For fourth-year Ph.D. candidate Cylita Guy, pursuing doctoral studies in ecology and evolution, offered her an outlet to combine her passion for the natural world with her curiosity for infectious diseases. As an ecologist, science educator, and woman of colour, Guy believes that promoting the accessibility of science content and the diversity of role model representation will generate the greatest engagement from the community.
Describing her path to graduate school as “convoluted,” Guy explains that she began her undergraduate journey gaining experience working in animal clinics with the hope of becoming a veterinarian. With support from the people in her life, Guy shifted her aspirations from veterinary school to medical school, created a portfolio, and completed her applications. During the same time, Guy was working on a fourth-year research project in conservation that ignited a new passion for learning about the transmission of infectious diseases between wildlife and humans, as well as an interest in the research process as a whole. Her new desire to address the questions surrounding the interspecies spread of disease led Guy to decide against submitting her applications to medical school.
Now, as a Ph.D. candidate, Guy focuses her research on bats, the medically important zoonotic viruses they carry, such as rabies, Ebola and Hendra, and their ability to transmit these viruses to humans. From an ecological perspective, Guy is interested in understanding how some bats can contract rabies infections, clear the infection, and recuperate to a healthy state, while other species, like human beings, can die from the same virus.
In addition to her research, Guy works as a host at the Ontario Science Centre where she facilitates science-based interactions and activities for visitors ranging from babies to grandparents. As part of her job, Guy attempts to make science accessible, exciting, and engaging for all-ages. She delivers planetarium shows, leads nature walks, and organizes workshops for toddlers tailored towards exploration and observation.
“I definitely spent a lot of time at the science centre as a kid and my parents were really big on promoting exploration of our natural world. I think that for me, it’s important that science is accessible and that people find it exciting, because I think that’s how you start to engage people and drive them towards science-based careers,” Guy says. “Even for non-scientists, I think that having the confidence to sit down and read an article or learn something new about how the world works can be a really powerful experience.
I had a really great time as a kid, so I want to continue to facilitate those kinds of interactions both within the walls of the science centre and with other things I do.”
While doing her field work in High Park, Guy initiated a Junior Bat Biologist Program in collaboration with the High Park Nature Centre. She approached the centre with an idea to expand their adult program to reach a younger audience. From June to August, the Junior Bat Biologist program allows youth to operate bat detection equipment and teaches them the process of data collection and bat analysis.
Despite her many successes, Guy explains that her identity as a woman of colour made her experience in science “a little bit more challenging,” as it provoked a mental barrier that she had to overcome. Guy emphasizes the importance of visible representation, because she didn’t realize women of colour worked in the field of ecology until she became involved with the community herself.
“When I would sit in my undergraduate classes and look at who was teaching my ecology courses, we would see a lot of one type of person,” reflects Guy. “I think that sometimes it’s difficult, whether for people of colour, or people from different socioeconomic status, or those who are first in their families to pursue a university degree. It’s hard to see yourself doing something in an environment where you don’t have a relatable role model. Getting into ecology, mentally, it was a little difficult, because I didn’t see a whole lot of black ecologists.”
During her undergrad, Guy worked at the Ontario Science Centre, had a full course load, and paddled as a competitive dragon boat racer. She reveals that her key to maintaining a work-life balance is “staying busy and finding your sense of community.”
“Sense of community varies for everyone. My sense of community was always through physical activity. When I paddled, my team was my sense of community. I don’t compete anymore but now I rock climb. Twice a week for two hours, I book it off in my planner and I go climbing with my rock-climbing partners. I get to talk to people about different things, and hear about different stuff,” Guy explains.
Although, as Guy notes, some young women of colour may be apprehensive about pursuing a science-based career. She recommends networking and reaching out to the role models around them. Guy suggests sending emails and explains that other women in STEM are receptive to helping those who may be dealing with the same obstacles.