I’ve had a few questions about what I do. Sounds simple, right? I should have the answer down to a science…but I don’t and the question always makes me feel a bit like a deer caught in headlights.
That’s because my career has been a veritable smorgasbord!
MY backstory and Why Having a baby changed things
My academic background is Biology. In my undergrad, I studied intertidal ecosystems – specifically behavioural responses of an amphipod to predation by shorebirds. It was muddy and exhausting and my time spent in this lab provided three of the most fun summers of my life.
While winding up the final year of my degree, I was accepted into a PhD program in New Zealand to complete a project scoped on Black Stilts (one of the world’s most endangered birds). Then I met my now-husband, and three years on the other side of the world lost its luster very quickly.
I had already secured research funding but convinced the agency to transfer the monies to a Master’s program in North America, and that’s how I wound up in Nova Scotia – which has now been home for almost 15 years.
For my graduate degree, I ended up pivoting from birds to bees. And yes, there were a few jokes that circulated as a result of this switch.
While I didn’t love research, I was good at it and was lucky to have incredible supervisors along the way.
For my Master’s, I looked at the effects of commonly used pesticides on the neural responses of honeybees using classic Pavlovian conditioning. Basically, I was looking to see if in-hive treatments (for mites, bacteria, etc) impacted honeybee’s ability to learn – and respond to – scented cues. Between this, and some interesting side research into the impacts of standard lab protocols, I got four papers out of the degree (Journal of Experimental Biology, Journal of Economic Entomology, Naturwissenschaften, and the Journal of Insect Physiology. It wasn’t Science or Nature, but it was pretty exciting stuff for a 22-year old)!
When I defended my thesis the next logical step was a PhD but a) I really didn’t want to end up on a research treadmill (my favourite part of the process, by far, was the writing) and, more urgently, b) I was 7 months pregnant. I finished up a full-time research contract two days before my due date.
I was entitled to a full year of paid maternity leave; I opted to take 6 months and my husband took the remainder (an option in Canada).
The whole time I was completing my graduate degree, I was also heavily involved with student support initiatives – TAing labs, providing private tutoring, and proctoring exams. I was eventually hired to take over and build a fledgling university-wide tutoring and academic support program. After a busy day in the lab, I’d come home to our little apartment to mark first-year lab reports and create marketing material, develop contracts, and liaise with faculty and staff. It was a lot of work, but it was rewarding.
A few weeks after our daughter was born, I actually proctored an exam until 10 pm with a fever of 102; I found out the next day I had mastitis – oh the irony.
post-degree + Martial teamwork + Motherhood
Like so many aspects of life, everything I’ve done is intertwined with my husband, John. We’re a team in every sense of the word and our professional careers are no exception.
At the 6-month postpartum mark (when I transitioned out of my maternity leave), I started working for an environmental consulting company. I handled day-to-day logistics and reporting for a series of land-use studies for community monitoring projects in Canada’s High Arctic. Since I was still tied down with an infant, John ended up traveling all over Nunavut to help support the technical side of the project in my place.
This was the launch point for our first business, which focussed on creative media and custom software development.
The whole experience was a bit like putting a frog in a pot of tepid water. Familiar with the analogy? You start a frog in lukewarm water and they stay put; move the pot over a flame and the water heats up but the frog acclimates and never thinks to jump away. We were young and, somehow, we made it all work. Today-Elisabeth could not do what decade-ago Elisabeth did. Sometimes it’s only in hindsight the craziness of that period comes into sharp relief.
We started a second business (aerial imaging/machine learning in agri + aquaculture). We hired staff, mentored Coop students, and partnered with local university departments. We bootstrapped (some of our escapades deserve their own post; most notably how we ate massive quantities of beef jerky, pickles, saltine crackers, apples, and spinach in the name of research and to help make ends meet [Update: I wrote this post]). We applied for grants and gave talks and traveled to conferences. We got office space in an entrepreneurial incubation hub where we networked daily – maximizing every opportunity that came our way. We practiced pitches for hundreds of hours and we shook hundreds of hands. We won an Agriculture Innovator Award and were named by our local Chamber of Commerce as Innovator of the Year – heady times indeed.
It required an incredible amount of hard work, much of it in the fringe hours, with one of us trading off with the other on baby duty. For years, holidays and weekends didn’t register on our radar – every day had the potential to be a working day. But there were perks too, which we leveraged. We could opt to go for a family walk whenever we wanted. We could travel and work remotely. We could take a sick day without asking for permission. It was a lot of work, but it also came with tremendous flexibility. We were our own bosses!
So we worked early in the morning, during nap times, and both of us often pulled an evening shift. I remember one evening a client had a software malfunction; we received a panicked e-mail about 8 pm and both of us stayed up until 4 am doing manual database work. I can’t remember who staggered through baby-duty that day, but I’m sure whoever it was didn’t win any awards for energetic parenting.
Another aspect of the bootstrapping: throughout this time I was still working part-time for the environmental consulting company + managing an entire university tutoring program + logging a huge number of parenting hours (our kids didn’t start preschool until they hit 2.5 years old, and even then it was 3 days/week). I remember laying on our bed, 2 weeks into one child’s bout with pneumonia with them lying on my chest while I participated in a conference call with stakeholders for a big custom mapping project I was completing (today’s Elisabeth would have deferred this call to post-pneumonia). John was in the other room designing a custom media package for a different client. It was all pretty intense.
We lived in a small 2-bedroom apartment; when Baby #2 arrived, and I realized I just could not share a room with a baby, we started moving our queen-sized bed out into the living room every single night so the kids could each have their own rooms. Remembering those days fills me both with a sense of pride – we worked so hard – and also disbelief. How did we find the energy to do all that? There was no guarantee this hard work was going to amount to anything…
And then our second start-up was involved in an aqui-hire when our aerial drone work caught the attention of a major player in the space. John and a number of our employees began working on other projects, and I took over day-to-day operations of our first business.
WHAT DOES MY work LOOK LIKE NOW
The last 5 years have been primarily focused on keeping life afloat. As John’s expertise has propelled him to the top of his field, it’s been a busy time for me on the homefront. Levi was a baby when John started traveling and I’ve had to pick up a lot of slack in terms of home/life management. I still run business #1, though it is a relatively well-oiled machine at this point. I also still help organize academic support at several universities (in various part-time capacities), but I’ve also gotten these to the well-oiled stage. In fall 2021 I was asked to assume a project manager role for a multi-year entomology research project. This has been a big shift and definitely feels like drinking through a fire hose!
For anyone still reading, a much quicker overview:
- School + research
- More school + research + publishing + academic support
- Birth a child
- Academic support + environmental consulting + parenting
- Academic support + environmental consulting + startup #1 + parenting
- Academic support + environmental consulting + business #1 + startup #2 + parenting
- Birth a second child
- Academic support + assume responsibility for business #1 + parenting x2 + husband working insane hours and away on business 60% of the time
- Academic support + business #1 + project management + parenting
I’ve learned a lot in the last decade and wouldn’t change anything about my non-conventional journey.
So next steps? I’d love to ramp up writing and other creative ventures. I’m interested in collaborating with John on some humanitarian/non-profit projects that play into our academic and personal skillsets. Maybe dabble in some angel investing?
Also, realistically, because of John’s career, a lot of my work (unpaid, admittedly) is home and child management, and that is rewarding in its own right (but also, by far, the hardest “work” I do).
I’m not sure what will come next, but it’s bound to be interesting. For now, it’s time to put my head down and get back to work!