What were some of the things that interested you as a child?

When I was growing up, I was a tomboy. I liked to run around the neighborhood and do the usual hide-and-seek games. I got really interested in music in about grade six. All through my education I played the recorder, then I switched to clarinet and played the flute. I was in bands, like marching bands, for a while. At other times, I was in the more serious orchestral type setting. That was probably my strongest passion as a kid. But I also liked to play basketball. I was on the basketball team in junior high.

How did you become interested in science?

I first got interested in science when I was in junior high school. I went to a small school, and my geography teacher gave a small group of us an opportunity to do physical geography. We were able to build volcanoes and look at rocks. I actually don’t remember all of the things he let us do, but I remember having quite a bit of freedom of thought. It was a fun class to go to.

When I was in junior high, my family used to go camping a lot. We drove from Nova Scotia in eastern Canada to California and back again. When we were on the west coast of the United States, we hooked up with some family. I have an uncle who is a geophysicist. Actually, he is a cousin. Anyway, I drove around in the car with him, in the front seat, and he would look out the window and say, “Why do you think that hill is there?” And I’d say, “I don’t know.”

It was at that time that I really started looking around and wondering why the mountains were where they were and valleys were where they were. So it was the combination of that junior high school teacher and my cousin Jack that made science seem real and fun to me.

By the time I finished high school, I was mainly studying science and knew that I wanted to go to university and study science.

How did you actually decide that you wanted to become a scientist?

When I was an undergrad, I was kind of bored in classes, and I always took classes that let us do independent projects. I think it was the fun I had doing those independent projects and the encouragement I had from the few professors who let me do them that made me realize that I probably would find graduate school a challenging experience.

At that time I had no clue and really no interest in being a professor like I am now. I thought I would go off and have these four or five years of having fun by following my curiosity and then move on and do something different. But when I finished my Ph.D., I was off at a postdoc, and I spent a year in the lab in Canada. By the time I had finished my Ph.D., I was a bit tired. You work hard in graduate school, but I really enjoyed the freedom of a postdoc. I was my own boss.

So I did a postdoc in Canada for a year, then I went to Woods Hole for a year on a postdoc. Then I joined the scientific staff there and was there for six years in total as a scientist. At Woods Hole, you only do research, and I always thought in the long term that I would like to combine teaching with research. I’m Canadian, and I had this idea that I wanted to live in Canada in the long term, so I joined the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria five years ago. I left Woods Hole and went there so I could combine my research interests with teaching. I’m very happy with that combination.

How did you end up studying marine geology?

When I was growing up, I really knew I wanted to study geology. I thought I wanted to do something marine because I grew up on the coast. When I finished my undergrad, I didn’t know how to combine that. I spent a year and worked at the Geological Survey. And there was a scientist there who was going to go off to the Mediterranean to work on an ophiolite, which is an on-land exposure of ocean crust. He said, “Kathy, you should apply to be a graduate student for this,” and I said, “Well, I don’t know. I thought I was going to work on coastal geology.”

Anyway, I ended up going off to graduate school for that. It was a situation where somebody gave me one idea, and I just followed that one idea. I didn’t search around for the best grad school, I just went and found a project that interested me and followed it. My path has always been that way. Be at the right place at the right time. Someone gives me an idea, and I say, “Oh that sounds good.” It’s always worked out well. I know some people go very methodically and have a plan. I wouldn’t say that I always had a plan. But things have always worked out I guess because you take advantage of opportunities that are presented to you, and you do okay in them. And that leads to the next opportunity.

Is there anything about being an oceanographer that you did not expect?
Well I guess you have to learn how to communicate in a fairly complex world. Not just doing your science. You have to learn how to communicate with people. I went to the University of Victoria to teach, and I was never taught to be a teacher. Scientists are not trained to teach. We are trained to think and follow our curiosity and test hypotheses. So I guess my most recent surprise in my career is how hard it is to be a good teacher. How do you make things of interest and simplify things down to students in a way that makes them want to learn more, but still provide the important background and depth of knowledge that they need to have.
What challenges have you faced in your career as a woman?

I have faced challenges of being a woman in science and a woman in the earth sciences where we are very much still the minority. In the worst cases, my experiences have been encountering situations that make me feel uncomfortable and excluded from a group. Usually that’s what it is. You are one in a room with twenty. You are at a meeting, you are one of a small group in the field, or you are one of a small group on a cruise. You basically just have to figure out how you fit in. It’s not always easy to figure out how you fit in.

It’s just that there is a culture and a way of communicating among men that is slightly different. Some women fit into it and some women don’t fit into it. If you are one that doesn’t fit in that well because you don’t talk that way or don’t communicate the same way, you just have to get the courage or just learn how to fit in. Sometimes you wish you didn’t have to go through that step. And at different times in my career I’d find that tiring. But in almost every situation you go to, it’s mostly good people.

Sometimes you make a choice that a situation is not worth the effort you’re putting in, and you just remove yourself from that situation.

One of the challenges is to find the right people or person to mentor you. We all need a helper. It’s mostly other women that I have found the most helpful. I guess it doesn’t have to be another woman that you can communicate with and get advice from. But it has often been for me senior women that have been able to help me in situations or help you learn how to deal with particular situations. And unfortunately there are just not that many. But for young women coming around, there are more of us now that are going through the system, and there are more women around to help. And there are an awful lot of good men out there who are interested in being mentors and helping both men and women succeed.

What continues to inspire you about your job?

What inspires me to continue is really two things. I do marine science in part because I guess there is still the thrill of discovery. You go down in a submersible and you see geology or some weird old fish swim by for the first time, and you know you are the only person who has ever seen that. To me, that’s still very exciting.

The other thing now is that I’ve moved and changed my career to more teaching, and I’ve found that to be quite rewarding. Sometimes it’s a class that you get a chemistry with. But more often are students who come to me to work on a particular project or decide that they are just going to hang out in my lab. I’ve been teaching for just over five years, and I have some students who have gone through and have gone off to get jobs or go to graduate school, and I find out that they are doing well, and they come back and they are all excited. Then they get you excited when you tell them what you are doing and you compare notes. Teaching now for me is a two-way street. I learn from my students. I get some enthusiasm for science on days when I’m not so excited.

What do you do when you are not working on oceanography?
I like to get out and hike and just walk. I live in a nice part of Canada where you can walk along the sea and mountains. I read. I try to find out about what’s going on in the world just by keeping up with the news. I like to travel around the world. That’s actually one great thing about being a marine scientist is that you have to go to ports all over the world. And I really try hard to organize my schedule so that I can take some time, and take advantage of that great opportunity. So I do like to travel as much as I can.
Do you have any advice for people considering a career in oceanography?

The advice I always give my students who come in to see me about what they want to do is once students have committed to one aspect of sciences, they should really not be in a hurry. When I went through school, I did my undergraduate, took a year off, then I did my Ph.D. and postdoc. I guess I felt in a real rush to get to somewhere. But on that path I realized that there are a lot of tangential things you can do that can enrich your life. It would probably help you understand what you really truly wanted to do. So I would say take advantage of interests that you have. Explore them. Maybe find a way to go off and get different kinds of work experience. It can be travel. If you travel, you open your eyes. It will make you a better scientist. You see the world a bit along your path.

Other advice I give my students is to take lots of math. Do that physics and do the chemistry. The stuff that you think is not directly related to your particular line of interest, but in the end you are going to find out that it’s extremely related because in science these days, especially marine science, you’ve got to talk the talk of other fields. You don’t have to be a specialist in it, but you really have to communicate to a wide variety of scientists.

Kathryn Gillis

  • Associate Professor, Earth and Ocean Sciences
  • University of Victoria

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