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“We should be striving for gender balance” – International Women’s Day interview with Christine Chambers

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As the mother of four young children, principal investigator in her laboratory based in the Centre for Pediatric Pain Research at the IWK Health Centre (NS, Canada) and clinical psychologist and Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychology & Neuroscience at Dalhousie University (NS, Canada), Christine Chambers plays a juggling game with her time on a daily basis.

Her research focuses on the examination of developmental, psychological, and social influences on children’s pain, with a focus on family factors in pediatric pain and using social media to mobilize evidence-based information about children’s pain to parents, most recently through the #itdoesnthavetohurt campaign.

She has been the recipient of career awards from numerous organizations, including the International Association for the Study of Pain’s (IASP) Ulf Lindblom Young Investigator Award, given to an individual under the age of 40 who has made significant contributions to clinical pain research, and was recently identified as one of the top 10 most productive women clinical psychology professors in Canada.

As part of our International Women’s Day celebrations, we talked to Christine to find out more about her career as a woman in STEM and to get her thoughts on some of the key obstacles facing women in STEM.

What would you regard as your biggest achievement to date?

My biggest achievement to date is our ongoing project, “It Doesn’t Have To Hurt”, a social media initiative that aims to get research evidence about children’s pain directly into the hands of parents who can use it. Poorly managed pain in children is a serious and ongoing health problem, resulting in unnecessary suffering and long-term negative effects. The project seeks to increase parent uptake and application of evidence-based knowledge on children’s pain through a partnership between health researchers and an award-winning online publisher targeted primarily to Canadian mothers, the YummyMummyClub.ca (YMC). The initiative (#ItDoesntHaveToHurt) spans a 12-month period (it launched in September 2015) of targeted sharing and discussion of content about children’s pain through blogs, videos, Twitter parties, Facebook polls, and Instagram images, all posted and promoted on the YMC website and social media. We’re covering a range of topics in children’s pain, ranging from vaccination pain management, postoperative pain, pain assessment, and chronic pain. We just hit the midpoint of the initiative and our content has already reached millions of parents online. I’m most proud of this project because we’re taking science off the shelf and translating it into content parents can use and engage with.

Who/what was the biggest inspiration for you to pursue a career in science?

I had never planned to become a scientist. At the age of 12, I read a book about a child psychologist and from that point on that is what I wanted to be. It was only through my undergraduate and PhD training in clinical psychology that I got hooked on research, and saw the opportunity to impact not just individual children and families, but contribute to work that could have a more collective impact through research.

Do you believe that there are enough female role models promoted in STEM subjects?

The data strongly shows that women are underrepresented in all areas of STEM, and that the gap gets wider the further along the career trajectory one goes (i.e., there are fewer women at the ranks of full professor). In Canada, only 22% of those working in STEM are women. So not surprisingly, I don’t think we have enough female role models in STEM subjects. The “face” of STEM is still very much male. That’s why it’s important to profile and showcase the successes of women in STEM whenever we can. My primary career mentors were all male, so I often feel like I’m just trying to find my way as a female in STEM on my own.

Have you ever experienced any challenges in your career as a result of your gender?

To be honest, I used to be quite naïve about the possible impact of my gender on my career. However, over time, I’ve become much more aware of it. I’m often the only woman on certain committees, I’ve experienced challenges with salary and contract negotiations, I have felt judged. I’ve always been one of those women who just “leans in” and calls it like I see it. This doesn’t always go very well. It’s always hard to say for sure whether the challenges are because of my gender or not. But over time I’ve had to open my eyes to the fact they likely are, at least in part.

I should mention that I think women can be especially hard on each other at times – some of the most hurtful comments and actions over the course of my career have come from other women. Women need to support each other. Together we are better.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a busy mother running a busy lab?

There’s never enough time to do everything I want to do! I’m pretty skilled at team-building and delegation, but the health research funding situation right now (at least in Canada) has been very challenging. I’m running my lab on the smallest budget and staff complement I’ve ever had, and only have confirmed operating funds for my lab for another year. The financial uncertainty has made my career particularly hard to balance with my family over the last few years. My children hate when I tell them I have a grant deadline coming up.

International Women’s Day is this year focused on gender parity – why do you think that we are so far from gender parity in many areas of science?

It’s a complex problem and so, not surprisingly, it will take time and complex solutions to address. Also, I think many people are still naïve to the challenges women in STEM face. Until one accepts that there is a problem, it’s not something that will get better. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been on committees where there have been too many women, and that isn’t good either. We should be striving for gender balance.

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