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Diversity in science and the importance of women

March 13, 2018
By: 
Puja Bagri
PhD Candidate - Infection and Immunity
Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University

I am a first-generation Canadian born to immigrant parents, a first-generation post-secondary degree holder, and a woman of colour pursuing a doctoral degree in infection and immunity. There are many aspects of that statement which defy a lot of people’s preconceptions about me and others who may share a similar background. However, I am proud to say that these are characteristics that define me and motivate me to work towards empowering other women of colour in science.

My parents travelled to Toronto from India in the 1980s, with nothing but the hope to give their future children a better life. Although there were cultural beliefs my parents grew up with which dictated that women and girls have very specific life goals (which did not necessarily include ambitious dreams of becoming scientists), I was never stopped from chasing my dreams. My parents always promoted education, and the primary condition for my siblings and I was to go to school and study hard. At a young age, I was instilled with the idea that a dedicated work ethic would lead to success, and that is the path I chose to follow. Even when I decided to pursue my studies in science, it was never an issue with my parents. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for women in my culture. I think that it is critical for a career in science to remain an option for everyone, and an important part of helping women and girls discover their potential is by supporting them.

I was fortunate to have several strong, female role models throughout my life who helped do just that. Whether it be my older sisters, my co-workers at the YWCA Toronto Girls’ Centre, or my wonderful friends, these women have consistently supported and inspired me. More recently, my supervisor and mentor, Dr. Charu Kaushic, has influenced my role as a female researcher. Before starting graduate school, I remember feeling nervous and worried about my abilities and qualifications. On paper, there was not anything out of the ordinary that made me stand-out, but I knew that if just one person gave me the chance, I would work hard to show them that I was a worthy pick. Dr. Kaushic saw the potential in me and gave me that chance I so desperately needed. Even when I was debating my ability to transfer from my Master’s to PhD, she assured me that if it was something I wanted, I was more than capable. I am thankful for her unwavering trust and for constantly pushing me to strive for even bigger goals than I ever imagined I could achieve and these are the type of mentors we need to empower women to pursue a career in science.

I often feel I am benefiting from the struggles of those who came before me; women who encountered endless barriers and were continuously pushed aside as they struggled to climb the ladder of success. Thanks to their determination and relentless hard work, I have opportunities they never did. However, there remain many battles to be fought, which is why I try to continue on this quest for equality. I try to get involved in mentorship opportunities where I can share my experiences with others in hopes of inspiring them to follow a path in science. Like those before me, I want to make the future a better and brighter place where women and girls feel like the belong in any career they want; be it a boardroom or a laboratory. I want young girls from different nationalities to see women who represent them to be at the forefront of innovation and discovery, so they feel like they too can do the same. This is one of the primary reasons I got involved in the CSPC, as it represents an organization that shares similar values as I do. Although I am a new volunteer, I hope to use this platform to garner positive change and am fortunate to be involved with a group that encourages and empowers women in science to have a voice.

There is no question that diversity is one of Canada’s greatest strengths. We are a nation comprised of individuals who bring their own unique perspective and story, which is what makes this country so great. It is up to us all, as Canadians, to support each other, especially those who find themselves on the outside looking in. Our success as a group will only truly occur when we all succeed; regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or socio-economic status.