Jackie Goordial completed her PhD in natural resource sciences in 2015, focusing on polar microbiology. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph.
Q: What made you interested in starting a PhD in natural resource sciences at McGill?
I did a Master’s at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus in microbial ecology. After I did my Master’s, I knew I wanted to continue in academia, but I wanted to change topics a little bit, and switching to a different PhD was an opportunity to do that.
And really at the time, I looked at two things. I looked at cities that I thought I would be happy living in, which to me at the time was Montreal or Vancouver or Toronto. And then I had an honest discussion with my Master’s supervisor, who is in Toronto. I did a little bit of research on microbial ecologists around Canada, and after consulting with her she recommended Lyle Whyte at McGill and suggested I get in touch.
And then, when I talked with him, he fortuitously had a project about to start at the time that was going to need a student. It was very exciting to me: it would involve going to the Antarctic. And so I ultimately didn’t even apply to other graduate programs: I only applied to McGill.
Q: Was it different from your Master’s work?
My Master’s degree was also in microbial ecology, but looking at bioremediation of chlorinated biphenyls. For my PhD, I moved to the field of polar microbiology, focusing on microorganisms that live in cold places.
Q: Once you got to McGill, were you able to get the support that you needed?
I came in at a fortuitous time, because there was an NSERC Create program in the field of astrobiology, and I almost immediately got an NSERC Fellowship. This also came with a travel budget, which was great because it was a budget amount, not just for “one conference.” And so, since I could be thrifty in how I traveled, I was able to stretch that into several different opportunities for conferences, research exchanges, and going to other laboratories to do work.
Q: And what about other support, such as career advice, or mental health support, or other things?
I remember medical support at the beginning being very difficult to get, especially if you live in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue and work at the Macdonald campus, since you have to go to the downtown campus. Though towards the end, I think they would have slots downtown for students at the Mac campus, and limited times where you could see a doctor at Mac.
For career advice, most of my advice came from my direct supervisor. There are a number of microbiologists within the department that I’m sure I could have gone to, but he was one I had a close relationship with, and he knows the landscape of the polar field well.
I don’t recall much specific formal or informal training, but one exception was the microbiology seminars, which were the most useful in terms of professional training. They’re good practice for giving a conference presentation that you’d actually give, as opposed to a presentation for the whole department, which is still useful in terms of science communication, but less useful preparation for conferences or interviews for your postdoc or things like that. Brian Driscoll was very good at leading those classes, it provided feedback both for presenting your research, but also giving a teaching lecture. Taking a topic that’s of interest and then teaching it to a group of people who know microbiology is very valuable. Those skillsets came in handy for me in multiple ways later on, both for conferences and for my interview process to be a postdoc and faculty member.
Q: Is there any mentorship that you wish you had during the PhD, or even after the PhD?
I was really lucky, I had great mentors—even in my subsequent postdoc I had a great mentor as well. I ended up just doubling down on more and more mentors! I think it really depends on how good your mentor is at your home base. And then, for me, I had Lyle, and Brian Driscoll was good for me on my committee. Then because of the nature of my project, which was NASA funded, I had two other mentors at NASA. So I had a pretty good network that was diversified.
Q: It sounds like mentorship and networking were very interconnected for you?
Lyle was very good at sharing his networks, which is something a good mentor does. And he would send us to conferences, and other labs, which was great. But there’s also a degree of self-interest and self-pursuit that’s necessary. So, for example, my postdoc was something I pursued separately based on reading the literature. It was not someone that Lyle knew, because in this case, I did a postdoc in a completely different field, in oceanographic research. And so that wasn’t really something I could lean on Lyle to make those connections or make those introductions for me. But I think a lot of my training with Lyle was in talking to new researchers and learning how to make connections, and that served me well in terms of pursuing my own networking.
Q: You sound so passionate about your research, and so am I, but for me, managing all of this work has been really challenging for me. What was the biggest challenge for you, in the PhD program?
Time management is probably also something I had trouble with and still do; I feel like you’re constantly treading water a little bit. It seems to be a natural state of things, except that now I’m so used to being in that state that it’s not even stressful anymore.
It was super tough sometimes, but I don’t think in any abnormal way. Sometimes disasters happen—for example, I went to the Antarctic for two months, collected some incredible unique samples, the likes of which have not been collected since. And then our freezer broke down on a long weekend. It was a pretty huge blow to my PhD program and my thesis to me.
Q: What helped you to overcome those challenges?
I think perspective, but also having a life outside of academia. I had a very rich social life, and a very rich volunteer life outside of McGill. But also, Lyle was a very good leader in that respect. When the freezer broke down, we could all acknowledge that it sucked, but he also acknowledged that it wasn’t the end of the world and we planned around it. I thought it was very good leadership at the time.
Q: Can you talk about your position now?
My current postdoc is also dealing with permafrost soil. So it’s as directly related as you can get. And it is still polar microbiology. I’ll be leading my own research group soon, especially as I am starting as an Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph this summer.
Q: Congratulations! My last question, then, is looking back in time: If you could go back in time and meet yourself on your first day, what would you like to tell her?
There are few times in life that you’ll get to do just academic pursuits. This time will be unique, and finite. Have fun with it!Many thanks to Jackie for sharing her narrative! You can find her on Twitter @jackiegoordial and see more about her on her website.
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.