Women in Science: Dr. Imogen Coe

February 17, 2016

By Sarah Boon, Ph.D.

This is the twelfth post in an ongoing series by Sarah Boon on Canadian women in science. Read through the archive to meet eleven other women shaping science in Canada.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Imogen Coe can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in science and how the natural world works. 

“I always wanted to figure out how cells work,” says the cell biologist and Dean of Science at Ryerson University. “I originally had some vague plans to be a vet because I liked animals; then watching Jacques Cousteau made me want to be a marine biologist, sail around the world, save the whales, be a member of Greenpeace, etc. But I was mainly fascinated with the natural world, and with biology in general.”

Her interest in science was strongly supported by her parents, as her father (a chemist) was a research director at the Welding Institute, near Cambridge, UK. Coe completed an undergraduate degree in Cell Biology at the University of Exeter (1984), then came to Canada to do an MSc (1987), and a PhD in comparative molecular neuroendocrinology (1992; with Dr. Nancy Sherwood), both at the University of Victoria. 

“At that time it was expected that, after completing a PhD in Canada (particularly in the biomedical sciences), you went “away” to a big lab in the US or UK to do a postdoc that would form the foundation of your independent academic career. That was the culture, the expected and “normal” path,” she says. 

So Coe did a postdoc in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) with Dr. Adrienne Grant and Dr. Ivan Diamond. UCSF was where Coe first moved into truly biomedical research, learning about membrane transport proteins and particularly nucleoside transporters and their role in various clinical situations. Understanding nucleoside transporters remains the primary focus of her research program today.  

Coe credits her postdoctoral work with helping her develop professional skills. “I learned about teamwork, rigorous experimental design, and strong manuscript writing,” she recalls. “Dr. Grant was an outstanding and demanding mentor and really pushed me to think critically about experimental design and data interpretation. It was challenging at times, but made for much better science and made me a stronger person. I also got my first exposure to how institutional and personal politics influence decision-making.”

It was at this first postdoc that Coe also experienced sexual harassment in the lab. “I had to go through the institutional processes involved in reporting and holding people accountable for sexual harassment,” she says. “The whole experience was unpleasant, particularly as I had to deal with it largely on my own with very little personal or institutional support.”  

After three years in San Francisco, Coe was keen to return to Canada. The University of Alberta’s Dr. Carol Cass sponsored Coe for an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR) Postdoctoral Fellowship, so Coe spent two years in Edmonton working in the Department of Biochemistry and at the Cross Cancer Institute.

“This postdoc was also in the field of membrane transporters—moving from understanding their role in neuropharmacology to their role in chemotherapeutics,” explains Coe. “I learned more about the funding challenges in the Canadian system and had a wonderful mentor and colleague in Carol, who was supportive and provided a lot of freedom for scientific exploration. Our lab team was fun and helpful, and the science was great. It was a very different feel from UCSF. Although I love San Francisco and learned a lot there, it was good to come back to Canada.”

Coe began applying for academic positions during this second postdoc. “I never considered anything else because “alternative” careers were rarely discussed in those days, and not pursuing an academic career seemed something of an admission of failure as a graduate student/postdoc,” she says. Luckily that perspective is starting to change. 

Coe took on an assistant professorship in York University’s Department of Biology in 1997. “Initially, it wasn’t that hard for me to obtain funding, as I had a good record from my postdoctoral career,” Coe recalls. “My biggest challenge was getting grants renewed—I went from zero dollars to $250,000 dollars a year very quickly, to almost none again in the first seven years or so. It was quite confusing and difficult to manage, and there was little in place at the time in terms of mentorship, guidance, or help with building a strategic plan for my research program.”

Coe had her first child soon after joining York University, and her second in 2001. As per York’s collective agreement, the tenure clock was stopped during her maternity leaves. However, matters were complicated in 2003 when Coe suddenly found herself a single mother of a 2-year-old and 6-year-old. “My partner had become increasingly abusive over a period of many months, and was removed from our home by police when he became threatening,” Coe explains. Fortunately, she had just received tenure and was on sabbatical, so was able to take a short leave of absence.  

Coe was able to continue her sabbatical and return to her research with the support of her personal network and an excellent daycare provider, and a few years later she remarried. Her advice to women in science? Pick your partner carefully!

Coe finds that juggling work and family is something people in many careers have to do, but that academic science provides more scheduling flexibility relative to careers in medicine or law, for example. Coe’s advice on balancing career and family includes building a strong support network, being organized, and asking for help when you need it. She also recommends not paying attention to parenting books or advice, or to what other people think about how you do things. “No one knows your life!” she says. “Talk to other women in science. Everyone has a great tip and if they don’t, they’ll commiserate and drink wine with you. The best parenting advice I ever got was from a great friend and mentor, who had also been a single parent while pursuing a very successful career as a scientist. She told me to just “keep ‘em alive, just keep ‘em alive!” I focused on making sure my kids were loved and encouraged to be independent. My mentor’s kids have grown up to be world leaders in their respective fields, so I respect her advice!”

Coe has had her share of challenges as a woman in science, from being accepted as a credible academic leader to struggling with impostor syndrome. “I’m often described as “outspoken” when I’m probably just “spoken”,” she muses. But she also enjoys the discovery of science—and the interest of students. “To have a student come back long after I’ve taught them, and say that my words helped them make it through a tough time or made them feel like they were worth something and that someone cared about them, is hugely gratifying.”

While she thinks there’s a lot more openness about issues facing women and underrepresented groups in science, and more resources are available to inform people and raise awareness, Coe wonders whether her academic colleagues have a real understanding of the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusivity. “Just this week, I was taken completely by surprise by a total lack of consideration of diversity when inviting a slate of speakers to a workshop. It was as if nothing had improved from 30 years ago, and I heard the same excuses suggesting that excellence and diversity are somehow mutually exclusive,” she laments.

Coe believes that Canada would benefit from a national strategy to promote equity, diversity, and inclusivity in science, particularly if institutions were held responsible for addressing these issues. This strategy could follow the lead of the UK’s Athena SWAN program or SAGE in Australia. 

Her advice for young scientists? “Remember that girls are great at science no matter what anyone else says, and many people want to see you succeed. Join Twitter and connect with like-minded students, or join a local science, robotics, or Lego club. Find someone who will champion you: someone who says you can do it and they believe in you. But don’t forget to believe in yourself—you have every right to be part of the science community, to contribute, to have a voice and to be heard.” 

Dr. Coe is also a Subject Editor for FACETS, Canadian Science Publishing’s new open access multidisciplinary journal. Follow Dr. Coe on Twitter (@RySciDean) and read some of her thoughts on women in STEM at the Huffington Post.

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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