Sheila Colla, Scientist & Professor, Endangered Species Conservation

Sheila Colla, Scientist & Professor, Endangered Species Conservation

Sheila is a Scientist and Assistant Professor in the faculty of environmental studies at York University. Learn more about her work at: savethebumblebees.com

What is your morning routine?

One of the best things about my job is that every day is different. Some days I wake up at 5 a.m. and drive to a provincial park to get there before the bees wake up. Other days I go to York to teach undergraduate courses or meet with graduate students. I also travel quite a bit to conferences, so sometimes I wake up in another city or even another country to learn about research in my field and present some of my own.

Tell us about your career path.

My current position is Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. My research specialization is Endangered Species Conservation, particularly native bees.

My undergraduate degree was an honours bachelor of science in zoology from the University of Toronto. During undergrad I signed up for research experience and got placed in a lab studying bee ecology and evolution. It helped me get over my fear of bees, but also I started realizing how little was known about them. I did my honours thesis in the same lab, which helped me develop research questions for my graduate studies.

I completed my biology PhD at York in 2012. During this time I researched the decline of native bumble bees and wrote numerous government reports. I also began building relationships with NGOs who were also interested in bee conservation. I even received two postdoctoral fellowships: one through the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to work with Wildlife Preservation Canada, and a Liber Ero fellowship which gave me a lot of additional training in things like science communication and media relations.

What challenges do you or women face in your industry?

The field of entomology is very much male-dominated. I often feel as if I don’t belong, and sometimes people – usually men – make comments which reinforce this feeling. Being a female professor is also challenging. Students often mistake me for another student. There are scientific studies showing teaching evaluations are biased against women. I’m currently on maternity leave after having my daughter Rowan in November, and though I’m trying to spend time with her, I still have graduate students to supervise and a lab to run. It’s not the kind of job where you can just walk away for a year.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to be the NEXT you?

I grew up in the city, and never in a million years would I have thought I’d grow up to be a “bee scientist.” I just followed my interests from high school to undergrad to grad school, and this is where I ended up. I would definitely advise other young girls to follow their interests and pursue careers they find interesting and rewarding, even if they run into some challenges.

How do you separate work life from your personal life?

I’m not sure I can separate them, to be honest. My children come with me when I do field research and attend conferences because it’s very difficult for me to leave for long periods when they’re so young (three years and two months respectively). Every day is a new challenge where I have to figure out how best to balance doing my job and taking care of my family.

What inspires you?

The best thing is giving talks about bees to kids and the general public. People often tell me they’ve learned something new; for example, there are 800 species of native bees in Canada and honey bees are actually a non-native, invasive species from Europe. They also often tell me how interesting my research is and to keep up the good work. It’s very motivating, as it’s not something you generally hear from your colleagues. Also, I love training my graduate students to do research. They’re doing great work to help save species from extinction.

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1 Comment

  1. March 8, 2017 / 4:35 am

    Sheila, my friend Jean Polfus shared this post online, and I’m delighted she did. I LOVE illustrating insects, and it wasn’t all that long ago that I learned about the native bee (“vs. honeybee”) situation. It’s great to see this site showcasing your work.

    It’s also awesome to see Be the Next Her featuring women in science! It’s a huge deal that girls and young women (and adults considering switching careers) know that science involves all kinds of people, too. Hopefully, BNH has plans for more science profiles.

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