A representative sample: Championing diversity in science

New faculty member champions equity, diversity, and inclusion in research, the classroom, and the lab.

Katie Willis - 20 September 2019

For Lisa Willis, equity and diversity are more than personal passion. Instead, they are topics that guide her research, teaching, and service activities. A new assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Willis focuses her research on understanding women's health issues through glycobiology and glycoimmunology. She's also a strong advocate of diversity in STEM among her colleagues in academia.

Hear more from Lisa Willis on CBC's Quirks & Quarks, where she joined the program's "Women in science special - How science has done women wrong," sharing evidence on the obstacles women face in science-and how to do better.

Willis joins the University of Alberta campus community from the University of Toronto, where she recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship.

Join us in welcoming Lisa Willis

Tell us about your research program.

My research program has two main areas. The first is understanding how bacteria sense and respond to the countless environmental cues to which they are exposed. Our lab is particularly interested in how Lactobacillus, an important component of the vaginal microbiome, keeps the pH low to prevent overgrowth of yeast. The second area is investigating the molecular differences in the male and female immune systems so that we can understand why 10 times more women than men have autoimmune diseases. Both projects focus on women's health issues, which have been historically overlooked and under-funded.

What inspired you to enter this field?

I have always been fascinated by bacteria and the immune system. When I started my own lab in February 2019, I wanted to work in an area that would make a difference in people's lives. Women's health is an important issue for society that is only now being investigated in more detail. It's important to me that I do research that could shine a light on this topic.

Tell us about your teaching.

I will begin teaching classes in September 2020. Currently, I have a number of students in my lab who are learning basic microbiology, biochemistry, and immunology research skills. I love seeing their enthusiasm and excitement when they discover something new.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I started a program called InclusiveSTEM, a workshop that exists to educate scientists at all levels about the benefits of increasing diversity in STEM fields. Scientific research demonstrates that diverse groups are more creative and better able to solve problems. Though the perception is that things are improving, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) recently released a report showing that attrition rates in Canadian STEM fields are higher for women than for men at all career stages and that the percentage of women has not changed substantially in the last 15 years. Racialized and Indigenous people are also underrepresented at Canadian universities. With InclusiveSTEM, I speak to faculty and trainees all over Canada about how to become better scientists and citizens by reducing bias and incorporating effective equity, diversity, and inclusion principles in their daily lives.

Want to learn more about Lisa Willis and her work championing diversity in STEM? Hear more from her in the Spring 2019 issue of Science Contours.