STEM POWER: Sarah (Sally) Otto

B.C.'s Most Influential Women - Theoretical Biology

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Otto

Professor of zoology and director, Biodiversity Research Centre, UBC; Canada Research Chair in Theoretical and Experimental Evolution

A dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who has a BSc and a PhD from Stanford University and did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Edinburgh; and UBC, Sally Otto originally enrolled in genetic engineering because she mistakenly thought it would involve mathematics. Fortunately, mentors pointed her in the right direction so she could combine her interests in math and biology. “The biology is where the questions are,” Otto says. “I’m driven by the questions from biology. The math is the tool I use to solve the problems.”

Otto develops and analyzes mathematical models to study how species and organisms change over time to determine when and which evolutionary transitions are possible. She’s also director of the Liber Ero Fellowship Program, which supports early-career scientists to conduct and communicate research on conservation and management issues relevant to Canada. In 2006 she co-founded the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. Otto was named a 2011 MacArthur Fellow, and in 2015 she received the Sewall Wright Award for fundamental contributions to the unification of biology from the American Society of Naturalists.

Now that she is well established, her reputation is strong enough to overcome gender-related biases. But earlier in her career, the biggest challenges Otto faced were underexpectations: assumptions about her math abilities, or crediting of her ideas and papers to a supervisor. To establish her credentials, she will talk about how she has done a PhD, has written a number of papers and loves technical work. “By starting conversations that way, you can project how you want people to react to you.”

How can we get more women into STEM?

The impression that being a scientist will mean no time for a life or a family discourages some women, in Otto’s experience. “As a role model, I want to make it clear that that’s not true,” she states. “I’m on a soccer team. I belong to a book club. I have a child. I have a garden, and yet I am a devoted scientist.” She also thinks that as a society, we need to make it easier for women who have children to continue in or return to STEM fields.