Dr. Lee Wilson's (PHD'98) journey has been an interesting one, taking him from the rough-and-tumble north end of Winnipeg to centre stage at the Aboriginal Achievement Awards in Calgary last spring. We met with the soft-spoken 35-year old to talk about what it means to be a science scholar in the Aboriginal community.
G&W You're not originally from Saskatchewan. Where were you born?
LW I was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba.
G&W How did growing up in both Winnipeg and rural Manitoba influence the direction of your life?
LW Living in Winnipeg was formative. My life in the north end gave me an opportunity to see what life in a big city was like. Winnipeg has now changed, as compared to that time, but to see poverty and social problems helped me realize that life's not easy.
G&W What was life like in rural Manitoba?
LW Living in Lake Francis [in rural Manitoba] was also a very formative experience. Living in the country was wonderful - having a garden, playing outdoors, and just living an existence that was close to the earth. I enjoyed the connectedness to the land out there. And although life was simple, I feel I learned a lot from that lifestyle. For example, working on a dairy farm for 7 years was wonderful; I had an opportunity to deliver newborn calves, give hypodermic needles to dairy cows, rebuild tractor engines, learn carpentry work, operate machinery, and everything in between.
G&W Why did you decide to go to university?
LW I wanted to go to university because I recognized the value of education. My grandmother was a brilliant woman, both academically and in a practical way. I found one of her old report cards once from the time when she attended secondary school at the convent. All of her marks were 90% or higher. And yet, she never made any claims, as such. I also realized that if I didn't want to struggle in a hand-to-mouth kind of way, I needed to have an education to become empowered, to increase my opportunities, and be able to make the right choices.
G&W What did you like most about your time as a student at the U of S?
LW The U of S is an institution that's close to my heart. I have cultivated wonderful friendships here and made some lifelong memories. In terms of graduate school, I came to the U of S because of Professor Ronald Verrall, who was my PhD supervisor. He gave me an opportunity to pursue some interesting science and he provided guidance and support for me that I believe would have been difficult to find elsewhere. The U of S has been a really welcoming place.
G&W Were you surprised when you got the call that you'd won the Aboriginal Achievement Award?
LW Notification of the award definitely came as a surprise. In particular, when I think of the others who have come before me and received this same recognition. There have been other people here on campus who have received this award, like Dr. Lillian Dyck, Dr. Maria Campbell, and Mr. Matthew Dunn. I was even more impressed when I had the opportunity to meet this year's award winners in person. What else can I say other than that they are an amazing group of people with such unbelievably diverse talents and gifts.
G&W I understand that this is one of the Aboriginal community's highest honours. Do you feel any added pressure to get more involved with the Aboriginal community after winning an award like this one - particularly with Aboriginal students?
LW I feel compelled to work harder than I have in the past to reach out and help out in whatever ways I can. I have moments of disappointment, though, when I have other commitments and there's not enough time in the day to do things in this regard.
G&W What are some of the programs and initiatives you're currently involved in?
LW I'm making efforts to initiate a science internship program here in the chemistry research labs that will allow Aboriginal youth to become familiar with scientific research and decrease their apprehensions about university life. Also, I maintain an involvement with various Aboriginal organizations and educational institutes in order to highlight the importance of education and training of our youth.
G&W Traditionally, Aboriginal enrollment tends to be lower in the professional colleges than it does in colleges like Arts & Science and Education. Why do you think this is?
LW I think science education must be made meaningful for everyone; that's our responsibility as educators from K-12, as well as in university. The university has to place a high priority on the value of excellence in teaching, and I can only surmise that good things will follow from this mindset.
G&W You're also one of the first Aboriginal professors in Canada ever to receive the 2004 University Faculty Award - an award aimed at facilitating the appointment of more women and Aboriginal people to faculty positions in the natural sciences and engineering. Do you think of yourself as an Aboriginal scholar or simply as a scholar?
LW I see myself simply as a scholar. However, I have connections to a unique heritage to which I believe has affected my world view. Science is one of my passions in this life and I wish to pursue, explore, and develop some wonderful science in the years to come. The ideas that I will pursue will be affected by my world view. To me, I think it is important to be a scientist that has a conscience, and so the areas of science that I will pursue are connected to that. In the end, I want the science to be first class work and it should be something that ultimately benefits our society as a whole.