Women in Science: Bernadette Conant

December 13, 2017

By Sarah Boon, PhD

At 55 years of age, Bernadette Conant frequently tells people, "I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up." 

It’s the same feeling she’s had since high school. "Like many teenagers, I didn’t really know what I wanted to pursue either in university or in life," she says. "I was interested in concrete, tangible topics like biology, chemistry, and geology, and found math, physics, and English too theoretical. I figured I’d likely have a career in biology, agriculture, medicine, or geology."

Conant took a year off between high school and university—something she recommends to all students. "I learned a lot in that year—lessons that I still use in the leadership aspects of my job. I was more mature when I started university."

Once at the University of Waterloo, Conant enrolled in the co-op program. Her jobs included working as a research assistant for a quaternary geology professor, doing fieldwork in northern Ontario for a gold mining company, and two work terms in Calgary’s oil patch. At the time, she wasn’t into anything specifically water related.

After finishing a BSc in Earth Sciences in the spring of 1986, Conant lost a job offer in Calgary due to the economic downturn, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "I ended up working for the water well inspector at the Ontario Ministry of Environment instead," she says. "It required a lot of driving around trying to figure out where private wells were located relative to what we had in our records." This was Conant’s first foray into water work.

Conant then went on to work at Golder Associates. "I worked on a variety of water-related topics, which really got me into the water world," she says. "I decided that if I was going to do it for real, I should go back to school for an MSc."

Conant returned to Waterloo to complete an MSc (1991) focused on solvents in groundwater. "I got a lot of exposure not just to research, but to what industry wanted to do with that research," says Conant. She credits this approach with how her professional life has evolved: the drive and ability to bring relevant research together with practical decision-making. "I think that’s always been the driver for me, and water became the topic through which I could apply that drive." 

Bernadette and Brewster at their MSc graduation ceremony at the University of Waterloo

In 1991, Conant and her husband, Brewster, moved to his hometown in Massachusetts. Bernadette worked for the consulting firm Environmental Project Control, where she wrote third-party reviews of technical reports on contaminated site conditions or clean ups and reviewed and provided expert testimony on site remediation issues. "I spent a lot of time figuring out how our study reviews and expert testimony could be more defensible," she says. "I also learned from a lawyer how to write for a non-academic audience, as she taught me the 'upside-down' method of communication, where you start with your conclusions and then provide your rationale for those conclusions."

When the pair returned to Waterloo with their first child, Brewster completed a PhD while Bernadette continued as a consultant, including managing the Solvents in Groundwater Consortium. The couple also had two more kids. 

Conant joined the Canadian Water Network (CWN) in 2003 as their Executive Director. As a Network Centre of Excellence (NCE), CWN was funded by the Canadian government from 20012017 to ensure the safety, security, and abundance of Canada’s drinking water. In those 16 years, CWN-funded research led to "over 100 policy and practice changes; hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred and avoided costs for municipalities, industry, and homeowners; improved water quality; and reduced risk to public health and infrastructure." Post-NCE, CWN has evolved into an ongoing national not-for-profit that works with a variety of water management sectors across Canada to provide needed insights for their decision-making.

Now the CEO of CWN, Conant describes herself as a "proud generalist" who can connect with people across research fields rather than being confined by in-depth knowledge of a single field. She feels this is an ideal trait for someone whose job it is to connect researchers and their results with end-users in government, industry, and NGOs and to make sure that water research results in on-the-ground solutions for water policy. As Conant says, "all of my work has been about better connecting relevant, cutting-edge research and knowledge to policy, practice, and decision-making."

It wasn’t always this way, however. "Initially, the fact that I didn’t have a PhD was limiting," says Conant. "For example, I wasn’t accepted or seen as a credible 'science leader' despite my time in the academic world. I was seen more as administrative staff who 'happened' to understand some of the science."

When asked if she wishes she’d done a PhD, however, Conant remains undecided. She explains that her MSc was quite rigorous, and she’d had the option to put in another year plus a few more courses and call it a PhD. At the time, she was too principled to fast-track, though in hindsight she thinks she likely should have done it. In the end, Conant feels that while having a PhD can certainly be a useful pathway, the typical post-PhD academic route necessarily focuses on specialization and is thus not the best preparation for someone looking to be a generalist.

Not only that, but "at some point, the scales at CWN tipped and it seemed that not having a PhD was almost an advantage—particularly with end users," she recalls. "I was seen as more credible as someone who understood the need for research to have practical applications, particularly because I was approaching government and industry groups to find out what—if any—research was required before moving forward."

Conant notes that her career path has definitely been winding. "I didn’t have a clear career goal. I just picked from the opportunities facing me at the time and saw where it got me. Now I’m a bit more intentional about what I’m doing and where I’m going. I’m also more aware that I have [a] voice and influence, and I think more now about how to use those." She also finds that she still has to overcome her perfectionist tendencies. "One of my biggest personal challenges is recognizing I can’t be responsible for all outcomes. I just need to do my best and ensure I don’t inflict my perfectionism on the rest of my team."

Regarding her CWN position, Conant says, "I earned respect in my role over the years, but I had to push to get there. I think I was seen as pushier than an assertive/competent male would have been." These days, however, she deals more with ingrained bias. "I still have to push for diversity on panels, at conferences, and for my own Board. People aren’t against it, they just don’t necessarily consider the impacts or that following a slightly more difficult route can improve things."

Perhaps the biggest challenge Conant sees for women in science is the available role models. "Instead of having super-achiever role models, we need more attainable role models who are self-assured, happy, and confident in themselves," she says. "Trying to emulate women who have broken through in spite of all the odds can be more intimidating than helpful and can cause self-doubt, which is a huge barrier to women. They wonder if they should do certain things or whether they’re good enough." 

Conant recalls what it was like for women on the job in the 80s. "During my co-op job in northern Ontario, I learned to cuss and swear with the best of them to earn my place," she says. "When we went for lunch we’d go to a stripper bar. There wasn’t much option and I never complained about it. I just figured that was the way it was."

"I went to quite a few meetings early in my career where I was the only woman in the room," she says. "I’ve always had a strong personality and I talk a lot, which has been criticized A LOT over the years. I’ve had a male Board member show me the hand and shush me at a Board meeting. While the criticisms may have been valid, I question whether they would have been said to my male counterparts."

She suggests women empower themselves to develop self-confidence and beat self-doubt by finding a place, whether that’s school, work, or a particular community, that works for them and connects them with like-minded people. Don’t get hung up on whether or not it’s prestigious enough to get you a job. "I’m not concerned about what school you went to or what courses you took or where you worked before," says Conant. "I hire more based on who you are and how you approach things."

Like many of our previous interviewees, Conant also recommends that women take advantage of opportunities whenever they come up. "Not because they’ll all be great," she says, "but because that’s how you learn, plus you never know what any given opportunity will lead to." She feels that women have a difficult time dealing with failure, and recommends that they embrace it, as success is only achieved through trial and error. 

At this point in her career, however, Conant has become a role model for other women. "I had no idea I had somehow become a role model!" she says. "So maybe the challenge for women is as much about recognizing and owning it, as it is achieving it!"

Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also a founding member of Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @SnowHydro

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