Professor Sophie Rousseaux has received an Early Career Supervision Award from the School of Graduate Studies.
The annual award, which was launched in 2021, recognizes pre-tenure faculty who, over a period of up to six years, have demonstrated excellence in graduate supervision. Two awards are given out annually, one in the Physical/Life Sciences, and one in the Humanities/Social Sciences. Each winner will receive a certificate of recognition from SGS and an SGS Travel Grant for one of their students.
When Rousseaux began her teaching career at U of T in 2015, she knew she wanted to adopt a student-centered approach for her research group.
“My philosophy has always been that the foundation to my research program is student success,” notes Rousseaux. “If the students are successful, then that forms a foundation for the program’s success, and for us to make important discoveries that could potentially have an impact on everyday life.”
Rousseaux, who earned her PhD from the University of Ottawa and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford, decided she would do things differently. For instance, in a field where students have historically been expected to work long hours, Rousseaux prefers not to track how many hours her trainees are physically spending in the lab, choosing instead to help her students use their time efficiently, in whatever way works best for them. She’s also a big proponent of finding the right work-life balance, and actively encourages her students to plan their time off – even if it’s just a few days off to relax and watch Netflix.
“What I observed when I was in graduate school was that students would show up to put in a certain number of hours in the lab, but they wouldn’t necessarily be engaged with their research during these hours,” she explains. “And I realized that not everyone works the same way. Some students prefer the weekends when it’s quieter and others want to have that time for themselves. I always try to be flexible.”
In a discipline that prioritizes big questions and big funding, it’s an approach that continues to be met with some skepticism, though Rousseaux would like to change that.
“I had someone ask me recently if it was possible to run a student-centered lab in a competitive research program,” she says. “I would say it’s not only possible but also fulfilling. If you focus on building up your students, then you end up in a situation where you can ask big questions. And the students feel empowered to go after them.”
In addition to encouraging her students to pursue interests outside the lab, Rousseaux also engages them in conversations about the wider debates that are shaping the field. One example is her group’s EDI-based Journal Club, where the whole group meets regularly to read and discuss articles from the literature that addresses concerns around equity and diversity. Rousseaux says the students have picked a variety of topics ranging from mental health in graduate school to the question of whether older scientific literature, with its racist assumptions, should be jettisoned.
It’s an initiative the researcher convened during the first year of the pandemic in response to an article published by a prominent journal that decried recent efforts to make the field more diverse. “A lot of people, myself included, felt very hurt and upset that those words had been published, and in a major journal,” she recollects. “It was early in the pandemic, so students were often at home alone with their thoughts. Then they get this message that they are not welcome if they belong to any kind of underrepresented group. I thought it was very important to address that.”
Rousseaux hopes that students will take their critical thinking into their future roles as mentors and professors. “I want to demonstrate to the students that these issues are serious and important to me,” she shares. “And that it’s important for them to not just reflect on these things now, but also to think about what tools they can develop for the mentorship roles they may have.”
Knowing that her efforts have made a difference in students’ lives means the world to Rousseaux. “To know that students have felt supported just means everything to me. They have had such a profound impact on me as an educator. I just hope to be able to continue in my role and be the best mentor I can be in the years to come.”