Use Your Creativity to Make Great Choices: Advice from an Associate Director

Josée Owen is an Associate Director at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She has also worked as a scientist studying horticultural cropping systems.

What’s one thing that would surprise people about your field of agricultural science?

As a scientist I worked with organic amendments—substances added to soil to improve soil health and provide nutrients for crops. We worked on different amendments including compost, mud from mussel production, and manures from different animals. Most people would be surprised at how satisfying it can be to study manure. These manures are often thought of as waste, but they are a tremendous resource. It’s important to study how they break down in soil and how the minerals and elements become available to plants over time. Today there are new aspects to study, such as how medicines administered to livestock affect the environment when they are excreted. There are lots of expressions that make it sound as though manure is garbage. You’d be surprised how much the opposite is true!

Now that I am the Associate Director of an Agricultural Research and Development Centre, I think people would be surprised that I don’t make decisions all day long. It’s really more about finding ways to enable people to use their own creativity, expertise, and character to make great decisions about how they will move their science forward, and how they will in turn enable their own people to make great decisions.

How did you get into your line of work?

I first thought of doing studies in Agriculture in Grade 11, when I wrote a term paper for an Ancient History class on Chinese innovations in the use of human waste as fertilizer in the Yangtze River Valley, one of the world’s earliest breadbaskets. Then when I was struggling to find a university program that sounded interesting, I struck on a course catalogue for Macdonald College (McGill) and courses about dairy production and plant pathology. I started off thinking I’d be making ice-cream and cheese, but majored in Plant Science. My courses were so dull, I decided to quit after the first year. But I happened to get a summer student job with Dr. Ed Schneider at AAFC in Ottawa. He was a plant pathologist and a mentor. He worked on snow moulds in soft white pastry wheat. I loved it and went back to school. After my Master's, I worked as an agrologist, then back to AAFC as a scientific writer, then research biologist, and now I’m in management.

What is your most memorable moment at work?

I’ve had many memorable moments, from the first time I stood in a wheat trial in Beachburg, Ontario thinking how lucky I was to have a job that let me be under blue skies doing something I loved. I remember taking a course on management and feeling amazed that government, in all its complexity, works as well as it does, and knowing that it only does so because civil servants are working extremely hard to pull the whole thing off. I remember the thrill of being able to hire the best candidate, and the challenge of helping a marvellous person take a medical retirement.

Is there something we can do to support women in science?

There are many things we can do. First, we can recognize that women face challenges they shouldn’t have to, and that there are unconscious biases everywhere in our society. This doesn’t require pity, guilt, or commiseration—it requires us to have the courage and creativity to discover the roots of inequality and to change them. The same is true about any inequality.

What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in science?

Take a science degree. While you do it, dump as many lecture classes as you can, and instead go to your profs and tell them you want credits to do independent studies working on their projects. This gives you interesting work, insights about real careers, builds your CV, gives you acknowledgement or co-authorship on papers, and gives you solid references. Only take science jobs in the summer. Waiting tables may pay more than a science job, but keep in mind there are actually far more jobs for science students than for recent science grads. You need those networks and skills to get one of those jobs for recent grads.

What are your hobbies, and do they influence your work?

I read voraciously—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, magazines, comic books, all of it. This helps me make links and think non-linearly, helps me write coherently and quickly, makes me think deeply, and increases my humanity.

When I travel, I seek out farmers’ markets. I garden, cook, and make cheese. These hobbies help me understand food systems from angles other than scientific ones.

I also play the flute and the piano. Playing music with others helps me understand non-verbal communication and develop collaboration skills—and it’s fun!

What do you hope to see in your field in the next 10 years?

I hope to see systemic barriers to equal opportunity eliminated in our organization. I hope to see more humanity, courage, and justice in decision-making. I hope to see our science contribute to increasing food security at home and abroad. I hope to see our policies transform to have greater focus on local food and less emphasis on exports in globalized food commodity. I hope for people’s behaviours and use of technologies to enable us to begin to reverse climate change. I hope for people to prioritize the greater good over individual profit. All of these things are possible with agriculture.

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