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Melissa Anderson, PhD

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

Geoscience was not really on my radar until university. I started off in engineering, but did not feel passionate about the program so I decided to switch. After going through a course calendar, I stumbled on the description for geology, which got me excited to study volcanoes and earthquakes. About two weeks into my first class with an incredible instructor (Prof. Simon Pattison at Brandon University) I was hooked, and I knew that geology was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!

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

I was encouraged to apply for a summer job by my professors in my first year of geology. A junior exploration company came to the department to recruit, partly because the company was run by an alumnus of our department. After giving a presentation to students (with pizza) I gave him my resume (which had been kindly proof-read by a prof) and had an interview in an empty classroom. The job was soil sampling in northern Manitoba. This field experience made it a lot easier to find subsequent field jobs every summer during my undergrad.

Can you briefly describe your career progression?

I began as an undergrad student at Brandon University working for junior exploration companies in the summers to help pay for my tuition. These experiences made me fall in love with economic geology, but by the time I graduated in 2008 the market had crashed. This made it a very easy decision to continue on to a M.Sc. in economic geology at University of New Brunswick (with Prof. Dave Lentz), where I studied Li-Ta pegmatites in the Northwest Territories in collaboration with geoscientists at the Northwest Territories Geologic Survey.

From there, I learned how much I enjoyed doing research, and I wanted to expand my knowledge of economic geology to include hydrothermal ore deposits. This led to a Ph.D. at the University of Ottawa (with Prof. Mark Hannington) focused on modern hydrothermal ore deposits in the deep sea. My decision to take on this Ph.D. was partly motivated by excitement about the prospect of going on research cruises and exploring areas of the seafloor that have never been visited. During this time, I found my research niche and learned that I wanted to pursue an academic career path. After 5 years of a Ph.D., I applied for a position of Assistant Professor of Economic Geology at the University of Toronto. I had my interview the same week as my Ph.D. defense, and started shortly thereafter. The learning curve from grad student to running my own research lab has been a steep one, but the ability to mentor students is extremely fulfilling.

If you had to do it again, would you?

In a heartbeat. I’ve had many lifetimes worth of adventures already, and look forward to more!

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

Currently, I would like to have more time to do my own research. Teaching, graduate student supervising, committee work, external service to geology, budgeting, grant writing, and all of the small things end up taking a lot of time. I am working on better time management and protecting my time better to shift my priorities. I’m quickly learning that not everything can be done with 100% perfection.

What are the three best things about your job/career? What are the three worst things?

Best things: Having students who inspire me, having the flexibility to build my own research program, and having incredible mentors and colleagues that are a joy to work with.

Worst things: The “publish or perish” mindset of academia and general issues with the for-profit publishing industry, the persistent implicit biases that exist within academia and geology, and a lack of funding for seagoing research in Canada that results in reliance on international collaborators.

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

My department is close to gender parity, with 44% female faculty, including in classically male-dominated “hard-rock” research fields. I am lucky in that I have colleagues and mentors who can provide advise and support on issues that are women-specific. However, most geoscience departments remain male-dominated, and change is slow. There are issues with gender pay gaps and inequitable promotions at all universities.

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

Network, network, network. Your peers are an important network, so stay in touch with them. Find mentors who will open doors for you and be your cheerleader (male or female mentors can fill this role). Persistence pays off. You may deal with sexual harassment of many forms in field-based jobs and it is hard to know the best way to deal with this. Talk to women who have had field experience to learn about strategies to deal with this. Your safety and mental health is more important than the comfort of men around you.

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

I care deeply that everyone is given an equal opportunity to follow their chosen career path. I think much of the conversation about increasing diversity is focused on “encouraging women into geoscience fields.” However, the data show that about half of all students who graduate from geology degrees (B.Sc. to Ph.D.) are female, but after this there is a substantial decline in females who follow industry or academic career paths (the so-called “leaky pipeline). The issue is NOT that women are “unmotivated” to become geoscientists. If we remove the barriers to women’s success, and address systemic bias and sexual harassment with a “no-tolerance” policy, then the women will be there.

Besides this, geoscience in Canada is severely underrepresented by visible minorities and peoples with disabilities. The diversity in our classrooms does not reflect the diversity of our population. We urgently need a better understanding of where the “leaky pipeline” exists and strategies for how to address it.

In general, if students are able to see themselves represented in a field, they are more likely to join it. By increasing diversity at the higher ranks (industry and academia), it might help to promote recruitment. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for these problems, and even identifying the problems can be challenging.

Why should others be talking about diversity and trying to improve things?

There are so many talented people of different genders, sexual orientations, races, and religions that we are failing to recruit to/retain in geoscience. We are missing out on a huge segment of the population who bring new talent and perspectives to the table. I feel that the progression of geosciences in this area is lagging far behind other fields, much to our detriment.

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