In honour of International Day for Women and Girls in Science on February 11, our Chief Scientist Dr. Fred Wrona invited women from across the department to talk about their work and share their experiences as scientists. This is the third and final interview celebrating the fabulous females in this field – for now!
Dr. Cynthia McClain is a hydrogeologist with the Alberta Environment and Parks.
Can you speak to your experience as a female scientist in the department?
Female scientists are a minority in the department and more broadly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. When I first started, I often found that I was the only woman (and the youngest person) in the room. Fortunately, more women have joined the watershed science team since then, albeit in temporary positions.
Tell us about your work as a hydrogeologist.
Right now, I’m the only hydrogeologist in my division, so I carry out a wide range of responsibilities including developing plans for monitoring, evaluating and reporting on the condition of Alberta’s groundwater. This includes planning for field work each year, laying out where and what we are going monitor, how much it’s going to cost and who is going to be involved.
I’m also looking into ways to improve how we manage, analyze and interpret the data we collect so we can publish peer-reviewed journal articles that will help inform our monitoring program design. This work includes collaborations with the University of Calgary on the geochemistry of groundwater and groundwater recharge in Alberta.
How does your work as a hydrogeologist impact the lives of Albertans?
Approximately 23 per cent of Albertans rely on groundwater as a drinking water source, mostly in rural areas. Being able to assess the quality and quantity of those regional groundwater resources has a direct link to human health. Our research programs aim to address any large scale changes and/or anthropogenic (human) influences that could be altering the state of our groundwater resources.
Groundwater has many other uses in the province as well. For example, groundwater has industrial purposes including for oil and gas and agriculture. Evaluating whether there is a large enough groundwater supply, of sufficient quality, is key to sustaining Alberta’s economy.
Have you experienced any “ah-ha” moments in your science career?
While writing my undergraduate thesis, I read one published paper about my field site multiple times. I could not reconcile my interpretation of the new data we had collected with that of the previously published paper. I kept thinking our data must be wrong, until I finally realized it was the published interpretation that was probably not right because we now had new data that provide more evidence for a different interpretation. I realized that every new study is building to the full understanding of the environment and can actually potentially refute things that have been done before.
It was definitely an “ah-ha” moment thinking a scientist had 20 more years experience than me yet with new information we were re-interpreting the work and making new contributions to science. This was the beginning of my critical reading of scientific papers and helped me get to the point where I knew I had the expertise as a scientist to evaluate whether something is or isn’t in line with what I’d learned. Someday people are going to be doing just that to my papers and I think that is great! Its part of the scientific process and it’s how we improve.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on women working in STEM. Let’s continue to champion diversity in the sciences all year long!