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‘I found my passion’

Four prominent Concordia researchers reflect on the changes they’ve seen in academia in the course of their careers
April 9, 2014
By Tom Peacock

From left: Gita Ghiasi Hafezi, Tina Carlisi, Kathleen Boies and Sylvia Santosa.

In March, to mark International Women’s Day at Concordia, we launched a bimonthly series of published conversations with visionary leaders, teachers, researchers and community members.

This week, the series continues with four prominent researchers.

Sylvia Santosa is an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science and a Canada Research Chair, Tier 2, in Clinical Nutrition. Her research focuses on nutrition, obesity and metabolism. Why are individuals with the same physical characteristics (like height and weight) at different risks for disease? And why do treatments for these people vary? Through her work, Santosa aims to answer questions like these in hopes of making a valuable contribution to the treatment of obesity and its disease risk factors.

A PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the Interuniversity Centre on Science and Technology, Gita Ghiasi Hafezi holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tehran and a master’s degree in international business from the University of Warsaw.

Her PhD dissertation focuses on the equity, equality and development challenges of nanotechnologies. Specifically, her research looks at the intersection of economic and gender inequality and examines the role of women in advancements of pro-poor applications of nanotechnology.

Kathleen Boies, an associate professor in the Department of Management, holds the Concordia University Research Chair in Leadership Development. In her research, she explores how to identify and develop leadership practices in educational institutions, non-governmental organizations and private industry.

Tina Carlisi (BFA 02, MA 13) is a PhD student in the Individualized Program in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Her research is concerned with socially and politically engaged art practices. Through forms that belong to the culture of print, she examines how art and design participate in social imaginaries (the values, structures and laws shared by a social group), from visual representations to experiments in collective structures.

How did you end up in your field of research?

Sylvia Santosa: As a newly minted nutritionist, I wanted to discover the next “super food.” When I went to McGill to do my PhD with a super-food researcher, the main project he had was in the area of obesity. After digging in, I found obesity research to be more interesting, as obesity is a complex disease with many facets.

Gita Ghiasi Hafezi: I always wanted to conduct research in a field that could bridge my backgrounds in engineering and management, which is why I chose to study one of the industrial engineering topics: technology and innovation management.

Kathleen Boies: During my undergraduate studies in psychology, I worked in a student employment centre. This led me to discover a whole field of study that applied psychology to understanding human behaviour at work. I found it fascinating, and I decided I would make this my career.

Tina Carlisi: I’ve always been passionate about art and design. Prior to graduate studies, I worked as a professional designer. But after many years in the field, I increasingly questioned the social role of the designer. This led me to return to both academia and a creative practice, where I began researching these questions.

What made you decide on your specific focus?

SS: My research focuses on why some people with obesity develop diseases and others do not. My research is only done in people we recruit to participate in our studies. Though we gain a lot of information from animal studies, I like that the results we get can be directly applied to us as humans.

GGH: During my master’s studies, I got involved in an ethnographic research project on women entrepreneurs who decided to leave large organizations and start their own businesses. There, I found my passion, not only because I was exposed to the gender issues of those women entrepreneurs from a different perspective, but also because I found out how the active role played by women in public and professional life would impact both human capital and the economy. During my PhD studies, I tried to embed my passion in my line of research and look into gender inequalities that a new technology might bring to one society.

KB: During my graduate training, I worked as a research assistant for a researcher doing work in the area of leadership, and I developed a passion for it. I merged my interests in cognitive psychology with my interests in leadership and human development, and eventually focused on leadership development.

TC: I have been inspired by the contribution of print culture to social histories and identities, especially during periods of social change, such as in the 1960s, for example. I am interested in how these cultural shifts are present in contemporary culture, art practices and new technologies.

As a woman, and as a researcher, who has inspired you the most?

SS: My parents and my mentors. Though my parents always placed an importance on education, I always felt free and supported in choosing my own path. I have been lucky to have amazing mentors who challenge me and stand by me. They help me organize my thoughts and navigate the waters of academia.

GGH: Many people have inspired me in different ways, most notably my mother, who, while pursuing her career as a university professor for over 30 years, also raised my two sisters and me.

KB: My PhD supervisor, Jane Howell. She is the most enthusiastic and positive person I have met, and she helped me find my strengths and grow. She held high-level administrative positions, is a highly respected researcher and raised a family successfully. She showed me it was possible to do all this and survive.

TC: Many women have inspired me. Angela Davis, Yoko Ono, Barbara Kruger, bell hooks, Guerrilla Girls and Lea Roback quickly come to mind, but there are too many to name. Certain professors in the Faculty of Fine Arts who have taken on strong mentorship and collaborative roles to support emerging artists and researchers have inspired me as well.

Has the position of women in research — in general and in your field — changed during your lifetime?

SS: I know I “have it better” than women scientists and researchers before my time, but there is still a gender gap between men and women in science and research. Though Concordia has equalized salaries between men and women, there is still some glaring evidence that, even at this university, there is a lack of awareness of the contributions to research by women.

For example, most scientific speakers invited to present at Concordia are men! In rare cases, there are even whole panels of scientists invited without the inclusion of a single woman. We should be more vigilant in acknowledging the contributions of women to science.

GGH: In all the three countries and departments that I have been in, women have been greatly underrepresented in graduate-level and faculty positions. I think now we can find more women in high-level positions than 10 years ago, but still, specifically in engineering, gender-responsive initiatives are needed to support women and build their capacities.

KB: I like to think that my lifetime is still relatively short… Nevertheless, if we look at the gender distribution of researchers and graduate students in my field between when I started and now, I think the number of women and their influence is increasing steadily. That’s a good thing.

TC: In my lifetime, there has been a significant increase of women in research, occupying more teaching and research positions than before. At the same time, we cannot take this progress for granted. We still see inequalities in society at large. It is a constant struggle requiring equal commitment from both women and men.

What’s one thing that you would change about the way research is currently conducted and supported at universities?

SS: In the short time I’ve been here, changes have been implemented to better support research. Both the facilities and processes have improved. People I’ve interacted with at the university generally want to help facilitate research, and that is reassuring. I’m confident that the shifts Concordia is making to decrease barriers for research will continue.

GGH: I would change the financial aid system for the better. Universities and professors need to take more responsibility for providing merit-based funding to graduate students, and to ensure that graduate students have the resources to focus on their research during the whole defined period of their studies. These changes would help universities become more productive, with higher research capacities and innovative performance.

KB: I wish we had better tools to support and conduct multidisciplinary work. Leadership is of interest to people in different fields, and cross-disciplinary conversations could be very enriching both from a theoretical and a methodological standpoint. Despite existing efforts, we tend to work in silos, and that’s unfortunate.

TC: More research collaborations between departments and across faculties. The complexity of contemporary issues demands contributions from different specialized expertise, and integration of different modes of knowledge for innovative research. A stronger fluidity between various institutional resources would further support interdisciplinarity.

Read four Concordia women’s reflections on the past, present and future of education.


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