For This Inuit Woman of Science, It's a Team Operation
By Scott McDougall | February 07, 2024
By Scott McDougall | February 07, 2024
“This story can’t be about just me,” said Liz Pijogge as she and I began an interview for a story that was to be about, well, just her. “This is a group effort. This is a team.”
On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, this was to have been an interview and a story about one Inuk woman and the science she does. That’s wrong, she gently pointed out—this should be a story about us, and the science that we do. In her first words to me she proved the case: science is better, everything is better, when it’s about us and not me.
It was in 2015 (not coincidentally the same year that the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals) that UNESCO first named an International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It was to be—it is—a day to mark not only the crucial role already being played by women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) but to remind us of the work still to be done.
Around the world, women, and girls account for only 33% of science researchers and only 35% of STEM students. As UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in 2023, “At UNESCO, where we work to build peace in the minds of men and women...more women in science means better science.”
UNESCO says more women will make for better science and a better world. Liz says, in effect, “here’s why that’s true: more inclusive, more insightful, more empowering, more welcoming, and—therefore—more useful.”
We at Adventure Canada have gotten to know Liz Pijogge as she’s sailed with us in the Arctic as a Researcher-in-Residence. We are proud to know her and her colleagues, and proud to celebrate her today. Liz and her colleagues—more than half of whom at the Nunatsiavut Research Centre (NRC) are women—are a perfect choice to help us mark and celebrate February 11, UNESCO’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
© Dennis Minty
Like her perspective on this story—us, not me—the work of Liz and her colleagues at the NRC is existentially rooted in the needs and knowledge of Inuit and northern communities. There, where food security is marginal due to the exorbitant costs of southern imports, traditional foods—seabirds, seals, and char, for example—are critical. Where the viability of those wild food populations is threatened (by climate change, for example) and the safety of the food is compromised by contaminants (mercury and plastics, importantly), this science is directed toward enhancing and maintaining food security.
Their work contributes scientific knowledge, of course, but it is directed principally at real-world and immediate improvement in the health and well-being of Inuit throughout the circumpolar region. It’s about and for community. It is for, about, and by us, Liz might say.
Influenced by the same sense of humility and community, the work of Liz and her colleagues is similarly steeped in collaboration, partnership, and capacity-sharing between southern science and traditional knowledge. Through partnerships like those with Memorial University’s (CLEAR) Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (whose raison d’être is about science that is feminist and anti-colonial and that “foregrounds humility, accountability, and good land relations”), and the Canada-Inuit Nunangat-United Kingdom Arctic Research Programme (CINUK), Liz and the NRC bring modern science to bear through traditional knowledge and in ways that are deeply linked to the outcome—a sustainably healthy, and vibrant Arctic community.
(Both Liz and CLEAR’s Dr. Max Liboiron emphasize the reciprocal idea of “capacity-sharing” opposed to the more unidirectional and colonial idea of “capacity-building.” As Liz said to me when we talked, “I’m not an old man scientist, I’m just a little Inuk. But together we can do important work.”)
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, in this context of community and collaboration, that over half of her NRC team are women; a team that would make UNESCO proud.
© Photo courtesy of Liz Pijogge
Liz getting help from Debbie Lyall who wanted to learn how to dissect a seal for sampling. Ringed seals are tested for contaminants.
Only two generations ago, Liz’s family lived on land and sea in the traditional ways of Inuit of Nunatsiavut. Today, she oversees one of the most comprehensive plastic monitoring programs in the circumpolar Arctic and is a member of the international working group on marine plastics that is part of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme.
A few short decades ago, as a teenager in her hometown of Nain, Liz left high school and started a family. Today, she is a leading Arctic researcher, managing multiple research projects, and a past recipient of the Inuit Recognition Award given annually by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
None of this was a fait accompli. This career was hardly predictable or obvious for someone in Liz’s position. Humble as she is, there is something extraordinary in it. A testament to her effort and resiliency. A marker of how she carries the lessons and traditional knowledge of her community into partnership with the wider world. It is all exemplary. It inspires. And, as uncomfortable as it might be for her (she acknowledged in our conversation) she has become something of a role model in her community.
© Photo courtesy of Liz Pijogge
Adventure Canada guests assisting Liz in using a Low-tech Aquatic Debris Instrument (LADI) to skim the seawater for contaminants in Torngat Mountains National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador.
UNESCO named February 11 as the International Day for Women and Girls in Science with the objective of encouraging girls and women into STEM disciplines. As they say, “Diversity in research expands the pool of talented researchers, bringing in fresh perspectives, talent, and creativity. This Day is a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened.”
As obviously true as that is, my conversations with Liz revealed both (paradoxically) a limitation and a wider truth in that vision. The diversity that advances science isn’t limited to gender diversity. The ground-breaking work that is led by Liz and colleagues at the NRC isn’t different only because of its inclusion of women, but because of its diversity across all manner of measures—culture, community, language, skills, knowledge, prosperity, and privilege. By marrying southern science with traditional knowledge, with and for Inuit communities and in collaboration with like-minded global partners, Liz and the NRC are redefining what it is to undertake applied research.
Quoting, again, UNESCO Director-General Azoulay, “Women need science, and science needs women. Only by tapping into all sources of knowledge, all sources of talent, can we unlock the full potential of science, and rise to the challenges of our time.” Liz, I think, would gently offer an expansion: Science will be improved when it is more inclusive of all (not just gender) diverse perspectives, especially of those who will be most impacted by the outcome of the science and those who bring deep multi-generational traditional knowledge.
In our conversation about her (not-quite-comfortable) realization that she’s become a role model in her community, Liz reflected on the advice she would offer Inuit girls and women interested in a career in science. First—pursue your dreams and ambitions. They’re not crazy. You can do it. Second—yes, of course, stay in school as long as you and your family can make that happen. But education can be difficult in northern communities and advanced education means a lot of time away from family. If that’s not for you, there are other ways forward—don’t be discouraged.
Finally, perhaps most importantly—stay grounded in the traditions and knowledge that comes with being Inuit in Nunatsiavut (or wherever in Inuit Nunangat you find yourself). Remember that the future of science is about merging the best of two worlds. The world represented by Liz and others like her is unique, beautiful in its own right, and essential if we are to find a sustainable and equitable way forward. A way forward together.
Resources for more information on Liz and her work: