11 February is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To mark this important event, we spoke to Prof. Sylvie Turgeon, Professor at STELA-INAF, Université Laval and co-chair of the IDF International Cheese Science and Technology Symposium Organizing Committee, to gain her perspective on the presence and influence of women in dairy science.
How did your career in dairy science begin?
I am a food science undergraduate, which then continued to post-graduate studies, including work on whey protein functionality. I worked for five years in a government agency working with the dairy industry on various research projects. During that period, I also welcomed my two children. My dream was always to be a professor. In 1996, I applied for the position of professor at Université Laval while I was expecting my second daughter, and was successful in obtaining the post. I have been Director of the Dairy Research Centre for nine years and Director of the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods for six years, while still doing active research.
Why dairy science?
I was always interested in science. I considered pharmacy, which led naturally to food science – after all, what is food but the chemistry of substances that impact our health. I spent the summer working in a research lab and then I discovered research and applied science. I realised that I could have a real impact on the food industry and build vital knowledge. What made me focus on dairy was the development of the STELA research centre. The STELA Dairy Science and Technology Research Centre gathers 18 professors-researchers, over 10 research professionals and postdoctoral students, and more than 70 graduate students. It is the most important research team in dairy science and technology in Canada, recognized for its expertise in fundamental and applied research. I was a graduate student when it first opened in 1985 and was one of the first to receive a fellowship. It was an opportunity to be close to exceptional scientists working on an area that I found fascinating. Milk is, after all, a unique and fascinating product – natural yet incredibly complex. I continued working in dairy after my PhD and the work convinced me that I should stay in this area. There is a real focus from farmers, processors, everyone within the dairy sector to provide quality food products, and I felt strongly that I wanted to remain a part of that.
Did you encounter any barriers to your career in science?
Early in my career, when I worked for the government, I recall some technical meetings where I was the one of the only females present and certainly the youngest. It really was a man’s world then. Saying that, there was always a lot of openness and most of my male colleagues were genuinely happy when more women started to join the working environment. Things have changed a great deal in the last 30 years – we now have female plant managers, directors of dairy divisions etc. In Canada, certainly things have improved in that respect: women are actively encouraged to move into scientific careers and in food science. I feel to a certain extent that I have been able to achieve what I have because my partner and I have shared life’s daily responsibilities. It is possible to have a life and to be successful in your career, but you need support both at work and at home. Within academia there can be real pressure to compete, not from above necessarily but peer-to peer, which can be a challenge at certain points in life. I think this will change; I feel already that the next generation of scientists will be less accepting of an inequitable work-life balance, which is how it should be.
“There is a real focus from farmers, processors, everyone within the dairy sector to provide quality food products, and I felt strongly that I wanted to remain a part of that.”
In terms of barriers generally, I also believe (and there are studies to support this in fact) that women are less likely to self-promote than men in an academic sphere, meaning that they are less likely to be found in senior positions. A Canadian investigation showed a gender gap in research funding. When the peer review focused on the scientist it significantly disadvantages women. Women were less favourably assessed as principal investigators while there is no gender difference when the review focused on the proposed science. Whether this is related to conscious or unconscious bias of the reviewers or differences in women’s efforts or in their different descriptions of accomplishments is not clear but it is concerning and something that should be further explored.
Are you aware of any specific support for women in science?
In Quebec university professors have a unified voice through their unions. It enables a certain level of freedom that we all appreciate – work can be done but there is freedom on how it is delivered, which again promotes an equal work-life balance, a better organization of our schedule. In addition, the federal government has set certain goals for equity, diversity and inclusion, which I believe is also an important step forward.
How has IDF supported you in your professional life?
IDF offers me the opportunity to increase and strengthen my international network, to be able to be part of a discussion on global dairy issues. Through IDF’s international network, I’ve been able to collaborate with successful women in dairy science from many other countries. It’s been a real learning opportunity and continues to be. As IDF represents the whole of the dairy chain, you not only meet with scientists but people from the industry, farmers – really all dairy stakeholders, which is a considerable benefit. I find it very important to attend the IDF World Dairy Summit every year. The Summit is really unique to other dairy events I’ve attended. The fact that it travels all over the world makes it a unique opportunity to learn about challenges and opportunities from those countries. And things like the poster sessions are a great opportunity for the next generation; young researchers joining and learning about the field. There’s always a very inclusive atmosphere; everyone is welcome, those well established in their careers and those just starting out. I would say that is quite unique to the dairy sector, and one of the reasons it’s so fulfilling to work within it. It’s a close-knit, dynamic network, and people really care about the sector, its success and continuous improvement.
How do you see the evolution of women in dairy science going ahead? Do you have any advice for female scientists starting out?
What is vital is that we encourage the next generation of female scientists into the dairy sector. The more diversity within a sector, the more successful it will be. Dairy is a fulfilling and fascinating sector to work in, with important impacts on health. Women have a unique point of view, and the more we can participate, the richer the discussion will become. Within dairy science we have already improved in terms of women in senior positions. This is important because we need more female role models in science. What I’ve experienced, is that women sometimes need to be a little more confident and self-assured; often barriers are self-imposed. Remove those, and there’s no limit to what you can do.