The world needs more Marie Curies. Or maybe just more Tara Barton-Maclarens. Tara, a Research Manager in Risk Assessment at Health Canada and a resident of Vankleek Hill, is one of the women Health Canada chose to highlight for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, on February 11, 2019.

The United Nations General Assembly first established the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2015 to recognize that a significant gender gap exists at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) all over the world. Even though women have made tremendous progress and increased their participation in these fields, they are still underrepresented.

Dr. Barton-Maclaren is one of the women changing that. She graduated with a BSc Honours degree in Biomedical Science from the University of Guelph and a PhD in Reproductive Toxicology from McGill University. She now heads a 12 person team doing computational toxicology research and human health risk assessment to protect Canadians against the risks posed by chemicals.

Her interest in science first emerged at Maxville Public School where her Science Fair projects were the environmental winners in both grades 7 and 8. In high school, her favourite subjects were biology and chemistry. “I really found biology dissections exciting,” she laughs.

A career marked with challenges

Dr. Barton-Maclaren is the first to acknowledge that women face challenges in choosing STEM careers. “I was very fortunate in having supportive and interested parents,” she says. “I was encouraged to succeed in any domain I chose.”

She adds that she was also one of the first girls to play hockey on a boys’ team in Alexandria.  “In a rural environment, girls tend to be encouraged to pursue more traditional female roles and careers,” she notes.

“You have to work very hard to gain respect and recognition as an expert in an often male-dominated environment,” she says. This can be particularly true on the international stage. She attends about eight conferences a year as an invited speaker in the US and Europe and often finds herself as the only woman on an international panel. For a period of time at Health Canada, she was managing an all-male division. “It’s not easy to find a woman mentor/role model,” she claims.

Another challenge is balancing or juggling a demanding job involving travel with family life and her own sporting interests. She and her husband Geordie are parents to three children – Alexa 12, Kaelan 10 and Ryland 7.  “I am ever so grateful for the excellent support of my husband and parents, which make a life/work balance possible,” she says.

“See challenges as opportunities”

When asked what advice she would give young women considering a career in science, Dr. Barton-Maclaren answers, “Be confident, be passionate and follow your ambitions. Be curious and creative in your work. Share your ideas, ask questions that come to mind and make constructive comments. Too often, women and girls sit back and follow or are hesitant to make a mistake publicly. Be a leader.”

She also advises seeking a mentor or role model – someone who inspires you. Her last piece of advice is to “Surround yourself with people who love and know you for who you truly are.” Having her family and friends in this community gives her the right balance in her life. “I leave the office and I can be Tara, not Dr. Barton-Maclaren.”