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Imogen Coe

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Woman of the Week : Imogen Coe

When you think of a scientist, who comes to mind? Albert Einstein? Nikola Tesla? Or, perhaps, Carl Sagan?

It’s rare that the popular answer to this question would be someone more akin to Shirley Ann Jackson, Dian Fossey or Chien-Shiung Wu, and that’s because women, among other marginalized groups, are severely underrepresented in the STEM community. This isn’t merely a matter of the past, in fact, Statistics Canada reported that only 22% of the STEM workforce in 2011 were women – a number that’s nearly on par with that reported in the late 1980s, despite an increase in women holding STEM degrees. Marginalized groups continue to be under-sponsored, underpaid and underrepresented in the professional field, and so, the main character in humanity’s modern snapshot of science remains to be, more often than not, a straight, white male.

Imogen Coe, however, is attempting to change the terrain by increasing awareness of equity, diversity, and inclusivity in this ever-evolving environment. Having experienced this challenging reality herself, she has used her platform as the founding dean of Ryerson University’s faculty of science to convey a message that is crucial for the future of the STEM community.

“It’s about human potential. It’s about human capital,” she says. “When you’re leaving human capital at the side of the road or it’s not present at the table, then you’re missing a whole bunch of brain power. You’re missing a whole bunch of ideas, solutions, creativity, perspective, all of those things that are going to help us find solutions, drive innovation, ensure that we can maintain our quality of life and our standard of living, and that we can find solutions to the really wicked, complex problems that we have, like climate change, urban sustainability, and antibiotic resistance. We’re going to need all of the brain power at that table. We can’t be relying on a subset of humanity to come up with all the answers.”

Imogen, herself, is globally recognized for her pioneering research on membrane transport proteins, which are important in the body’s uptake of anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-parasite drugs. She has powered through the rough seas of science and academia to build a career seasoned with grand accomplishments, all the while nurturing a natural sense of curiosity that women are so often conditioned to suppress.

Growing up in the UK, Imogen says she can’t remember a time when she didn’t enjoy questioning the natural world – why the earthworms looked the way they did, why the plants grew so tall, and how it all meshed together to create the harmony of life. Naturally, she pursued an education in biology at Exeter University before moving to Canada to work in the mingling fields of science and academia.

She was met along the way with setbacks of all sorts – personal, professional and cultural – a common occurrence for any person, but one that often creates a “glass obstacle course” for marginalized groups. The glass obstacle course is a metaphor that Imogen describes as a set of invisible barriers, such as cultural stereotypes, biased hiring committees, and perceived gender roles, that all add up to exclusionary behaviours, which in turn, can create massive hurdles for certain groups of people.

One memory that Imogen points out, was when she was involved in a major scientific project that the newspapers reported on. When the story went to print, her male colleague was named for his contributions, but Imogen herself was not. “It was, you know, ‘Doctor X and his co-presenter.’ It’s like, well actually, I have a name!” she says with a laugh.

This example goes to prove that the gap is not only perpetuated by the STEM community, but by the greater culture – the media, the marketing, even the educational tools. Identifying these pillars that uphold an unfair playing field is key for the future of women and marginalized groups in STEM, Imogen says.

“We focus a lot of attention on mentoring women, leaning in ‒ things like science camps for little girls ‒ all of these that focus on the problem being the women, or being the underrepresented group,” she says. “All of that stuff is useless if we don’t, at the same time, fix the context and the culture. There’s no amount of leaning in that will help if you have a boss that’s biased or misogynistic or sexist, or if you’re a person of colour and you go into an environment where they don’t understand that jokes are racist. You have to look at the culture and context and shift out to educate people around what equity and diversity really is, and then give them the tools and strategies to make those environments, those workplaces, those educational places, those pathways truly inclusive and welcoming so people can feel comfortable bringing their full selves to work.”

Imogen has shattered the perceived fears of speaking up on these issues, something which she believes women are conditioned to absorb. She regularly speaks out on the problems affecting underrepresented groups in STEM and often works directly with men and other privileged groups to equip them with the knowledge and strategies for creating inclusive work environments.

In 2012, when Imogen joined the team at Ryerson, she pulled science out from under the broad umbrella of architecture and engineering, to a place where it’s able to flourish on its own. Although her current term as founding dean is now coming to a close, I have no doubt that she will continue to shine a light on the power of science and all of its diverse and brilliant minds.