Frieda Beauregard, Herbarium Curator and Instructor

Frieda Beauregard completed her PhD in plant science in 2016, focusing on the impact of climate change on forest ecosystems. She is currently the curator for the McGill University Herbarium and teaches undergraduate classes related to biodiversity at McGill.

Q: What made you interested in starting a PhD?

I had graduated from my Master’s degree in natural resource sciences, also at the Mac campus, and I wasn’t sure what to study next, but I wanted to stay in Montreal for family reasons. I had worked for many researchers at Mac campus during my undergrad and after I graduated, so I knew many people in the Mac community quite well.

A former mentor from my undergrad was looking for a PhD candidate, and when I read the advertised description, I decided to reach out to her to discuss it, since I had written a class paper on the topic and it had been something I had thought deserved more work. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a PhD, especially at Mac after being there for so long, but I approached her and just offered my paper as a resource for whoever took the position. Thankfully she had other ideas, and fairly easily persuaded me to continue pursuing this work myself. She pointed out that it was a good opportunity because there were many collaborators at different institutions, both governmental and nongovernmental, so I would be able to make new contacts.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the support that you got during your degree? Financial support, other kinds?

The position was funded with NSERC, I also won an entrance and a graduate scholarship, so I had a lot of funding throughout my whole time as a student.

I had my children while I was a student, so I took parental leaves, and I used the campus daycare center. I was really happy to have my children close and in a high quality childcare setting, the center at Mac is incredibly supportive of their campus families. Other than that, I didn’t make use of supports because I didn’t need them.

Q: Did taking parental leaves cause any delays or challenges for your graduate work?

Yes and no. If I were to give a criticism, it would be that early in my pregnancy, I had a lot of morning sickness, but it was so early in the pregnancy that I didn’t want to advertise that I was pregnant to my supervisor or others. I was too sick to do my work for several weeks; I should have been running models but instead only managed to feel well if I was out walking! I was still registered as a student, still paying fees. It would have been nice to have a more comprehensive information package available about pregnancy. Even at the time there was a line that indicated taking a leave was at the supervisors’ discretion to grant permission, which has since been changed.

If I hadn’t had children, I would not have taken parental leaves of absence from my studies, but this did not otherwise lengthen my degree. One other thing is that one of my scholarships helped cover a small amount of the cost of taking the time off, but if I had been a single parent, without my husband’s income, it would have been extremely difficult financially. There is still work to do in making the world more fair for women academics.

Q: Let’s move to talking about mentorship. Who were your mentors during your PhD?

My supervisor, certainly. But I was doing a lot of learning on my own. My supervisor was there to talk about hypotheses, my tests, and my results, for bouncing ideas off of, but she couldn’t help me with some of the methods I needed to learn. I had to be very self-motivated, seeking out other mentors and reading online, at sites like StackExchange and so on. I had a friend doing a PhD in statistics who helped answer questions, and Guillame Larocque at the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science. And we had some technical support people at the lab, as well, and while there wasn’t anybody more senior in the lab, as labmates, we all helped each other as best we could.

Q: Did you do a lot of mentoring, then?

Definitely. Because my supervisor was the Director of the School of Environment, she was largely based downtown for the later years, so I would do mentoring because I was physically at Mac in the lab. And I have been teaching undergraduate classes since I was in my PhD. Since then, working at the Herbarium, I also maintain that mentorship relationship because we have a volunteer program. So I’ll talk to students about their life, plants, music, whatever.

Q: What were the main challenges during your PhD?

Self-motivation. During my first maternity leave, I was feeling, very strongly, like I didn’t want to be an academic. I was worried about having a job in the Montreal area in my field. There was a point, when I was on maternity leave and I had a lot of time for self-reflection. I was just at home with my young son, thinking maybe I should do something else with my life. I’d made the decision in my head many, many times, that I’m going to do something else. I was concerned that I was wasting my time pursuing something that I really enjoyed, but that ultimately wasn’t going to get me a well-paying career. My own self-doubt was the biggest challenge. And it was my husband who pushed me to finish it. He said, “Look, you’ve gone this far. You’ll regret it if you don’t finish it. So finish it, and then you can look for something else.” But in the end, I’m still at Mac, so there you are. [laughs]

Frieda Beauregard discusses her challenges in finishing her dissertation.

And then when I got back, what helped my motivation was teaching; I had missed that human interaction quite a bit. And teaching experience, at least, was building my CV in different directions.

Q: How did you transition into your current position, then?

While I was doing my PhD and teaching a couple classes, I put it out there that if the curator position at the Herbarium opened up, it would be my dream to work there. Then, when the position did come up, I applied. It didn’t take a lot of convincing: I had been teaching a class that made use of the materials, I was already familiar with the structure and conditions of the collection, the nuts and bolts of what it was and how to look after the plants.

My position is under the job category of “Academic Associate,” and my responsibility is to be the curator of an amazing collection of preserved plant specimens. We even have specimens collected on the Southern Voyages of the Erebus and Terror! The position is 20 hours a week, which is nice because it allows me more time with my family or to teach undergraduate classes. I’m the only employee, so I’m responsible for all communications, the care and organization of the collection, mentoring student volunteers, and even an ongoing digitization program. I’m using skills that I gained during my degree, and through my own passion for native plants.

Q: Building on that, if you could go back and meet yourself on the first day of your PhD, would you have any advice?

I think, being older now, I would say, have more self-confidence. You’re capable; don’t question yourself so much!

Many thanks to Frieda for sharing her narrative! You can find her on Twitter @McGillHerbarium and see more about McGill University Herbarium’s collection here.

This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.