How immigrant women can build STEM careers in Canada: ‘Realize there are different pathways to success’

U of A Top 25 Canadian Immigrant recipients Bukola Salami and Shanthi Johnson share lessons learned as leaders in STEM Fields.

16 December 2021

As an immigrant woman in Canada, Nigerian-born Bukola Salami — researcher and associate professor at the University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta’s Director, Intersection of Gender Signature Area, and one of 2021’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants for her work in immigrant health advocacy — faced many barriers in the workforce before becoming the leader she is today in shaping migrant health. 

After immigrating to Canada in 1997 and watching her parents struggle to land careers in their respective fields, Salami realized she would have to work harder than her peers to make her career aspirations come true. Early on in her career she noticed she was already at a disadvantage — women in leadership positions didn’t look like her, she was constantly challenged by the stereotypes and prejudices that surfaced due to her position as an immigrant woman, and she felt endlessly underestimated.  

“In my early years in Canada, I realized I must work over and beyond my colleagues to be considered relatively equal to my colleagues. I have continued to do this and I believe it is this hard work or going beyond hard work that has resulted in several awards and many of my successes,” explained Salami, founder of the Black Youth Mentorship and Leadership Program at the University of Alberta

“Over time, I have become resilient in challenging many of the social conditions and structural violences that I have faced.”

Salami tapped into the resources available to her at the University of Alberta such as mentorship programs and the SSHRC Grant Assist Program. She was able to form international collaborations and build her international reputation through the University’s membership in the Worldwide Universities Network, which she attributes to her success.

Creating purposeful connections for positive contributions

Indian-born Shanthi Johnson, professor and dean at the University of Alberta School of Public Health attests to the importance of hard work, but equally important, cultivating connections and actively contributing to society. Coming to Canada as an international student was challenging. Johnson leaned into her deep-rooted family and community for support while juggling the challenges of being an international student in a new country and forging new connections — a trait she continues to nurture and refine in her professional career.

Early on, Johnson began contributing actively in the community. Through her aging and health research program, she participates in committees within the university and outside in community health boards as well as nationally and internationally while encouraging others to get involved.  She believes that it is vital to pay it forward and support others.

Johnson — who has always taken the time to inspire other Canadian immigrants interested in STEM fields in Canada — is an acclaimed researcher in the area of aging and health who currently serves on the CIHR governing council, and was recognized as one of 2020’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants for her dedication to research and community contributions. 

Think strategically, make your choice, and then move forward. As a volunteer or an intern in the field you are interested in, seek long-term opportunities but seek short-term opportunities that come your way, too,” Johnson, who was recently featured in First Generation, a Canadian Immigrant Podcast, advises.

“This will help you get started on your journey.”

Below, Salami and Johnson — both inspirational leaders in STEM fields — provide guidance for newcomer and immigrant women in Canada interested in building their own careers in STEM.

Bukola Oladunni Salami, RN, MN, PhD     

Associate Professor, University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing

  1. Focus on the long-term goal, but don’t pass up on short-term opportunities
  2. Surround yourself with positive people. As an immigrant woman, it’s easy to internalize the negative stereotypes you experience often on a daily basis. It’s important to surround yourself with individuals who are uplifting and supportive. 
  3. Accept there are different pathways to success. Be attentive to the non-traditional paths that may pave the way for success. 

Shanthi Johnson, PhD, RD, FDC, FACSM, FGSA 

Dean & Professor, School of Public Health

  1. Hold fast to your values and be authentic. That’s how you will acquire the competencies, commitment and character to be resilient and to succeed.
  2. Gain new knowledge and pick up the skills and capacities you need to succeed. You need to adapt to the new environment. Be humble and continually learn.
  3. Making a positive impact on society requires strong relationships and networks. Building these bonds is critical. Actively engage in developing new networks and contribute in any way you can.