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Interdisciplinarity gives new PhD graduate an edge towards tenure

Campus and Community

By Janet Harron

It’s no secret that the academic job market is a tough one.

Dr. Samantha Breslin in Singapore. Her doctoral research explored the training of computer scientists in Singapore, looking at both gender and teaching code.
Photo: Submitted

Securing a tenure-track position at a prestigious university immediately after receiving a PhD is the modern-day academic’s equivalent to finding the Holy Grail while cashing in a lottery ticket.

And yet that’s exactly what recent Memorial University graduate Dr. Samantha Breslin, who graduated in 2018 with a doctoral degree from the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, did.

Once she completes a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of San Diego (she’s teaching engineers how to make connections between the technologies they are learning to design and the impact those technologies have on different groups of people), Dr. Breslin will head to the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Anthropology.

Flexible and interdisciplinary

Originally from Newmarket, Ont., Dr. Breslin arrived at Memorial after completing an undergraduate degree in computer science with a joint honours in anthropology from the University of Waterloo.

A true polymath, at the time she had also developed an interest in Irish traditional music and was searching for an anthropology professor with expertise in Irish studies.

She found Dr. Robin Whitaker and headed east to St. John’s for her master’s degree in 2008.

“I think interdisciplinary work is essential for engaging with the complex problems of the world.” — Dr. Samantha Breslin

Three years later, her sights set on a PhD, Dr. Breslin decided to combine her background in anthropology and computer science.

The program at Memorial offered her the most flexibility in pursuing an interdisciplinary approach and was also able to support a breadth of research so, despite being accepted to prestigious institutions in the U.K., she opted to stay in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Doing interdisciplinary work is not simple, particularly when the disciplines entail different perspectives and approaches on things like the meaning of expertise, objectivity and forms of knowledge production,” said Dr. Breslin, adding that sometimes interdisciplinarity can feel either that you don’t belong or you belong in too many places.

“That said, I think interdisciplinary work is essential for engaging with the complex problems of the world.”

‘Real leader’

Dr. Whitaker supervised both her master of arts degree and PhD.

“Samantha was a terrific student, wonderful to work with,” she said, adding that, as part of her MA research on session music, Dr. Breslin accomplished the extraordinary task of retraining herself from a classically trained flautist into a traditional Irish flute and tin whistle player.

“She was a real leader among our students and incredibly generous with her peers.”

Dr. Breslin’s doctoral research explored the making of computer scientists in Singapore, looking at both gender and teaching code.

A coding sample that Dr. Breslin included in her doctoral research.
Photo: Submitted

She says the expertise in Memorial’s anthropology department enabled her to pursue both topics — the meaning of traditional Irish music for musicians in St. John’s and computer science education in Singapore.

“I don’t remember anyone even batting an eye over such a switch. The faculty members have an overarching interest in understanding the production of inequalities, particularly in relation to class, but their interests and research locations are quite diverse.”

Identities and aspirations

Dr. Breslin’s work in Singapore, which was partly inspired by her undergraduate participation in a task force for gender equity, went well beyond the usual approach of “not enough women” in computer science.

Her research showed how students’ identities and aspirations are multiple and complex and cannot be contained within binary gender norms or categories, or dedicated solely to a passion for computing-related topics.

“Samantha teases out the gendering of computer science and its practitioners in much more complex ways, as well as looking at how training computer science students involves not simply teaching them to code, but also, not fully successful, attempts at reconstituting the kinds of persons they are,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“To be offered such a position so soon after completing my PhD feels almost like a dream.” — Dr. Samantha Breslin

In her new position at the University of Copenhagen, Dr. Breslin will utilize social data science, the merging of data analysis — produced through social media and various forms of surveillance — with social sciences research practice.

“Bringing data sciences and social sciences together means contending with how data science necessarily lumps people into categories to quantitatively analyze them, even as social science often shows the complexity and diversity within these categories.”

Needless to say, she is excited about her future career prospects.

“To be offered such a position so soon after completing my PhD feels almost like a dream. On a practical level, this position means long-term and hopefully, tenured employment, providing me with security and support in pursuing research and teaching around topics of social data science, digital anthropology and feminist technology studies.”

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