Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace (PhD) is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning in the College of Arts and Science. (Photo: University of Saskatchewan)

Women in Leadership: Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace works toward a more sustainable future

On Earth Day, the USask water expert discusses the Sustainable Development Goals and how individuals can improve water and energy efficiency.

The College of Arts and Science is publishing a new online series called Women in Leadership featuring researchers who are making a difference at the University of Saskatchewan and beyond. The series begins with an interview with Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace (PhD), a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning. The Women in Leadership series is an initiative of the Office of the Vice-Dean Faculty Relations and the communications office in the College of Arts and Science.

College of Arts and Science: You are an expert on water, climate change and waterborne disease who serves as the associate director of the Global Water Futures program and associate professor in the Department of Geography and Planning in the College of Arts and Science. You have also played a key role in the Women + Water lecture series. What inspires you to do this work?

Corinne Schuster-Wallace: I grew up on the coast in Wales, so water was always a large part of my life. I also worked at a pharmacy when I was in high school and became interested in people’s health and well-being. But it wasn’t until after my PhD, when I became a consultant for part two of the Ontario Provincial Crown Inquiry into the Walkerton tragedy, that my two interests really came together. Then, when I worked for the United Nations, a friend and mentor, the late Professor Emerita Susan Watt, challenged me to consider the specific needs of women and girls when it comes to access to water and sanitation.

I am inspired by the wonderful women and men that I have met on my journey. A lot of why I am where I am and doing what I do now is a result of those individuals and being open to new opportunities. Seeing the inequities that exist, particularly in rural, remote and Indigenous communities around the world, have been the catalyst for understanding and helping to solve these inequities generally and specifically as they relate to women and girls. The Women + Water lecture series began with an event that I put together with Drs. Bharadwaj and Bradford in recognition of the first Gender Equality Week in September 2018. It received such strong feedback from women young professionals that, with the help of Holly Anand, a PhD candidate, I turned it into an annual series that has just wrapped up for 2022. 

College of Arts and Science: Why is it important to you to take on these leadership roles?

Corinne Schuster-Wallace: Many of these opportunities arise out of the work that I am doing at the time. I take roles on because it means that I can do more towards ensuring equitable and sustainable water access, which in turn means improved health and well-being. I am also supported in the roles I take on by people with the same drive and commitment to making a difference. As a transdisciplinary researcher, I engage with people from many different disciplines and with community leaders and members to ensure that research is inclusive and supporting community needs. Connecting across disciplines, knowledge systems, countries and institutions is essential for equitable and sustainable changes in research, policy and practice.

College of Arts and Science: What barriers have you overcome as a leader? How did you overcome these obstacles?

Corinne Schuster-Wallace: There are always barriers, and I think that the biggest ones are the ones that come from within ourselves. We need to have the same confidence in ourselves as others do. Having said that, there are always people who make assumptions based on identity—people who talk over me or who refuse to hear me because I am a woman. I have been able to take advantage of some great training courses designed for women leaders and for interrupting bias. I have strong women colleagues who I lean on for support and talk through experiences and solutions with. It is not good enough for people to recognize unconscious biases. All of us have a responsibility to create supportive, safe and inclusive environments for everyone. It is not always easy to speak out when it is happening to me, but there are more and more men on their own learning journeys who have been great allies and supporters of me and my women colleagues.

College of Arts and Science: What advice do you have for people of all genders who want to support women in the workplace and women in leadership positions?

Corinne Schuster-Wallace: Learn how to recognize and interrupt bias. Don’t be afraid to speak out. Learn how to create inclusive environments alongside your colleagues and for those you supervise—not just in the workplace, but in the field—and in your research practices and the dissemination of your research. And remember to extend this support and inclusivity to all equity-deserving groups. 

College of Arts and Science: “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Water Unites Us” was this year’s theme of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. On Feb. 11, you delivered remarks to the United Nations about the progress that has been made since the inaugural International Day of Women and Girls in Science, as well as the work that remains. What were your key messages to the UN?

 Corinne Schuster-Wallace: My key messages were:

  • Commit to evidence-informed decisions and solutions that build from disaggregated data and that facilitate a better understanding of differential costs, benefits and tradeoffs associated with our water resources, particularly with respect to marginalized people within equity-deserving groups;
  • Braid traditional knowledge, local knowledge and modern science to implement the best water solutions;
  • Strengthen collaborations between researchers, communities and policy-makers while emphasizing participation of people from equity-deserving groups;
  • Enhance and better disseminate tools and models that support water research, prediction and management, and the capacities and resources required for their use, with an emphasis on advanced training of women and girls and people in other equity-deserving groups;
  • Commit to increasing numbers of targeted hiring protocols for people in equity-deserving groups, such as the one established by the National Hydrological Service of Canada; and,
  • Embed the connection between the climate crisis and the water crisis more explicitly in all policies and strategies and embed (gender) equity, along with health and well-being, into water policies and strategies.

College of Arts and Science: What can we all do to support women and girls in science and water-related research?

Corinne Schuster-Wallace: Commit to educating yourself. Create space and opportunities. Invest in professional and personal development as well as educational and degree requirements. Consider your ability to mentor women and girls of all ages and stages. Change conversations so that, hopefully, we change attitudes. 

College of Arts and Science: April 22 is Earth Day. From your perspectives as a scientist and a water researcher, what advice do you have for people who want to work toward a more sustainable and healthy future?

Corinne Schuster-Wallace: All of us should want to work to a more sustainable future, as this is the key to a healthy future. This includes holding local, regional and national leaders to account. Last year was unprecedented in terms of the temperature and water extremes that were experienced in multiple regions across Canada. People lost loved ones, possessions, land and livelihoods. The impacts on mental and physical health are starting to be assessed, but we know from previous research that adverse health impacts as a result of extreme events can last for multiple years. Action is no longer a luxury, but an imperative.

For those who want to get engaged, check out the different Sustainable Development Goal targets and see which ones you are supporting with your research or in practice. The important goals to me are #3 (Health), #5 (Gender Equity), #6 (Water and Sanitation) and #13 (Climate Action). Another way to act is to share what you are doing with others and learn from their actions. This is why my colleague, Robert Sandford, and I have taken the lead on developing a Canada Water Decade Action website as part of the United Nations Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development (2018-2028). As faculty, all of us should be including principles of sustainable development, or linkages to the Sustainable Development Goals, in our courses. As a campus community, we need to implement the University of Saskatchewan’s Sustainability Strategy (2021-2030).    

While the greatest impact will be from key economic sectors, as individuals we can commit to improved water and energy efficiency in our homes and workplace. Those of us who eat a lot of meat can reduce our water footprints by not eating meat one day a week. We can commit to reducing food wastage and use a refillable water bottle. These actions may not add up to much on an individual basis, but if everyone makes these commitments, then we can start making a difference. 

Article re-posted on April 22.
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