Q&A: Suzanne Fortier

Since 2006, Dr. Suzanne Fortier has served as the President of NSERC. After completing her BSc and PhD in crystallography at McGill University, she held multiple senior research and administrative positions at Queen’s University, including Dean and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Vice-Principal (Research) and Vice-Principal (Academic). She has recently been appointed the next Principal of McGill starting September 2013.

Dr. Fortier is also an established researcher and active advocate of research education for youth. During her last visit to the 2013 Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium, we had a chance to speak with her about women in engineering and the future of science.

What does NSERC offer students?

For the undergraduate program, we want to give students a chance early on to experience what research might look like – either research in a university or in an industrial laboratory. One of the challenges we have in this country is that we do not have a very high number of students at the graduate level in the Natural Sciences and Engineering compared to other countries. Canada lags way behind in graduate programs, so one of the intents of the program is to give people a chance to see what research would look like and whether they would be interested in pursuing research in the future.

[Research] is an area of work that is unique and very privileged because you really have an opportunity to learn constantly. It’s exciting to be the person advancing the knowledge. And I always say, there is very little we actually know about our world. In a way, in science, you have this incredible puzzle out there. We’re trying to get a clear picture of how our universe works. As a person involved in research, you have the opportunity to add one more piece to the puzzle. Even if it’s just a small piece, it’s important. Every small addition of knowledge is an important piece in this incredible puzzle, which is our world.

What advice would you give students undertaking the NSERC award?

First of all, I’d say to be really engaged as a member of the team, because that’s what a lot of the research programs are about – being part of the group of people who are pursuing some areas of knowledge together. Take advantage of being part of this team: talk with the members, see how their experience is, and get advice from them. Any guidance they can give you is very important. Sometimes people think of a researcher as a person isolated in his/her little corner, but that is not what it is like in almost all of the research areas. Most people are part of teams, working with others.

Secondly, it is also important to always give your best. You want your team members to give their best, and you have to make the same commitment yourself. The third thing is to persevere – whenever you do something that is exploratory, you’re looking for something new, some knowledge that nobody has in the world yet, and that’s fantastic, but it’s not an easy path. And along this path, you’ll have wonderful discoveries that will be exciting but you’ll also have some disappointment. You think about a problem and make a hypothesis, so you devise an experiment to test it. Sometimes the experiment doesn’t yield the data that you hoped for and you think ‘ah, this is not good’. It is quite disappointing, but very successful researchers are those who are able to face this situation and regain their motivation fast. They then start thinking about it again. That is part of pursuing new knowledge. You’ll not always be right. I remember reading Francis Crick, who wrote a book about his life in research. It’s called What Mad Pursuit. Now, Francis Crick is a Nobel laureate for the discovery of the DNA structure. He attributed his success in part to his fertile mind. He always had new ideas and he says that some of them were in fact not really good. But it is that ability to be…

…constantly thinking?

Yes. I think that’s an important but tough lesson to learn as you pursue research. We rarely talk about this, but even negative results are important in science, because they do contribute to learning. When an hypothesis doesn’t turn out to be correct, it can add substantially to your knowledge.

I noticed that you will be giving the closing remarks at ‘Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium.’ What do you think about the female role in these fields?

There are certainly more women in the fields of sciences and engineering than 50 years ago. We made tremendous progress so far, but I think there still are not enough women looking at science and engineering as areas where their efforts and hard work can turn into a career. So we need to continue to work on that.

Who is the female scientist you look up to in particular?

I think you don’t notice them sometimes but it’s only afterwards that you realize that some people were your role models. The one very important to me was the Teaching Assistant in my first course in crystallography. She was a young graduate student. I looked at her, and I thought ‘I could be that’. It was really inspiring for me as an undergrad to have this woman as my TA.

That’s something I’ve never heard before, because people often mention their professors.

At that time, professors were too far from me, and she was closer in age. After that I had a professor who was my thesis supervisor, a woman who was one of the giants in crystallography. In fact, crystallography had early on extremely accomplished women. I remember when Dorothy Hodgkin came to visit our lab- and this is a Nobel Prize winner. Imagine that she comes to your lab and sits by your chair to ask you what you are doing. There were many inspiring women whom I had the opportunity to meet. I say today, I look a lot at women that are part of our world, women that we support with NSERC.

They are role models in different ways. I look at what they are doing – their incredible contributions, their energy, their ideas, their creativity, their ability to be great project managers – they are role models in that they inspire me about my role at NSERC, because part of my role at NSERC is to make sure that these people are successful. It’s an inspiration for me to see these extremely successful and accomplished women. I often think, “I have the privilege of having a great responsibility”, which is to support them.

What does the future hold for scientists? Are there particularly promising areas?

There is so much more to discover and to learn, but also some important challenges that we need to face as citizens of the same planet. Today, there is hardly any area that is not holding a lot of promise, because when you look at how you will either pursue a great opportunity or a challenge, you realize that you need people with different expertise. Something that is important to realize is the incredible work that’s being done by engineers, particularly in advancing the technology to lead discoveries in our worlds.

Similarly, I told you that I’m a crystallographer; a few years ago, a Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded for the discovery of the structure of the ribosome. What made the discovery of the structure of the ribosome at a very high resolution level possible was all the technology that had been developed in detection, in synchrotron, radiation, in computing, and so on. It’s always fantastic for me to see this incredible symbiosis between technology and discovery.

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