Fun & flexibility for women in science

If you
can’t find Margaret-Ann Armour in her office at the University of Alberta, you might very well find her in a school classroom surrounded by kids.

Take March 13th as an example. That’s when she spent the day at Windsor Park School showing grade three and grade five students how to make nylon.

“One of the great joys of my life has been going out to schools and having fun with chemistry. That means I can take all sorts of colourful demonstrations that I can get the children involved in as well. They get quite excited when, out of a beaker, you can pull a thread of nylon.”

Even I learned a thing or two listening to this amazing professor explain the chemical reaction that produces polymerization.

“We talk about the fact that nylon is made from two small molecules. And these two small molecules are in some way like people. They’ve got two arms. That means they can all join up together in a long line. And, of course, I always have the children join up. Nylon in chemical terms is called a polymer. And that just means that it is ‘many molecules’. We have such fun. I tell the children when they are all joined up with their hands that now they are ‘poly-people’. They remember that and so they’ve got the idea of the many molecules and this long chain which is why you get a thread of nylon.”

Aside from her love of chemistry and of teaching, Dr. Armour understands completely that if we want to encourage more young people to go into the sciences, then we have to get them excited about it first and foremost. It’s vital to help students see the applications of science, the relevance to their lives, rather than boring them first with theory.

It’s a principle that underlies Margaret-Ann Armour’s second passion in life: encouraging young women to become scientists.

Aside from her academic career where she became an expert in the chemistry of hazardous waste disposal, Dr. Armour is probably best known for her work over the last 25 years with WISEST—Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology. It was actually the brainchild of Dr. Gordon Caplan, a former VP Research at the University of Alberta. He enlisted Dr. Armour, then a professor of chemistry, as one of the founding members of this group which he tasked with figuring out what the barriers were to young women going into science and engineering, and then more importantly, to take action .

A quarter of a century later, Dr. Armour has several awards recognizing her achievements in this endeavour, including the Order of Canada.

When asked what stands out about WISEST, she replies, “More and more, I’m beginning to discover what influence the programs that we’ve put in place have. And, if anyone had asked me when we started some of them, I would have been surprised.”

She points to the WISEST Summer Research Program for girls in Grade 11. They spend six weeks working on serious research projects.

When Dr. Armour and her colleagues wanted to determine what effect this six week program might have, they designed an experiment of their own. Of the group of students who applied for the program in 1994, out of the top 150 applicants, 50 were assigned to the full six week program, 50 had one day on campus, and 50 had nothing. Then the WISEST committee followed the progress of the careers of the three cohorts.

“We discovered, after following them as long as we could for 10 years, that the commitment of the women who had spent the six weeks at the University of Alberta was considerably stronger to the sciences and engineering than it was in the other groups. One of the things we had to recognize was that all the young women who apply for the WISEST Summer Research Program do so because they are interested in science in the first place. But particularly the numbers who went on and did a PhD or a post doc… what really came through was this commitment.”

Dr. Armour is excited about the new national role that WISEST is taking on. The group has been a member of the Canadian Coalition of Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology for 20 years. Now, with some financial help from the Alberta government, Edmonton will become the headquarters for a new national centre dedicated to improving the access of women to these non-traditional fields.

“That means we have a national group that can pull together data which can help support the groups at the local level which can add value to what they are doing. It will really be a virtual centre. So, when a workshop needs to be done, we’ll be looking for a group in the area of the workshop that might be prepared to take it on… It will be a small, ongoing staff and eventually small, satellite offices across the country.”


How do numbers of women stack up against men in the sciences and engineering?

Dr. Armour is quick to cite the statistics. In her role as Associate Dean, Diversity in the Faculty of Science, she is concentrating on increasing the number of women in the faculty. “Across the Faculty of Science at the moment,” she says, “we have something between 15 and 16 percent women, which is quite low.”

That gives Dr. Armour lots of room for improvement at the higher levels.

“When we first started our Women in Science program 25 years ago, there was probably about 25 percent enrolment in the first year of science. Now there’s 52 percent. So there’s a huge change in that area. And even in the graduate students, in the masters program it’s about 45 percent, PhD is about 38 percent. At post-doc, they drop off to 17 to 18 percent. And then faculty is down to 15 percent. So at each transition in the educational system, there are fewer women choosing to go on to the next step.”

What that means, according to Dr. Armour, is that the pool of women who have the requirements for a faculty position is very small indeed.

What accounts for that drop-off if just as many women as men are completing their Bachelor of Science degrees? Well, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out. It’s all about biology and a little common sense.

“Women recognize that at some stage they may want to get married and have families. As undergraduates, they often hear from their teaching assistants in the lab what it is like being a graduate student. It’s a busy life and it’s fairly committed. And they see their faculty teachers and the lifestyle they have, and I think women are saying maybe that’s not what they want.”

The big task for Dr. Armour is figuring out what the university can do to turn that situation around, so the potential of talented young women scientists isn’t lost to other professions.

As it is, the competition among universities to attract the limited number of post-doctoral women is fierce.

While speaking to a different issue, a comment by Dr. Armour could easily apply to this issue as well. “It’s been shown over and over again, when the workplace is friendly to women, it’s friendly to everybody.”

Perhaps it’s time for a bit more flexibility in the lab and the classroom environment. How’s that for improving hiring perks to boost the numbers of female professors and researchers in the Faculty of Science? √

To hear Cheryl’s conversation with Dr. Margaret- Ann Armour, visit

Cheryl Croucher hosts Innovation Anthology which is broadcast on CKUA Radio at 7:58 am and 4:58 pm Tuesdays and Thursday. Or download the podcasts at


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