March 12, 1999 Volume 6, Number 12

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NRU researcher draws on bicultural roots as role model

Dr. Lillian Dyck in her NRU office. Her sense of who she is, as a feminist and an Aboriginal, has had an impact on her research.

When Dr. Lillian Eva Dyck, of the Neuropsychiatry Research Unit, crosses the stage in Regina tomorrow (March 12) to accept an Aboriginal Achievement Award for Science and Technology, she'll be thinking of her mother, who grew up on the Gordon Reserve, near Punnichy.

"Using my second name is in her honor, because Eva was her name. She had a difficult life, especially because, in the residential school she attended, she was prohibited from acknowledging her cultural identity.

"Since racism was such a reality when we were growing up, she encouraged my brother, Winston Quan, and me to tell people we were Chinese so that we didn't have to admit that we are also Indian. Now I am proud of my Indian heritage."

Lillian (as she prefers) will be accepting the national award along with 13 other recipients, including fashion designer Dorothy Grant and Canada's high commissioner to South Africa James Bartleman.

After graduating with a PhD from the U of S in 1981, Lillian began working at the NRU. She's now part of a team of scientists studying the role that enzymes and drug metabolism play in psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.

Hooked on science

From elementary school on, she says she was hooked on science. However, she believes that there are many things the University could do to improve the first-year experience and undergraduate science in general.

"I came to the University as a high achiever with a great interest in doing well. Yet I found many of my science classes awful. Although I wanted to become a biologist, I hated the emphasis on a rigid memorizing of content so that it could be reported back on exams.

"In labs, there was a greater insistence on using 2H pencils and drawing parallel lines than on any sense of discovery. Unfortunately, I don't think things have changed that much since 1963.

However, her brother helped her get her first science job working in a chemistry lab during the summer. It was while doing lab work that she realized how much appeal science had for her.

She says if there's one thing most students - and especially non-mainstream students - need it's someone to encourage them to keep going despite the difficulties.

"No one makes it on his or her own. Everyone needs encouragement and mentoring. It's especially important that people who come from non-mainstream backgrounds find that one person who will be their advocate."

Lillian says she tries her best to be that advocate both for her graduate students and for elementary and high school students she visits across the province.

As in everything, she approaches the task with practical realism.

"Sometimes I despair at the slow progress we make while working through equity committees. Now I find it's more rewarding to work directly with young students. I can remember when I was in their shoes. As a so-called model of success, I try to let them see in me a part of themselves."

And she knows that change isn't easy.

"After all, you can't just drop students onto the campus and expect them to adjust overnight. So you have to ask yourself: What is the best way to effect actual change? It's easy to come up with initiatives; it's finding something that works that's hard."

She often comes back to the idea of a caring university community, where professors take an active interest in the welfare of students.

"Too often, it's students who are blamed. For example, when I was a first-year student, 50% of my calculus class failed, as did 50% of my first-year biology class. Had I known these statistics ahead of time, I don't think I would have attempted them.

"The failure rate is still high now - 36 years later! And many profs still blame the students."

Support for the underdog

Lillian feels that her inveterate support for the underdog has much to do with her experiences growing up.

She and her family lived in a number of small towns in Saskatchewan and Alberta and although she and her brother were engaged students, neither really fit in.

"The 1950s were a time when there was actually a hierarchy of racism, when being Chinese was difficult enough. But my parents wanted to spare us the extra burden of being Indian."

But she says it wasn't until she became Dr. Dyck that she felt strong enough to self-identify publicly as an Indian woman.

"Having been raised in white, mainstream culture left me with a sense of shame about being Indian."

Because her mother didn't feel she could live her culture, Lillian says she didn't know much about her Cree heritage until about 10 years ago.

"It wasn't until after 1981 that I really came to know relatives such as my late uncle Senator Hilliard McNab, who was very active in the FSIN and was eventually awarded an Order of Canada."

Most satisfying of all to Lillian is that she has discovered that she has been able to synthesize her Cree and Chinese heritages to find points of similarity.

"The balance and harmony stressed in Taoism, for example, is similar to what I've experienced in Cree spirituality. I feel that my heritage is interconnected, although I'm still trying to integrate my Scottish great-grandfather into my scheme of things."

Meanwhile, she believes that her sense of who she is, as a feminist and an Aboriginal, has had an impact on her research.

"I've always had strong opinions and beliefs, which have enabled me to resist orthodoxies. I think I've been a better scientist because of that. When you work in a group, there's sometimes pressure to conform. But scientists should always be skeptical and questioning - aware of their subjective biases."

One area of research she says she felt personally obliged to do relates to whether racial differences affect how the body metabolizes alcohol.

"The assumption has always been that the 'sensitivity' of Indians to alcohol was biochemical. Although my sample study was small and the results therefore not definitive, I found no difference between Cree Indian and Caucasian subjects."

It's in her questioning of scientific norms as well as her determination to act as advocate for those with an unequal voice that most qualify her as a role model - and which justify her late mother's certain pride in her.

- Sigrid Klaus

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