ASTech Awards

Hello Alberta Science and Technology Community. Did you know that the deadline to nominate a fellow Albertan for an ASTech Award is quickly approaching? You have until May 31st. Go here to learn more.

For those of you who are not familiar with the ASTech Foundation, let me give you a quick introduction: Alberta Science and Technology Leadership (ASTech) Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that is committed to showcasing substantial achievements in science and technology in Alberta. Every fall, finalists in the nomination process are honoured at an awards ceremony. I have had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony for the last 3 years and I can say that it is a great event for anyone interested in innovation. It is tremendously fun to be in a room with so many like-minded individuals.

With all of these great things going for ASTech, I have to say that the awards remain plagued by one key problem: a lack of diversity in their award winners. In 2015, only one of the 15 award winners was female. Further, not a single award presenter was a woman. In a discussion about diversity, I brought this point to the ASTech Foundation. Let’s just say their response wasn’t quite as convicted as “because it’s 2015”:

(I’ve done sales/customer service. “Thanks for your feedback” is right up there with “I’ll take that under advisement” for the polite, if not passive aggressive, dismal.)

I began digging into ASTech’s history a bit: in the last 5 years only 9 women have been named winners of awards, with another 3 women being the representative (CEO/Founder) for companies that have been award winners. This means that less than 20% of the award winners are women.

At the 2015 awards, I discussed it with a couple of individuals on the Board of the ASTech Foundation and they expressed that they get a notable lack of female nominees, making it difficult to ensure that there is equality in award winners. This may explain, at least superficially, why there are so few female award winners, but this hardly does anything to explain why award presenters and evening MCs are all still male.


Here’s the thing, I am not in anyway suggesting that the men who have won an ASTech award are not deserving. In fact, in 2015, TWO members of my PhD committee, Drs. Jonathan Curtis and Todd Lowary, accepted awards. These are two individuals who had a profound effect on my career and I count them among a list of wonderful mentors I have worked with over the last fourteen years.

That being said, I have also worked with an innumerable number of women who have also changed the landscape of science and technology in Alberta. I am currently involved in two Alberta-based start-ups where the Founder/CEO is a woman: Stephanie Hoeppner of Life Science Forensics and Donna Mandau of Graphene Leaders Canada. The scientific leads, operational leads, and other senior management roles in these companies are also dominated by women (myself included). I work with female vice presidents, female lead researchers, and female project managers every day. I DO NOT accept that there are not enough women contributing to science and technology innovation in Alberta as an explanation for the lack of female nominees. I call on my fellow scientists and innovators to no longer accept this either. When you make your nomination for the 2016 ASTech, do not forget about all of the brilliant women you know who are also changing the Alberta science and technology landscape.

The mission of the ASTech Foundation is “To identify and celebrate outstanding achievements in science and technology in Alberta and to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership.” It is difficult to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership to embrace diversity and new ideas, if we aren’t demonstrating, and celebrating, diversity today.


Girls with Toys

I want you all to engage in a little thought experiment with me:

Imagine yourself at dinner with some family friends. Their 17 year old is going to be heading off to university next year and so you ask “Jamie, what is it that you are planning to do?” Jamie replies, “I’m going to be a physicist! But, like, not just any physicist, I want to get a PhD and work for, like, NASA or something. I want to be Canada’s Neil Degrasse Tyson!”

You’re not surprised; this kid has always loved science. Heck, when Jamie turned 7 your gift was a model of the solar system. Which was followed by a lecture on its inaccuracies: Pluto is NOT a planet.

What advice are you thinking about offering Jamie, knowing that these specific career goals mean at least a decade in university?

-How about the fact that this may interfere with plans to have a baby? No one wants to start having kids in their 30s.

-A technical diploma will allow for way more family focused jobs

-What about *future* husband’s career goals?

How many of you actually imagined that Jamie was a boy?

On Friday, Shrinivas Kulkarni of Caltech said in an interview on NPR “many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys'” and it has since sparked a backlash on Twitter with the hashtag #GirlswithToys. It has some people wondering, “what are people so outraged”?

Well here’s the reason: that statement automatically excluded 50% of the population from being identified as scientists, a group that already is discourage from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In one statement, Dr. Kulkarni managed to highlight the tacit institutional sexism present in the sciences (like so many other fields).

You would be hard pressed to find anyone, with the exception of cretins who identify as “Men’s Rights Activists”, who would openly say “women cannot be scientists” and yet, women earn as few as 20% of the the bachelor of science degrees awarded to men in physics, engineering, and computer science.

On April 29th, (that’s April 29th, 2015) female researchers were told that their paper would be improved if it had a male co-author. I can assure you that none of my male colleagues have ever been told their paper would fair better with a female co-author.

My male colleagues haven’t been asked about “when they are planning to have children” in job interviews, despite being married (some already committed fathers). My male colleagues haven’t had TAs who didn’t want to to female students. (Sadly this was a situation that arose, in 2009, in Canada.) When my male colleagues mention that their PhD is in chemistry, I have yet to see the kind of shocked faces followed by the condescending, “oh you have a real PhD,” as though somehow getting a PhD in a physical science is harder or more legitimate than one in a social science. I have never heard anyone refer to my male colleagues as a “bitch” because the same kind of tough questions that the male professors do. And they certainly haven’t had to deal with the rampant sexual harassment. Let me tell you, when you are at a conference poster session and one of your professors begins to tell, in graphic detail, of how attractive he thinks a well-known undergraduate student is and what he is planning to do alone in his hotel with her image, it makes your skin crawl to know that even if you said something about this, the guy has tenure and so nothing will happen. Hell, let’s not even discuss some of the things the more senior fellows in the department have said.

Did Dr. Kulkarni mean that women can’t be scientists by his off-hand remark? Probably not. I like to think that he was commenting on the child-like curiosity that many scientists have, and that the general enthusiasm with which curiosity-driven research is carried out feels a little like “getting to play with some pretty cool toys”. However, when you take that sentiment in context with the stories of institutional sexism that I, and every female scientist, has experienced in some way, it becomes easy to see why we are reacting with outrage.

I happen to work for a company called Life Science Forensics, where I am the Director of Science and Research, and right now we are made up of four women only. I would very much refer to this wonderful group of women that I work with as “girls with toys” because we are driven to innovative research projects that often start with a curious question and the knowledge that we have plenty of high end instrumentation to test out ideas. We are committed to innovating our field-and if you had the kind of instruments we have, you’d want to be testing for all kinds of things like we do.

Does it matter that we are women? Not at all. Science is for everyone with a curious mind. Dorothy Parker wrote: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” And that has NOTHING to do with gender.

What is a DNA Fingerprint?

Gel featuring DNA bands from three individuals compared to an unknown sample.

Gel featuring DNA bands from three individuals compared to an unknown sample.

Today in Kingston, ON, a man was arrested in connection with a kidnapping and sexual assault that took place in Calgary, AB, 20 years ago. The police were able to connect the suspect to the case by comparing his DNA to samples from the Calgary cold case.

I was asked to talk with the CTV reporter covering the story to explain DNA fingerprinting. RCMP forensics scientists-the real experts who made this type of arrest possible, aren’t available on Sundays. But if you happen to be Director of Science and Technology for a company called Life Science Forensics, and the sister of said reporter, you tend to be more available on Sundays.

One of the big questions from today’s interview was “how does this technology work?” Now, in the interview, my answer was pretty quick, because there wasn’t too much time to really explore the details-the story wasn’t about the science, or at least not ALL about the science. So here is a chance to go into a bit more detail.

The first thing to understand about DNA fingerprinting (the preferred term is actually genetic profiling) is that all of a person’s DNA (called the “whole genome“) is NOT sequenced. Only pieces of the DNA are sequenced. Your DNA contains TERABYTES of data. (The MacBook pro that I am writing this on has only 500 gigabytes of storage-it wouldn’t even hold the information that your DNA holds.) It would take a very long time to sift through the data from a whole genome, especially since 99.9% of our DNA is the same as everyone else. And thanks to evolution, we have a whole lot of junk DNA that we just kept with us as we climbed the evolutionary ladder.

What scientists use instead to build a DNA “fingerprint” are genetic markers called short tandem repeats (STR). These are areas of your DNA that present in every human, but are highly variable (polymorphic), meaning that they differ from person to person. There are typically 13 STR loci that forensic scientists use to create a genetic profile.

Simple overview of steps in DNA profiling.

Simple overview of steps in DNA profiling.


1) DNA sample is collected: could be blood, hair, saliva

2) The DNA is then broken up into smaller pieces, using an enzyme that cleaves DNA at specific locations

3) The DNA markers are amplified by a technique called PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). This means that the original DNA sample can be quite small-maybe only 20 DNA containing cells.

4) The DNA pieces are then run through a technique called gel electrophoresis, where a high voltage current is applied to a gel that contains the DNA fragments. The fragments separate out based on size, with the smaller fragments travelling faster. The result is the band-like structure seen in the picture at the top.

The bands on a gel from the unknown sample will be compared to suspects (in the case of criminal DNA testing). If the unknown DNA is a match for a suspect, the bands on the unknown sample will exactly match. Take a look at the samples in the picture at the top. Can you identify which suspect is a match for the sample from the crime scene? (Answer at the bottom.)

Each of these STRs are independent, meaning that a particular sequence of one does not influence the other. In probability terms this means that each of these is an independent event. The result is a one in several trillion chance of two sequences from two individuals being identical. The notable exception being identical twins, who by definition have the same DNA.

Me, talking to CTV.

Me, talking to CTV.

What has changed since 1995?

Well, the techniques are better, we can use smaller samples of DNA. We can even now put together samples from degraded ancient DNA. We can’t quite use those samples to clone a velociraptor (a la Jurassic Park); however, we can use the sample to identify remains of those long dead. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA was how the remains of Richard III were unequivocally identified in 2013.

Better, faster, more sensitive techniques allow for identification that may not have been possible in 1995. Further, PCR was developed in 1991, meaning that 20 years ago, it was still relatively new. Today we are much more comfortable with DNA analysis, as is the legal system.

Check out the story on CTV:

*The unknown DNA sample in the top image is a match for suspect number 2