Feb. 7, 2015

2015 UofC Leadership Exchange Conference

Article written by Chelsea Matisz, PhD student, McKay lab

Every year the University of Calgary puts on an intensive one-day Leadership Exchange conference that focuses on leadership: what it looks like, how it’s achieved, and what it takes to be a leader. The overall goal of the conference is to motivate and inspire young minds. This year, the Leadership Exchange conference focused its message on how individuals can be a catalyst for change. When I was approached to sit on the Leaders in Sciences panel I was very honoured, but quite surprised to be considered a leader in my field. As a graduate student, I am constantly aware of how much more I need to learn, so it’s difficult to imagine myself as a leader. However, as scientists, we are in a constant state of learning, so I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way.

I sat on the panel with two other very accomplished women, and we fielded questions from a large audience of eager undergraduates. Students were interested in how we came to be in our chosen fields, what kinds of obstacles we’d encountered, and what life as a scientist was like. Finally, we were asked to share lessons on leadership. For me, two things came to mind.

First, you need to both embrace and create opportunity.  Careers are forged over time, by knocking on (or kicking in!) the doors you find along the way; they aren’t just something you apply for. Networking is a big part of this. I am still in contact with a professor I worked for in 2003, and recently contacted him for an article I’m writing about hummingbird foraging behaviours for my website. Another part of embracing opportunity is thinking outside your field. I’ve always loved CBC radio, so when an opportunity presented itself to apply as a research intern for the Calgary Eyeopener, I jumped at it, poured everything I had into the application, and a new door opened. While I have no idea where these opportunities might lead in the future, I know the regret of not trying to open doors is greater than the effort it takes to try and open them. 

The second lesson I imparted was the importance to recognize failure.  Science is blood, sweat, and tears. If you include the few times a mouse has bitten me and drawn blood, this can be taken literally. Consequently, it can be challenging to recognize when you need to keep persevering, and when you’ve hit a dead end and its time to move on. The first research avenue of my PhD was a dead end. Instead of recognizing this sooner, I attributed these failures to my own ineptitude as a scientist-for twelve long months. It was a hard lesson, but I’ve learned the importance of trusting in your own abilities and instincts.

Overall, the conference forced me to take some time and think about where I started as a scientist, where I am now, and how I’ve navigated the trials in between. What makes a good leader, and how can one be a catalyst for change? My final conclusion is that is comes down to passion, and the passion of scientists to satiate their curiosities.  Passion is contagious; it can motivate and inspire. Passion gets you through the first nine failed experiments, and makes that tenth successful experiment worth the first failures. I think that passion might just be the ultimate leader.

Panelist interviews at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAJhYboWbro