Senior Scientist at Intrinsik Corp
Submitted by Yamini Gopalapillai
What is your position, and area of expertise?
I am a Senior Scientist at Intrinsik Corp. in Mississauga ON. My areas of expertise are toxicology, ecological risk assessment, and project management.
What made you pursue a career in science, and specifically, consulting?
Since high school, I knew I wanted a career in science. At first I thought chemistry, but there is a reason why I cook and not bake (a little of this, a little of that; who needs to measure?). Then I wanted to be like David Suzuki, a great geneticist but during a co-op work term isolating DNA and running southern blots, I was bored to tears. Finally, during a toxicology course with George Dixon at University of Waterloo, I thought, yes, this is exciting!
My first contract was 6 months with government, followed by 2.5 years at a research facility, and then I started in consulting. I enjoyed all of my work experiences! What I like about my work is the diversity in projects and project teams, and the flexibility of the work environment.
Have you had any personal heroes or mentors during your scientific career?
I have been very fortunate to have wonderful mentors during my entire life and career. First, my mother, who after having children in her 20s got her BA, then a Masters and PhD in pure mathematics. I learned from an early age that anything was possible.
In my first job, with the State of Minnesota, in the Superfund program Dr. David Belluck included me in discussions, writing papers, workshops, and more. In my second job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dr. Glenn Suter took me to meetings with state and federal regulators, I attended conferences, and reviewed reports and articles that he wrote. I learned a lot those first 3 years! Upon arrival back in Canada, I have to thank the many strong women in senior positions at Beak Consulting. Since coming to Intrinsik in 1999, I’ve been positively influenced by Dr. Anne Fairbrother, and Dr. Stella Swanson, both of whom I knew through SETAC and worked with on my biggest project. All of these people encouraged creative thinking and problem solving, shared their insights, and allowed me opportunities to learn and thrive. I am sincerely grateful to them all.
How do you establish and maintain a work-life balance?
Balance is about recognizing what nourishes you and what brings you down. I see it less as work-life balance and more simply overall life balance. Work can be very nourishing, creative, fun, collegial, and with meaningful projects and outcomes. Work also could include tasks you don’t enjoy, stress due to unrealistic expectations, and conflict with certain people.
Similarly, life can have nourishing relationships, supportive friends, healthy activities and lots of fun, but also may include conflict with family members, financial pressures, illness and sadness. The balance is less work-life, than positive and negative, wherever you find them.
For me, the key is to have lots of nourishing aspects at work and at home, and to meet the difficult challenges with openness and a little kindness. I am learning that you don’t have to like the negative aspects of life, but it helps to recognize and accept that they exist, and see if something can be done to improve them.
Did you ever feel that you or your family had to sacrifice for you to succeed?
No. My husband and I do not have any dependents. Our parents and extended family are healthy and happy. Financial burdens were less of an issue because I received scholarships for university and was fortunate to be a co-op student at a time when tuition fees were manageable. I also have simple tastes.
Sacrifice and investment are two different things. I don’t feel I ever sacrificed. I did invest in myself. I paid for my first two SETAC North America conferences as a graduate student. My professor wasn’t familiar with SETAC and didn’t support my attendance. However, it was at a SETAC conference that I met Dave Belluck and Glenn Suter, resulting in my first two jobs, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What would you view as some common issues/challenges facing women in science?
Fortunately, in toxicology and risk assessment, I see as many women as men. The same is not the case in other sciences where women face challenges such as equal pay for equal work and not being afforded the same opportunities for management positions. The same also may be true in industries or companies that are male-dominated.
I find that women are very good at supporting other women, and other people in general. I have found that we are willing to train and mentor because we recognize that we are all more likely to succeed this way. There is no benefit to being territorial. How men and women work and deal with people is dependent on their background and training.
Have you ever encountered any gender issues/challenges in consulting?
I am aware that pay equity remains an issue, even in 2017. One reason for this is that women frequently accept what is offered and men often ask for what they want. When women start a job at a lower pay scale, they will always be paid less than their male colleagues, for equal or even more advanced work.
Have you ever received advice that has made an impact on your career?
I found it interesting when a more senior female colleague advised me to not readily offer to take the notes in a meeting, because I may be viewed as nothing more than a secretary and would not be able to fully participate in the discussion. Of course, if the participants know you, this will not be an issue but when you are trying to establish yourself, be aware of these potential biases.
Take time to think – don’t just rush to “do”. There is value in pausing. Consider various angles of an issue or situation, and then proceed with purpose. Even (or particularly) with short deadlines or high-stress situations, this is a much more efficient and effective approach.
Along the same vein, don’t rush to be the first to speak; listen to what others have to say, then offer your opinion.
Could you offer a formula for success for young women pursuing a career in science?
Invest in yourself. Create your own opportunities. Network. Be aware of what’s going on in the world. Get involved. Science (and consulting) are contact sports, so make contacts at every project meeting, conference, and even in the community where you live. Be flexible, creative, open-minded.
Do not restrict yourself to mentors where you live or work. Seek them out by seeing who you connect with.
Remember, all these well-known/successful/extensively-published people were just like you 20 or 30 years ago. We DO remember what it was like to be students and just starting out in our chosen careers. Don’t be afraid to talk to us. Just remember, we may be a little old-fashioned with how we communicate (some of us are a little technology-challenged!).
Do you see any benefits to being a woman in science?
It is not gender that is important. It is our outlook and what we choose to do with our knowledge, our careers, and our lives.
Over the course of your career, do you think it has gotten better for women in science? If yes, in what way?
I like that there are networking opportunities now specifically for women, like the Women in SETAC luncheon at the SNA Annual Meeting. There is a similar activity in the mining industry at mining’s biggest conference held in Toronto. Men outnumber women by quite a lot there. Overall in science, I’m not sure how things have changed over the past 25 years. My direct experience is limited primarily to SETAC and where I’ve worked, and thus with few exceptions, I have not experienced negative gender-related situations. It’s nice to be able to say that and I consider myself to be very fortunate!