For biologist Jessica Ford, pursuing a lifelong interest in herpetology – the study of amphibians and reptiles or, as Ford puts it, “things that live in the mud” – hasn’t always been easy.
“From my elementary school experience through to undergrad, I’ve had people telling me, ‘Maybe you should reconsider’, ‘maybe you shouldn’t be doing this’, ‘maybe science isn’t for you’.
“There’s very little that makes you feel so much like you can’t do something as someone explicitly telling you that you should reconsider.”
But far from being deterred from following a path she was told was “weird for a girl,” Ford leaned in. Now a PhD student in McGill’s Redpath Museum, she credits her stubbornness, her passion for science and ecology, and the support of friends and family for keeping her moving forward.
Representation: the importance of seeing and being seen
Having found her way in a traditionally male-dominated field, Ford wanted to do something that would counterbalance discouraging voices “for other little Jesses out there.” In 2017, she responded to a message from Charles Xu, a fellow graduate student at the Redpath Museum, who was looking for ways to draw attention to issues of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).
Born in Wuhan, Xu grew up in the American Midwest and studied at universities in the US, Europe and Asia before starting his PhD in biology at McGill in 2016. He recounts a positive mentoring experience from around the time he finished high school which helped solidify his resolve to pursue science studies.
“I went to a biology camp for underrepresented minorities at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, and then I got involved with research in the summer before my first year of undergrad,” he says. “I lived in the same town as the university and a graduate student really took me under his wing.”
“Within STEMM, Asians actually tend to be overrepresented, but within the field of ecology and evolution, we’re certainly underrepresented.”
The Redpath Museum: old traditions and new visions meet
A workshop on EDI delivered by Imogen Coe, a professor of biology and chemistry at Ryerson University, and Dawn Bazely, a biology professor at York University, inspired Xu to start discussing potential projects with fellow graduate students. Soon after, he, Ford and several others banded together to form STEMM Diversity @ McGill. The group’s first initiative was an exhibition at the Redpath Museum, highlighting McGill scientists from underrepresented groups.
The Redpath – a Victorian-era treasure trove of natural history specimens and cultural artifacts built to house the collections of Sir John William Dawson – might seem an unlikely place for fresh ideas about diversity in the sciences to thrive.
“The Redpath Museum is great. I love it,” says Xu. “But it has this very classical, Victorian-style architecture, and the moment you walk in, there’s a giant portrait of Peter Redpath on one side, and portraits of people like Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin on the other”—19th century figures “who don’t necessarily reflect the kinds of people who are doing science within the museum today.”
But the Redpath (in pre-pandemic times, at least) was also a place that welcomed a steady stream of public visitors, including tens of thousands of school-age children each year, and Xu and his colleagues recognized a clear opportunity to showcase the stories of modern-day scientists from diverse backgrounds.
“We put up these big banners around the museum so that people coming in could see themselves doing the kind of science they were there to learn about,” Xu says.
The exhibit has evolved into a permanent installation with touchscreens showing interviews with prominent McGill scientists, including Victoria Kaspi and Joëlle Pineau, sharing stories of their own career paths as well as their perspectives on ongoing barriers to participation in the sciences.
Ford has also developed a colouring book to introduce young children to scientists from underrepresented backgrounds who have made significant contributions in STEMM fields.
“Something I find really empowering is finding someone who reminds me of me – someone I can identify with who is doing what I want to do,” she says.
“[I wanted to offer kids] something that really spoke to them and explained there’s lots of people who do science. We all look different, and you can have a place here, too.”
Appetite for change
With the release of its 2020-2025 strategic plan for equity, diversity and inclusion, McGill University affirmed its commitment to “address the lasting effects of historic injustices that continue to challenge equal opportunities to access, and to succeed within, the McGill community.”
Ford sees the emergence of STEMM Diversity @ McGill and other student-led EDI initiatives across the campus as a clear sign of McGill students’ appetite for change. From the work she and her fellow students put in, it is evident that students’ energy and dedication to making the University a more welcoming place are among the leading drivers of that change.
“STEMM Diversity exists for a reason,” Ford says. “And the reason is that there are persistent issues with EDI at McGill.”
The message for incoming students, Xu says, is that “people walking the same path as you’re about to start have faced challenges, and there are things to watch out for.”
“Our goal,” he adds, “is to make students aware of the challenges, and then offer advice about how to get past them. And also, to show that there are other people who feel the same way, there are peers you can draw on for support.”
In 2021, the group took a further step towards realizing that goal by establishing a mentorship program to connect undergraduate students in the Faculty of Science with graduate student mentors.
The efforts made by Xu, Ford and colleagues have not gone unnoticed by the University. In 2018, STEMM Diversity was among the winners of McGill’s Equity and Community Building Awards, and the following year, the group received special recognition for direct public outreach under the Principal’s Prize for Public Engagement through Media. This year, the McGill Alumni Association further recognized Ford with the Gretta Chambers Student Leadership Award for her efforts to “change the narrative of what people assume a scientist looks like”.
STEMM Diversity now occupies a place among a growing number of EDI initiatives in the Faculty of Science and beyond, including the Office of Science Outreach, a number of departmental EDI committees and the Faculty of Science Equity and Climate Committee (SECC). SECC’s founder, McGill biology professor Laura Nilson, who is also the Associate Dean (Graduate Education) for the Faculty of Science and oversees the Faculty’s EDI portfolio, regards student-led initiatives as vital to making progress on the University’s EDI goals.
“We can’t overstate the value of groups like STEMM Diversity,” Nilson says. “They’re on the ground and they see issues out there that are relevant to their experience at McGill, and therefore they bring an important perspective to our collective EDI efforts as an institution.”