International Women’s Day – A Chat with Dr. Sheau-Fang Hwang

March 8

To celebrate International Women’s Day, RDAR talks with exceptional women working in agriculture research in Alberta. We will learn all about their exciting careers and beyond. Meet Dr. Sheau-Fang Hwang, Research Plant Pathologist and Professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta

What is your area of agriculture research?

I am a plant pathologist by training and most of my research deals with plant disease. I like to conduct both academic and applied research. The results of my applied research directly provide solutions to producers’ problems. It brings me happiness to solve real world problems for real people. The academic research investigates the causes behind producers’ disease problems and satisfies my curiosity in the fantastic world of science.

As a professor, I teach two courses in Plant Science including ‘Plants in our Lives’, and ‘Integrated Crop Protection’, where I hope to inspire young people to pursue a career in the Agricultural Sciences. As an educator, I try to prepare the students for work in the agricultural industry, agricultural sciences, or agricultural production, or encourage them to pursue higher degrees in graduate school.

Who are some of the most influential people in your professional and personal life?

In mid-career, I started my collaboration with Professor Steve Strelkov at the University of Alberta, and became an Adjunct Professor. We share the same philosophy and values in life and research on clubroot of canola has formed the basis for a successful professional team. In 2015, we recruited a brilliant young scientist, Rudolph Fredua-Agyeman, who has broadened our research capabilities from the field and traditional laboratory research into leading-edge molecular research.

Over the years Steve and I have built up a diverse team that currently numbers over 25 people from all over the world. I think the diversity in our team is one of the keys to its success.

Some of the credit also has to go to my husband, Dr. Kan-Fa Chang, who is also a plant pathologist who has fully supported my career.

Lastly, I greatly appreciate the sacrifices made by my parents. When we were poor in Taiwan, they didn’t send me to a factory to make short-term cash. Instead, they took the long view. They tightened their belts and allowed me to go to University, which led me to a PhD in the United States, and then on to an exciting career in Canada.

Do you think women face unique challenges in the workplace?

As a woman scientist, managers can de-prioritize the promotion of women in the workplace. However, I feel that if you are real ‘gold’, your value will shine through eventually. Good work ethics, hard work and productivity are eventually recognized. As women, we need to have our confidence and a sense of humour.

As a woman, there are advantages too. You can say things men can’t say without ruffling a lot of feathers, and do things men can’t do. There is soft power too. When the tornado comes, it may break the trees, but it won’t break the grass — meaning that we should try not to be too rigid, because when change comes, it is good to be flexible and adaptable to change.

What do you think is the most important piece of advice for women who want to pursue a career in agriculture research?

Women have to be prepared to face the long haul both financially, physically and mentally. It takes 3-5 years to complete a Ph.D. It brings a lot of demands and stress including coursework, conducting research, and preparation of a thesis. You may need to sacrifice your weekends and work long hours depending the nature of your research. In agriculture-related field trials, you may need to work outside under very hot or very cold conditions, get your hands dirty, and become very familiar with mosquitoes.

One more thing you have to know that you will never be a millionaire, but you will see lots of things in nature through very costly and sophisticated equipment such as scanning and electron microscopes, some of which have never been seen before. You always have to update your knowledge and sharpen your mind – perhaps you will never get Alzheimer’s disease.

What's a fun fact about you?

Recently, I have been promoted to grandmother. This has brought me so much joy I have had to re-learn skills that I learned bringing up my son. It keeps me young. I get to sing and dance for my granddaughter and as a bonus, the grandparents get to spoil the kids a bit.