Madeline Dana Lee, Ph.D.


Did you know about geoscience before you entered university? How did you decide on pursuing degree in geoscience?

I first learned about geoscience and field work from my late father. He was an engineer with National Defense’s Mapping and Charting Establishment, and he would tell me about the ‘Rock Doctors’ he encountered while doing field work in Canada’s Arctic. I would pour over his photographs of muskox, mountains, and Chinook helicopters. I was hooked on the idea of working in a similar environment from a young age.

I always had an interest in the sciences, especially physics. I was lucky enough to have attended a high school that offered geology, which was taught by a former geophysicist. For my high school senior co-op, I worked for a semester at the Ottawa Geomagnetic Laboratory. When I started at McMaster University, I planned on studying astrophysics but after meeting my future graduate supervisor and long-time mentor, Dr. Bill Morris, I realized that geophysics would be more appropriate.

Dr. Madeline Dana Lee operating sensor equipment onboard NRC’s Twin Otter aircraft.

How did you land your first position? (Through networking, applying to an ad, etc.)

All the geoscience positions I have held were first established through networking; whether it was a contact making me aware of a position within an organization or supporting a contact’s research, which would then transition into a full-time position.

Can you briefly describe your career progression?

I always knew that I wanted to do a Ph.D., but I was unsure whether I wanted to pursue a career in academia, government, or industry. I worked with Canadian mineral exploration companies, as a consultant on international airborne surveys, and field-mapping campaigns with national governments. One of the most pivotal experiences was during my Ph.D. when I was a visiting researcher with the National Research Council’s (NRC) Flight Research Laboratory working with Dr. George Leblanc’s prominent Hyperspectral and Magnetics Team.

Following consulting work in Africa, I became involved in a Society of Exploration Geophysicist’s (SEG) Geoscientists Without Borders® project in South Africa. This project, led by the incomparable Dr. Susan Webb, brought to light the social impact of geophysics. This was a humbling experience and encouraged me to increase my commitment within the geoscience community. I became further involved in SEG through committees that had a social outreach factor and was elected to SEG Vice President in 2016. It was an honour to represent the SEG Members, especially as a female early career scientist on the Board of Directors. It was exceptionally unique to serve while Nancy House was SEG President, the second female President since the Society’s founding in 1930. The years I served on the Board were an excellent learning experience and helped me to understand the operational side of geosciences.

Following my Ph.D., I was the recipient of the University of Alberta’s Avadh Bhatia Women in Physics Postdoctoral Fellowship. I worked with Dr. Douglas Schmitt’s research group focused on geothermal and hydraulic fracturing. Following my time in Edmonton, I rejoined the NRC, however in this new position I had some flexibility in my research. My focus steadily changed from geosciences to supporting defense applications, unmanned aerial vehicles, and forest fire monitoring. This was an exciting opportunity to develop my geoscience skills for new applications and challenge my problem-solving abilities. I have grown over my years with NRC and now looking ahead, I look forward to new innovative research opportunities when I will relocate to Norway later this summer.

If you had to do it again, would you?

Yes.

If you could change anything in your career, what would it be?

I would have been more honest about my personal limitations.

Dr. Susan Webb and Dr. Madeline Dana Lee, with 2012 SEG President Dr. Bob Hardage, receiving Honourable Mention for Best Paper in SEG’s The Leading Edge: Hydrogeophysical investigation for groundwater at the Dayspring Children’s Village, South Africa.

What are the highlights about your job/career? What are the challenges?

Highlights of my career have been travelling to some of the world’s most remote and beautiful locations, positive social impact, viewing the world from different scales, and working around aircrafts.

There are numerous challenges well known to women in geoscience and I know some of these firsthand. I have experienced discrimination, sexual harassment, and being the only woman on a field deployment. But one of the biggest challenges has been learning to cope with balancing a healthy personal life and advancing my career.

This is not unique to just geoscientists or women, but when both partners have careers that require travelling for weeks or months at a time, coordination can be exceedingly difficult, especially with children. Growing up in a military household, I saw the effort and compromise required when a family is separated for periods of time. Professionally, it can mean taking a pause, taking a different direction, or hoping for dumb luck that you both land ideal jobs in the same city. My husband and I have moved back and forth across Canada to support each other’s careers at different times. Now my son and I will be joining my husband who transitioned to a new position in Norway early this year.

My son was born days after I stepped in as SEG First Vice President. Although I was on maternity leave, I thought retaining my SEG position would keep me in touch with the geoscience community. But at times it was much harder than I expected – attending teleconferences with a crying child, inability to travel for meetings, and guilt for feeling that I could not fulfill the role the membership had elected me to do. This is a sentiment that has carried through to my professional career. Guilt for not being able to fulfill professional obligations, while also experiencing guilt for not always having the energy or time for my family. I also found that returning to work following maternity leave to be quite overwhelming. It was difficult to accept new boundaries, the number of tasks I was physically and mentally capable of completing, and to not compare myself to colleagues, even if they were in different situations than me. By being more honest about my challenges and concerns, I have been able to find some stability. It is still taking time, but I am learning that I cannot do it all.

During this global pandemic, I am privileged to work for an organization that understands that like many parents, I am at home with my son while the daycares and schools are closed. My job expectations have been adjusted without the concern of job loss. However, many parents do not have this security, so they struggle to carry out their job and take care of their family. Although the pandemic was unexpected and incredibly challenging for everyone, I can only hope that an outcome will be to provide more flexibility in work hours and demanding timelines.

Do you see, in either your workspace or the industry in general, the place of women becoming more mainstream, about the same as when you started, or worse?

Marginally better. Since I have been working with NRC, I have seen a notable increase of female researchers in engineering and geophysics. I have also seen more effort to set up support groups through national societies and government agencies to highlight achievements by women in their respective fields. However, even with these advances, there are still environments and people who hold onto outdated views. This complicates speaking up as a woman, ultimately making us question our value as scientific contributors. Platforms such as WGC are critical to give women an opportunity to showcase their strengths, achievements, and opinions.


Dr. Madeline Dana Lee on the 2010 Geo-mapping for Energy and Minerals (GEM) bedrock mapping campaign in the Northwest Territories.

What advice would you give young women starting a career in geoscience?

Never be afraid to let your voice be heard or to ask for help. Your input is incredibly valuable and most of your colleagues want to support your endeavours.

Why/How is diversity important to you? Thoughts on what should be focussed on or how to improve diversity within geoscience?

Improving diversity starts with representation and support at all levels of organizations. There are many initiatives set up to help the transition from student to early career or mid-career changes, but I believe there is a gap in teaching the importance of balancing personal life with a career. Dr. Eve Sprunt wrote an excellent book “Dual Couples: Rewriting the Rule Book” addressing many of these issues. Having more resources available is critical. There have been important strides forward with conferences offering childcare or availability of parental leave for both parents. The latter addresses the overlooked and important discussion of the stigma attached to men taking paternity leave. In my opinion, until there is greater support of how to balance personal life and career for all geoscientists, there cannot be more women in geoscience.

My mom always said we are like ducks on the water - we may appear serene on surface but underneath our feet are constantly moving to propel us forward. By being honest with our colleagues and ourselves about our limitations, we can have a more balanced and sustainable career.

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