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Brother encouraged 'A' student's curiosity about science


Joan Black, Windspeaker Contributor







Achievement Page 7

"It's good to have goals, but try to be realistic; if the job market isn't there, you may have to try other things." Dr. Lillian Eva Dyck, this year's National Aboriginal Achievement Award winner in the field of Science and Technology, says that although people need to plan their future, they should remain flexible in a rapidly changing society.

The same advice applies if you find you are completely unsuited to the career choice you have made - change it for something you like and success will follow, she adds.

That was Dr. Dyck's decision. The member of the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan considered becoming a high school science teacher in 1970, but realized on the very eve of her practice teaching session it wasn't for her. She lacked confidence in her knowledge, even though she had a Master's degree; she also was not comfortable speaking in public. So she quit.

Instead, Dr. Dyck became a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Saskatchewan. Her team of scientific researchers is looking for a drug that treats stroke, Alzheimer disease, schizophrenia and other illnesses believed to have the same underlying disease process. She's also testing the theories of experts who think Native people's metabolism may make them more predisposed to alcoholism.

She made the right choice. Not only has Dr. Dyck become a full professor in the University of Saskatchewan's department of psychiatry, she has been recognized for her efforts in promoting women in science. She was even cited by the House of Commons: Georgette Sheridan, former Liberal MP from Saskatoon-Humboldt, raised Dr. Dyck's name in the House during International Women's Week in March 1997.

"I do my best to pass along what I know," Dr. Dyck says modestly.

Along the way to obtaining her PhD and becoming a scientist, she overcame her shyness about public speaking. In addition to her research, she now teaches at the graduate level in neuropsychiatry, neurochemistry and the field of alcohol and substance abuse.

"It was lots of practice in public speaking that got me over it," Dr. Dyck says.

The former Lillian Quan, born in 1945 to a Cree mother and a Chinese father, was fortunate that her parents taught her determination and to use her abilities because she encountered a decided lack of high expectations for her in her Swift Current, Sask. high school.

Although she had been an "A" student in elementary school, in Grade 9 she was shuffled through schools and into a class for slow learners, along with her brother, Winston. By then she was already showing an aptitude for science; in Grade 10 she won an academic proficiency award, while still in the class for under-achievers. At least, she says, the vice-principal, John Dyer, recognized the Quan children's abilities, and he encouraged both to strive to attend university.

When she graduated from high school in the early 1960s with an 80-something average there was a lot of excitement about science with the launching of the world's first satellite. Her brother, one year older and majoring in chemistry at university, really encouraged her scientific curiosity. He helped his sister get her first job in a chemistry lab. The success of that experience and her brother's encouragement kept her in science, she says.

Dr. Dyck says she is an "urban Indian," who had little knowledge of her Aboriginal culture until 1981. By then she had her doctorate and was interested in finding out about the Native side of her heritage. She explains that, typically for the time, her mother had distanced herself from her Aboriginal identity when she married her father, a Chinese restaurant owner, and lost her status. The cultural link was further weakened when Dr. Dyck's mother died at age 36.

To learn Cree traditions, Dr. Dyck sought out the company of other Aboriginal women in Saskatoon, and she attended some women's conferences. Her search subsequently led her to an Elder at the Indian Federated College, who also helped he find her place in the circle.

"Now I have sorted out who I am," Dr. Dyck says, stressing that she found her peace with the help of many friends.

Ironically, she says that becoming proud of her identity has caused some people to say she "has it made," because she is an Aboriginal woman. Dr. Dyck answers them that even though opportunities are said to exist for Aboriginal people, they're often "on paper only."

She has come up against biases against women working in science, but attitudes are changing.

"The university," she adds, "is still quite hierarchical."

Dr. Dyck further says that her own experience as a scientist is atypical, in that she has chosen to study and work in the same place for a long time. This arrangement, she says, fit in with raising a family. She feels her choice may be the reason she had to struggle for promotions: "Because people were familiar with me. . . my talent may have been taken for granted." Dr. Dyck achieved the rank of full professor in 1996.

There are no regrets. Dr. Dyck emphasizes that she feels very happy and privileged to be where she is today. Realizing that she has broken a few barriers and is in a position now to encourage others, she enjoys participating in Native youth conferences and career fairs.

Dr. Dyck aims for a balanced life. She loves her career, but is not obsessed with it to the exclusion of other interests. Her leisure time is spent with friends or in group activities. She's also an avid traveller and bird watcher. A favorite activity is visiting the Wanuskewin Indian Heritage Park outside her city.

"It reminds me the real world is nature; the university world is artificial," Dr. Dyck says.