Family vacations to the seaside captured Dr. Annie Mercier’s imagination as a child.
She would spend hours exploring the shoreline, studying tidepools and the animals they contained.
“Discovering the ocean was like magic for me,” she said. “That became the basis of my interest in science.”
A career quiz in high school introduced her to the field of oceanography; from then on it became her ultimate goal. But it was a stop on another family trip that cemented her ambition.
Fate steps in
The then 16-year-old convinced her parents to stop by L’Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, a research facility of the Université du Québec à Rimouski (now ISMER). Just beyond the door, Dr. Émilien Pelletier was conducting experiments in a large tank.
“He spoke to me and I said I wanted to look inside an ocean-related institution, because that was my goal later in life,” she recalls. “So, he showed me the tank and explained the experiment.”
“When he asked what university I was in, I admitted I was just finishing high school, but I asked what I needed to do. He said I had to complete my CEGEP [a pre-university diploma required for university admission in Quebec] and then a bachelor, because, at the time, it was only at the master’s level you could do oceanography. So, I still had five years ahead of me.”
She took his advice, and a few years later had nearly completed a bachelor’s degree at the landlocked Université de Sherbrooke, when she spotted a poster for summer jobs in oceanography.
“When I went, I happened to meet Émilien again and asked if he remembered me,” said Dr. Mercier. “He did, and he had a position for a master’s student, so he became my supervisor – it was fate.”
But she knows that had she received a different reaction, instead of the welcome she received, she might have chosen another path. It reminds her of the impact her own actions with students can have.
From first to deputy head
In 2005 Dr. Annie Mercier became the first female faculty member to join the Ocean Sciences Centre in over 30 years.
The research unit became operational in 1968 and was approved as an academic unit – the Department of Ocean Sciences – in 2012. Dr. Mercier remained the sole female on faculty until two years ago when she was first joined by Dr. Amanda Bates and then Dr. Rachel Sipler, who hold Canada Research Chairs in Marine Physiological Ecology and Ocean Biogeochemistry, respectively, and Dr. Uta Passow, the Canada Research Chair in Biological Oceanographic Processes.
As deputy head, Dr. Mercier sees many female undergraduate and graduate students going through the department’s programs.
“I’ve had mostly female trainees and students in my lab,” she said. “I’ve supervised close to 70 highly qualified personnel or individuals with university degrees at the bachelors’ level and above and at least 70 per cent of them have been females.”
“But I’m interested to see if that will convert into more females occupying higher positions in academia, research and government. I think that is where things aren’t happening as smoothly as with male highly qualified personnel. Today is an opportunity to reflect on the situation and open the discussion around why this is.”
Correction: Beryl Truscott was the first female faculty member hired at the Ocean Sciences Centre. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.