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Joann Whalen

Professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences,
McGill University
Joann Whalen headshot
Joann Whalen headshot
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I teach advanced courses on how to manage soils to produce healthy, nutritious food and maintain healthy ecosystem functions.

About me

I was born/grew up in: I was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, and grew up in Quispamsis in the same province.

I now live in: Quebec

I completed my training/education at: After graduating from Kennebecasis Valley High School, I obtained a B.Sc. in Agricultural Chemistry from Dalhousie University (formerly known as Nova Scotia Agricultural College). I then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Renewable Resources at McGill University. Finally, I completed my studies with a PhD. in Environmental Science from Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio, USA.

What I do at work

I teach advanced courses on how to manage soils. This course looks at how to produce healthy, nutritious food and maintain healthy ecosystems. As a university professor I also direct a research program on soil health. In this program, we study agricultural systems in Canada and in the province Quebec in particular. We also  study agricultural systems in developing countries.

On an average working day, I read, revise and edit scientific articles. I also write scientific texts. In addition, I check the procedures for carrying out experiments and data analysis. I also check the work of other scientists and scientific trainees. Sometimes, I advise the authors to redo their experiment or propose an alternative explanation for their results. Similarly, when I write scientific texts, I also rely on other scientists to check my work. We call this process "peer review". This means the entire scientific community continually checks each other's work.

In addition to reading, my job requires me to write scientific texts. I have to explain the problem, and logically organize the proposed solution. I also develop my hypotheses and design appropriate scientific experiments. Students and research assistants do most of the practical work, but I also go to the field to take measurements and make observations. We work as a team. Every staff member is responsible for specific tasks and working together to find solutions. 

I use my STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) background every day in my work. Although the international scientific community communicates in English, we speak both French and English at work. Sometimes international colleagues bring numerical data and results in other languages (Mandarin, Arabic, Portuguese, German). Numerical data is easily understood, as the numbers have the same meaning in all languages.

My career path is

I have always been interested in science in general, and chemistry in particular. However, chemistry is a very broad field. It includes theorists, experimenters and even chemical engineers. When I was in high school, I thought it was important to specialize in one branch of chemistry. My reasoning was that this would give me better job opportunities after I graduate. I was already interested in agriculture because my family was involved in it.

When I was studying at Dalhousie University, there were about 10 people in my program. This meant that each of us had several offers after graduation. Thanks to the offers I received, I was able to move on with postgraduate studies. My master’s and doctorate degrees are based on original scientific research. They enabled me to solve agricultural chemistry problems that had not been done before. It was a real challenge, but also a great satisfaction. This is because I love solving problems and sharing my solutions with others.

One of the things I didn't realize when I was in high school, is how much time scientists spend on communication. A scientist’s job is to take complex ideas and change them into simple concepts. Scientists also need to be able to explain how their results are relevant to other people in the world.

I am motivated by

Having the opportunity to connect soil health to human health is what motivates me. My career is rewarding because I get to interact with so many wonderful people. This includes both scientists and non-scientists, in Quebec, elsewhere in Canada, and around the world. Science is a truly inclusive global activity. Over the course of my career, I have been invited to travel and speak with scientists in over 20 countries. This includes places in America, Europe, Africa and Asia. It is always a great pleasure to make new scientific friends who have common interests. I have also had the opportunity to talk about soil health, agriculture and food security with government officials in Canada and the United States. My job requires me to be an ambassador for soil health and agriculture. This mission is pretty fun and easy because I'm helping to protect the world’s soils for our future global food security.

How I affect peoples’ lives

I am enthusiastic about working in agriculture because food is essential to life. It is an important element in human cultures and societies. Agronomists like me believe that everyone should eat fresh, safe, healthy, nutritious food and have clean drinking water. Soil is where food grows. That is why I think we need to act first to protect soil health. This helps support sustainable agriculture. Soil is also important for filtering and cleaning water before it enters the underground water reservoirs. This is where we get our drinking water. My work on soil and sustainable agriculture is vital to the health of people and the planet. This makes my job important and rewarding.

Outside of work I

I enjoy playing the piano and reading for fun. I enjoy playing chess and board games with my daughters. I also enjoy baking. My family and I enjoy recreational sports, including tennis, swimming and soccer.

My advice to others

There are lots of opportunities for you! The best way to stay ready is to train yourself to adopt a good attitude and put good effort into the tasks you are given. I would also advise young people to focus on their strengths. For example, if you enjoy leading and are good at it, keep practicing your leadership skills. There are many strengths you can work on. This includes public speaking, flexibility, and teamwork. Communication and time management are also other personal skills to work on.

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • History
  • Foreign languages
  • Math
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Music
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Always wanted to be outside
  • Liked helping people
  • Played on a sports team
  • Engaged in volunteer activities
  • Liked reading
  • Felt great satisfaction in getting good grades
  • Learned best by doing

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