Dr. Gina Ogilvie is a global and public health physician and clinical researcher at Women's Health Research Institute and BC Children's Hospital.
My background is in family medicine and public health. Initially, my focus was in women's reproductive and sexual health and access to care. This evolved into an interest in the elimination and control of sexually transmitted infections, and now I focus on the elimination of cervical cancer.
I had family members who were physicians and being a doctor seemed like an interesting, challenging job that would offer a lot of different opportunities. I was always curious and interested in learning, and I was always good at science, so it made sense for me to go into science and medicine. I liked the fact that you could have a career and also make a real contribution.
What I love most about my work
The most rewarding part of what I do is watching the career trajectories and successes of the trainees and students I've worked with. Seeing them take on leadership roles is very exciting.
The other thing I love is seeing my research actually transform into policy or standard of care. For example, I wrote a grant to look at self-collection for cervical cancer in 2003 and a lot of the feedback was, "Oh, that's not possible, you can't do that, it will never work, no one will ever be interested," and now it's starting to become mainstream. Something similar happened with HPV testing and with the HPV vaccine. There were a lot of instances where people told me it would never happen and then it did, and that's very gratifying.
We need to stop asking women about work-life balance
You asked me about women and work-life balance. Well, most of the male scientists I know are not asked about work-life balance, and most of them are parents as well. We have to be careful that the balance doesn't just have to be for women to make. What we actually need are systems — affordable childcare, flexible work hours, an understanding that it's appropriate to take maternity leaves and have that not penalize you in your career. It's not about how I as an individual succeed at making a work-life balance.
Unfortunately, it’s about trying to figure out things like extraordinary childcare, getting help from others, and having a partner who is very supportive and takes on responsibilities. But again this should not just be the purview of women. The pandemic has sadly confirmed — with the number of women who have dropped out of the workforce to do childcare when school closed and have not gone back — that there is a major problem. (continued below)
The underrepresentation of Black people in the sciences
In the era of Black Lives Matter, I think it's really important to note that we have significant underrepresentation of some peoples of colour in the sciences. There are certain minorities — particularly Black folks — who have really suffered for a variety of reasons and have not been considered for science opportunities.
Here is an example of how Black people can be systemically disadvantaged: One of my colleagues used to be a math teacher in a low-income neighbourhood and she said that the kids would show up in grade 8 and their elementary school education had been so poor that their math skills were very weak. So these kids didn't know their multiplication tables and were missing a lot of foundational knowledge. She said that within the year, they had covered three to four years of math — it was astonishing what they were able to do when they were properly taught. If you compared them to other grade 8 students, they were still performing below what was expected by the end of the year, but if you compared what they had done in just one year to what another grade 8 student had done within one year, they were extraordinary.
When measured using a traditional metric, these students might have been underperforming, but they had made impressive progress and that progress wasn't captured. This disadvantages students going forward, as we talk about where they are instead of their potential. All this to say that there are underrepresented minorities who don't have the supports they need to have success in science.
I think it's really important in Canada that we start to address the huge disparities and the fact that there's significant underrepresentation of certain minorities — particularly the Black population. One of the things I'm really keen to do is to show young Black men and women that science is a career for them. Part of what I do is also demonstrate for peers and colleagues that Black people cannot only be good scientists, they can be great scientists.
Being a young, immigrant Black woman, I didn't have a mentor. Instead, I would have people I looked up to for certain elements of my life. For example, I'd like the research career of one individual — maybe a South Asian man — I liked how they approached their work, I liked how they treated people, so I would talk to them about that. Then I'd look up to a woman who was a physiotherapist who had a really good integration of clinical and research focuses, so I'd talk to them about that. So I'd have "sort of mentors" for different elements of my life, but not any one in particular because there was no one like me.
Science requires being comfortable with failure
You have to learn to fail in science. You have to be comfortable with failure and sit there and not let that stop you. For example, "I didn't get this math question, so I just gotta do it again and again until I get it." And you have to teach people that that's what you do in science.
You know, I just got a paper rejected this morning, but there are three other journals I'm submitting it to by the end of the day. You just gotta keep going. People might say, "Oh, it got rejected. I'm done." No. Science means you keep going.