Women in STEM: Carrie Matilda Derrick

Carrie Derrick, Professor of Botany (© William Notman / McGill University Archives, PR014514)

The scientific world owes a lot of its achievements to the dedicated and passionate work done by women – Canadian geneticist and botanist Carrie Matilda Derrick is one of these women.

Derrick was born in 1960 in Clarenceville, Quebec and showed a keen interest in pursuing academics from a young age. Despite societal discouragement of women in education at the time, Derrick received training to become a teacher from McGill University and served as the principal of her local school at the age of nineteen. She returned to McGill to pursue a bachelor’s degree in natural science in 1989 and graduated the following year at the top of her class. Carrie continued her academic career by attaining her Master of Science in botany and conducted research for her PhD in Germany at the University of Bonn. Unfortunately, she was not awarded her official doctorate because at the time universities did not award women such degrees. Carrie did not let this discourage her from continuing her journey towards scientific discovery and travelled the world conducting research at acclaimed institutions such as Harvard and the Royal College of Science in London.

Carrie returned to Quebec in 1905 and after much negotiation with the principal of McGill University she joined the teaching staff as an assistant professor, earning one-third of the salary made by males in the same position. Eleven years later, in 1912, Carrie Derrick was officially appointed Professor of Morphological Botany by McGill University – making her the first female professor in Canada. During this time, she continued her research work and published several papers regarding plant morphology and genetics.

Additionally, Derrick founded McGill University’s Genetics Department and created the Evolution and Genetics course which was the first of its kind in Canada. This was not a small feat as Carrie struggled as an activist for equal rights for women in education for several years before and after receiving her professorship.

Not only was Derrick a pioneer of scientific education for women in Canada but she also supported other women breaking boundaries in their respective fields. In 1914, she rallied and supported Annie Langaff – the first female law graduate from McGill to join Quebec’s bar. Carries’ legacy continues to live on at her alma mater and echoes throughout Canada as she paved the way for women pursuing scholarly careers. Her persistence in a male dominated field and fight for recognition for her influential work in botany and genetics should serve as a great motivator for young girls interested in STEM.

It is important for women to challenge societal norms and not feel discouraged by some of the gender biases that still exist in modern times. Recent statistics suggest that graduates within STEM consist of 37% females and 63% male, where women on average earn $13,000 less than their male counterparts. Science itself does not discriminate between men and women, but the field constructed around it is prejudice and has barriers that should be broken.

Companies like Microsoft are taking action to spread awareness of the lack of women in STEM through a campaign called #MakeWhatsNext. Their aim is to challenge young girls to pursue careers in STEM by introducing them to prominent women they can adopt as role models – such as Carrie Derrick whose story inspires individuals to persevere and strive for scientific enlightenment despite the obstacles they may face.

Contributed by Sarah Shah.

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