1999 National Aboriginal Achievement Award Winner
by Lori Wiens
For Dr. Lillian Eva Dyck BA '66, MA '70, PhD '81, receiving the 1999 National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the category of science was an important step in a long fight for recognition. She says when she first found out she about the honor, she couldn't even put her feelings into words because it was too overwhelming. "I guess I finally felt a sense of validation after many years of struggle," she explains in her quiet way.
Although Dyck is now a full-time professor in the Department of Psychiatry, her road to academic success was arduous at times. "I remember one organic chemistry professor I had who is now long gone who said 'I don't like women and I don't like biochemists.' Of course there were only two women in the class and both of us were biochemists. It made a big impact and it's one class I came close to failing because I felt totally unmotivated," she recalls. Fortunately, though, most of her other experiences as a woman studying sciences were positive, right back to her high school years in Swift Current. "The chemistry teacher, who was also vice-principal, took an active interest in both my older brother and me. I belonged to the science club because my brother did and he convinced me and all his friends to join," she says.
By the time she graduated from high school, she knew she wanted to study biochemistry. "Understanding the chemistry behind life always had an appeal for me," she explains. She chose to attend the University of Saskatchewan because she wanted to stay in her home province. In 1966 she graduated with a chemistry degree, and a year later went back to earn her honours degree.
She remembers being disappointed in her first year courses. "I was part of an academic competition the spring before I started at the university and we were treated very specially, but when we came in the fall, we were one of the masses. I think if you really want to encourage people to go into sciences, it's a bad idea to put them into these huge classes with people who are there because they have to take it." It was only her summer jobs in the labs that kept her motivated to stay in science. By 1970, she had earned a master of science in biochemistry.
Although Dyck was born to an Aboriginal mother and Chinese father, she says for many years she was hesitant to identify herself as Aboriginal. "When I was an undergraduate there was only one other student besides my brother and me who looked Aboriginal and he was in medicine." When she tries to explain why she didn't want to self-identify, she stops to think about it. "I guess you don't want to draw attention to yourself because then you get all those attitudes from people who think you don't deserve to be here," she finally concludes.
In fact, it wasn't until she earned her doctorate in biological psychiatry in 1981 that she began to acknowledge her Aboriginal roots. Since then, she has become a strong advocate for both women in science and Aboriginal people in science. She is now actively involved in judging science fairs, writing articles and making presentations to Aboriginal career fairs.
Even though she supervises some graduate students, Dyck spends the majority of her time doing research in neurochemistry, looking at how the brain functions. She is listed as first inventor on one patent, and as a co-inventor on three others. In the last few years, she has been working closely with two chemists to synthesize a new series of compounds that prevent cells from dying or that will rescue cells that are dying. She says that some day the research may have a significant impact on stroke research.
Dyck stresses how important the support she has received from the president and vice-president academic has been for her as a woman and as a member of the Aboriginal community. According to her, there are signs that systemic changes are coming, and she is proud of whatever role she may have played in these changes. "I think the recognition will lead to an improvement for the people who come after me. I think there will be more support for other non-traditional students who come through this system. That's how it seems to work. When people share their struggles, it makes things easier for the people who come after."