career, that can be another challenge.
Gender Equality in Canada:
―― Is the current status of gender equality and diversity optimistic (for example, pay equity situation) in your department, university, your field, as well as country-level?
Anne: It’s not perfect. But, at my university, UBC, I think the situation both in my department of Computer Science and at the Faculty of Science is pretty good, so that’s why I am there. Pay equity is a fairly easy one to fix, and we get paid as what’s right of our career level. But indeed, there is a lower percentage of women in the field. When we recruit, we do try hard to recruit women. One of the strategies is to make sure there are several women in the interview pool, and then people start to look at their actual work, not as the fact that they are women. We also have good policies on parental leave and maternity leave. In Canada, it is pretty nice that both women and men get paid time off when they have or adopt a child. There are also good day cares for very young kids on campus, which is helpful. Also, in Canada, some special positions are held only for women, or the members of other underrepresented groups. Another important factor in research is funding. The organizations that are in charge of distributing the funds are doing a good job, making sure that women are getting their equitable share of research funding.
Advice and Suggestions:
―― Do you have any suggestions on how to balance work and life/ family and career?
Anne: I think there are times in one’s life when it is just going to be difficult and there is so much to do. But, just don’t expect you can do all the things you want to do all the time. Also, I think that women should not be hesitant to get help on cleaning the house or caring about the kids. If you don’t have family nearby, you can hire someone to do those things, because you do need to take care of yourself first. Another piece of advice is that, you don’t have to do all the things perfectly, just do the best you can. Also, time management can help a little bit. Often, in university, aside from teaching and researching, there is a third thing called service. It’s very important to negotiate to make sure that you are not doing too much service. It is important to say no, and to learn how to say no, because you can’t keep adding things. When you feel uncomfortable, or you just don’t feel right, you have to listen to yourself.
―― What advice would you have for both female researches and the female students who are considering whether to become researchers or not in the future?
Anne: I guess my first piece of advice would be “go for it”, because your academic career can be a lot of fun. It’s fun to mentally keep your mind being active, to make contributions, to be a part of the research community, and to make a difference in the world. Also, I think building a support team is really important. It can be if there are people in your group, for example, your master or PhD advisors. Maybe even if you move on to work with somewhere else with a different advisor, keep that person as a part of your support team to go for an advice. It would be also very nice, if you have women in the part of the group as well.
Future of DNA Computation:
――How and when would DNA computation be implemented in pharmaceutical applications in your opinion? So far, how can DNA computation related technologies contribute to the fight against coronavirus?
Anne: One way is that you could build small circuits or sensors that can be put into a cell that could sense what is in the cell, or maybe detect pathogens or DNA strands that show that there is cancer, mutations, etc. DNA might also be useful for cheap diagnostic tests that can be distributed easily. Getting onto COVID-19, DNA might be a valuable thing. Right now, the current vaccines are RNA-based. DNA and RNA are pretty similar, so if you can do something with DNA, then you probably can also do something with RNA. One of the RNA-based vaccines right now needs to be refrigerated at a very low temperature. If you build things out of DNA, then maybe some difficulties with RNA could be avoided. I think it will take a while, maybe 10 years or 20 years, we can see pharmaceutical applications with DNA. Biological DNA helix has a certain chirality, so if you use DNA with the opposite chirality, it could be valuable, as it will not interrupt with cellular DNA (enzymes in the cell maybe won’t kill the DNA). So, there can be many new developments.
Interesting Episode during Research:
―― Could you tell an interesting episode in your research and professional career? And what is the biggest joy in your research?
Anne: When I started as an assistant professor, things were a lot more difficult compared with when I was a student. I like to do mathematical work, but the work I was doing was not considered as very worthwhile and valuable, because it didn’t seem to be practically relevant in general. Then, there was a big surprising development in the field, and everything changed all of a sudden. Even though I wasn’t the one who made the big discovery, my work was still much more being valued. I could work with some of the top people in the field, which was all very exciting. Sometimes, we can’t always tell what’s going to be important in the long term. That’s why we do research, and explore the ideas and see things that are intellectually interesting, exciting, or new. What I learned from that episode is that if you work on an interesting problem, in a long run, your work will pay off. In terms of the biggest joy, I probably would say working with students, as it is the most fun. Even though I get older and older, my students are always young and excited, hard-working and enthusiastic. I think that is my biggest joy, that’s why I like being a professor.
Through the interview with Professor Anne Condon, I learned that the low ratio of women in the STEM field is actually a common phenomenon. However, this matter is not only related to female faculty and female students but also related to the entire society. We need to work together to build up a healthy environment that is capable of ensuring women’s safety, guaranteeing pay equity, and more importantly, correcting the gender biases against women. As a student studying in the field of DNA nanotechnology, I got to know about Professor Anne Condon through a relevant international conference, where I was deeply impressed by her enthusiasm and professionalism. I hope you can also feel her love and passion for her research through this interview in a vivid way. And, I also hope this interview can bring you some inspirations and encouragements, especially to the female faculty and female students who are currently advancing in their academic fields.
* Due to the influence of COVID-19, this interview was conducted online.