Women in Science: Dr. Tara Macdonald

September 25, 2017

By Sarah Boon, Ph.D.

Tara Macdonald grew up surrounded by science: her mom was a biologist who had run her own consulting company since 1994, and her dad was a geologist. "I inherited an intense curiosity about the natural world from my parents," she says. "My dad especially is always analyzing, working things out, and asking questions, which as a teenager I found irritating. But now I realize I do the same thing!"

So it wasn’t surprising when Macdonald decided to study science at university. She stayed close to home, attending the University of Victoria (UVic) initially for biochemistry. "Ultimately I wanted to go into medicine," she says. "I was a good student and this seemed an obvious path at the time. But, like many students, I didn’t really know what my options were." 

Macdonald quickly learned that she enjoyed biology, particularly ecology and biodiversity. They were a natural fit, as she’d grown up learning about invertebrate taxonomy from her mom. "I’m not sure if my interest in invertebrates was 'nature' or 'nurture'," she laughs.

After completing a BSc (Hon) (2000) in biology from UVic, Macdonald moved on to the University of Alberta to do a PhD (completed in 2006). "I was really interested in taxonomy and understanding the process of evolution and diversity of organisms," she says. "They had a Systematics and Evolution program that worked on these topics. I’ve never lost my excitement over the fact that we can figure out how organisms are related to each other and infer their evolutionary path."

Like our previous interviewee, Dr. Caroline Fox, Macdonald benefitted immensely from spending a couple of years after her PhD at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where she taught Invertebrate Zoology and coordinated university courses. It served as the perfect break from research, allowing her to consider whether her career path would take her to academia or industry. In the end she decided to take on postdoctoral work instead.

"I knew that my knowledge of soft-bottom marine invertebrate fauna of the British Columbia coast was unique," she says. "Through my research network, I obtained an NSERC Visiting Fellowship at the Institute of Ocean Sciences on Vancouver Island, where I worked on a collaborative research program with Metro Vancouver and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. I was able to apply my functional knowledge from my PhD to monitor invertebrates in the Strait of Georgia."

After her postdoc, Macdonald was keen to stay close to home in Victoria. "It can be difficult to find a research position in biology, and there’s a lot of competition, particularly in such a popular city," she says. "I didn’t want to leave the BC coast, even if it meant restricting my career opportunities." 

Ultimately, Macdonald took over her mother’s business, Biologica Environmental Services. "It hadn’t really occurred to me to take on her business," she says. "My mom was already making plans to sell it so she could retire. But as my postdoc ended, I started thinking about where I could take the business, and I realized it could be really great. I liked the idea of being my own boss and not to have to compete for funding. I saw the potential of partially self-funding a research program and moving taxonomy forward."

What exactly does Biologica do? "We’re a biomonitoring company, so our main activity is to identify and quantify taxa in water and sediment samples to assess habitat quality," explains Macdonald. "Our specialized ecological and functional knowledge of the flora and fauna provides significant value for our clients. Indeed, more and more of them are seeking our help with field collection and data reporting.”

While Macdonald had some unique skills to keep the business going (taxonomy, molecular systematics, ecology, teaching, and administration), there was still a lot to learn. "I had to make some difficult decisions as we worked towards profitability, and I needed to develop skills that I hadn’t learned as an academic: human resources, financial management (margins, projections, etc.), and business processes," Macdonald recalls.

Once she got settled in, however, Macdonald immediately began expanding the reach of the business. "I’m deeply committed to having research and development drive the business forward," says Macdonald. "I’ve strengthened and expanded our core services, and am moving towards using molecular technology in biomonitoring. My vision for Biologica is based on a solid foundation of research and scientific progress." 

Macdonald notes that her experience obtaining academic funding gave her the knowledge and contacts to access financial support for Biologica from institutions like the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC: Engage Grants) and the National Research Council (NRC: Industrial Research Assistance Programs). "As with any funding opportunity, these programs can be competitive," says Macdonald. "But we’ve been fortunate to have some smaller-scale projects funded as we’ve developed our services."

Like most people, Macdonald has a tough time balancing work and family. She and her husband worry about when they can have kids, as her career and family timelines have been out of sync. "I struggle with some negative thoughts about the choices I’ve made regarding my career and family," she says. "I often wonder why I didn’t start my family sooner." She also feels it’s imperative to have a spouse who’s willing to embrace a non-traditional role as an equal partner in household management, though she sometimes feels torn between work and things she would like to get done at home. However, she thinks it’s become more common now for men to take on tasks traditionally handled by women, like staying at home with the kids, taking kids to doctor’s appointments, etc.  

Macdonald does find that having a great team at work makes taking time away from the business easier. "It’s imperative to have a great leadership team, with the right people in the right place. That way, if you need some personal time you know the business is in good hands," she says. But she admits it can be hard. "I find it difficult to delegate, so I remind myself that the successes of each team member are Biologica’s successes. I need to be in good working order so I can be the best leader I can be!"

Macdonald finds that being a business owner gives her complete academic freedom to pursue research and development paths that interest her—and her team. "It’s rewarding to know that I can make a difference in the field of biomonitoring," she says, "and my scientific background gives Biologica a strong foundation to be a leader in this field."

However, there are drawbacks. "The business world is strongly male dominated," notes Macdonald, who has many anecdotes about being interrupted and not being taken seriously by older men. "I didn’t notice this behaviour at first, but once I started to recognize it, I realized how rampant it was," she says. "I’ve learned to think critically about how I communicate with people, and to be aware of the language I use. I’m more assertive, and ask that people not interrupt me or take credit for my ideas. I also ask if they need clarification if I suspect they’ve misunderstood me."

Macdonald has also made a point of bringing other people’s attention to their use of language. "I’ve heard references to women being 'emotional' and therefore challenging to deal with as employees or colleagues," she says. "Most people don’t even realize they’re doing it, as it’s likely a subconscious behaviour they’ve had their whole lives. But it concerns me because this language is associated with the perception that women are weak or even incompetent."

In speaking to young girls and women interested in science, Macdonald encourages students to follow their interests and take advantage of opportunities, without getting hung up on whether or not they’re taking the "right" path. "Participating in a co-op program, interacting with your professors and TAs, going on field trips—all of these can help shape the skills and talents you bring to your future career. Even learning how to interact professionally with people is an important skill," she says. 

She also encourages girls and women to think about their goals in life. "Don’t settle for work that isn’t moving you forward, or relationships (personal or professional) that don’t work for you," she says. "I heard a TED talk recently that struck a chord. It recommended not wasting your 20s, as this is a time to build the life you want in your 30s and 40s. I think this is really good advice—time goes by so fast."
Macdonald is candid about her career path. "I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned from them. I know I’ve been held back by my lack of confidence," she says. "And while it’s interesting to think about alternate opportunities I could have pursued, I’m happy with where I’m at now!"

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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