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Maydianne Andrade: a champion for change

The evolutionary ecologist made a name for herself with a headline-grabbing discovery early in her career. Now the University of Toronto Scarborough professor is using her platform to support the next generation of Black scientists.
JUN 21 2023

Maydianne Andrade: a champion for change

The evolutionary ecologist made a name for herself with a headline-grabbing discovery early in her career. Now the University of Toronto Scarborough professor is using her platform to support the next generation of Black scientists.


When Maydianne Andrade gives workshops to her colleagues in academia about equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in higher education, she starts with the facts. She presents data that show, for example, the underrepresentation of women and visible minorities in Canadian universities, and evidence of a statistical bias against women and racialized people in job application processes. It’s a way to cut to the point: structural racism and bias are deeply rooted in academia. Then, Dr. Andrade makes it personal, sharing some of her own experience with prejudice as a Black woman in science.

“They have to see the data to see that there is an issue,” she explains. “But after that, it is really the stories they connect to.” The data speaks to researchers in a language they can quickly grasp, while the stories appeal to their humanity. It’s an approach, she says, that has resonated even more with audiences since the death of George Floyd in 2020 because it presses the point that “this is urgent, we’re talking about real people here.”

The personal part of the presentation begins with what Dr. Andrade calls her “iceberg slide.” It’s a snapshot of what she’s lived through in a career spanning more than 20 years in science. She recalls a time in high school when her dream of becoming a doctor was met with, “Have you considered being a nurse?” The moment was echoed later in her life when, as a PhD student, she was asked if she wouldn’t rather work as a field assistant than lead her own research project. She presents these examples of inherent, often unconscious, bias in order to make it visible to an audience who might not otherwise see it and challenge it. She presents these moments in the hopes that racialized students and early-career professionals won’t continue to experience them.

By the time Dr. Andrade received her PhD in neurobiology and behaviour from Cornell University in 2000, she had already made a novel discovery: male Australian redback spiders who are eaten by their partners during mating will produce more offspring than males who go uneaten. The conclusion countered a long-standing assumption that cannibalized males were weak and shows that the drive to reproduce often trumps the individual’s survival instinct. The finding and her subsequent work landed her on the Popular Science “Brilliant 10” list in 2005, made headlines in outlets ranging from Current Science to Chatelaine, and gave the evolutionary ecologist the springboard to become one of the world’s leading experts on cannibalistic spiders.

Dr. Andrade is now a professor of biological sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she has also served as special adviser to the dean on inclusive recruitment and equity education, as well as vice-dean of faculty affairs, equity and success, and held the Canada Research Chair in integrative behavioural ecology. Having observed how issues of racism and bias in academia are discussed in countries like the U.S., Dr. Andrade became curious about what things looked like on the home front. What policies existed for institutions looking to create a diverse academic environment, and how were those in charge working to ensure that the policies in place were doing what they were supposed to?

Turning the TIDE

Dr. Andrade started digging into the research on implicit bias around 2010. She recalls reading everything she could find to help explain the persistent lack of representation that she had observed at all levels of the university. That year, she was a guest speaker at a high school Black History Month event where she talked to students about what she had been reading. It occurred to Dr. Andrade then that if this research was new to her, many of her colleagues probably weren’t aware of it either.

“I did start doing small sessions, mostly just for scientists, where I would introduce them to some of the data,” Dr. Andrade says. “The response was mixed. Some people refused to believe it. So my ability to make the case just got stronger.” Dr. Andrade was, after all, a researcher talking to other researchers. She was used to building a case based on observation, empirical evidence and analysis. Her colleagues were more inclined to be open to those familiar rhythms.

These small meetings were the grassroots beginnings of the Toronto Initiative for Diversity and Excellence (TIDE), a coalition of senior faculty volunteers across disciplines at the U of T campuses who are dedicated to research-informed, peer-to-peer education for the advancement of EDI at the institution. Established in 2016, TIDE now delivers workshops to university professors, administrators and staff through U of T’s office of the vice-president and provost as well as the office of the vice-principal, academic, at UTSC, and has hired on support staff to help coordinate the work. In her job as co-chair and senior staff administrator, Dr. Andrade helps to direct TIDE’s overarching goals while also developing new material for presentations, assigning volunteers to sessions, and soliciting funding and support from university administration. She also consults with individual departments that have requested TIDE’s help.

One such request turned into one of TIDE’s clearest achievements to date, according to Dr. Andrade and her co-chair, Bryan Gaensler. In 2022, the department of mechanical and industrial engineering asked for TIDE’s guidance on how to conduct an inclusive and equitable search for new faculty. “Most aspects of engineering have always had a poor gender balance, let alone representation along any other axes,” says Dr. Gaensler, the departing director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at U of T (he leaves U of T for the University of California Santa Cruz this August). “[The department] basically said, ‘All right, well, we’re engineers. Let’s follow the [TIDE] process and see what happens.’”

Greg Jamieson, interim chair of mechanical and industrial engineering, says that Dr. Andrade’s trademark approach helped relieve any anxieties the department had around changing long-established hiring practices. “Maydianne comes forward in a very constructive, non-judgmental, non-pedantic [way],” he says. “[Her] approach feels like … you’ve bought into this idea already, and you’re here to learn how.”

Dr. Andrade and TIDE offered the hiring committee advice ranging from how to write an inclusive job description to thinking intentionally about where job postings were advertised. “Thinking about the language and the [job] ad itself, there’s really good evidence that there are strong patterns of gendered expectations that we code into our language,” says Dr. Andrade. “I think most universities tend to think, ‘If we write it, they will come.’ But in fact, especially for groups who are historically excluded or discriminated against, they’re not going to apply for every job. If you don’t have a reputation, you have to reach out actively and convince them that your department will be a welcoming place for them.”

Dr. Jamieson says that with TIDE’s help, they even changed the way they appraised candidates and reconsidered the number of positions they wanted to fill. The department went on to hire two Black female professors, a first for the department. “There’s a huge advantage if you can haveu this person not be the only Black faculty,” Dr. Jamieson says – another fact he learned from Dr. Andrade and the TIDE team.

Building connections between Black scientists

In 2020, Dr. Andrade expanded the work she was doing dispelling myths and advocating for racialized researchers in academia by helping to create the Canadian Black Scientists Network (CBSN). The organization started as a list of Black Canadian scientists working in higher education compiled in a spreadsheet by Tamara Franz-Odendaal, a professor of biology at Mount Saint Vincent University, and Juliet Daniel, a professor of biology at McMaster University. “[The idea] really came from this isolation of being the only person in the room that looked like you,” says Dr. Franz-Odendaal. “Counter to isolation is the power of networks and empowering one another.”

Dr. Franz-Odendaal and Dr. Daniel connected with Kevin Hewitt, a physics professor at Dalhousie University, Loydie Jerome-Majewska, a biomedical sciences professor at McGill University, and Dr. Andrade to get to work turning the list into a network. The death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests became a tipping point for the group. The names on the spreadsheet grew, and suddenly there was a need for a formal structure. “I could just see what it could be if we had a national-level organization,” says Dr. Andrade.

The organization, now boasting nearly 1,000 members, is an attempt to make visible the growing number of Black Canadians pursuing or possessing advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine/health (STEMM). More specifically, members of CBSN are working to increase enrolment and retention rates for Black youth in STEMM programs, increase representation of Black Canadians in STEMM professions, and advocate for equity in scholarly funding and awards practices. The network has an active social media presence and has so far launched a mentorship program, a member directory, government advocacy campaigns, and a range of programs, including a youth science fair and virtual workshops. The group’s signature event is its annual Black Excellence in STEMM conference, called BE-STEMM.

For its members, CBSN’s biggest payoff is the sense of community it builds. In a field where being the only Black person can feel isolating, CBSN member Paula Littlejohn says the group reminds its members that they are not alone. “We have a Slack channel, we have the website, we have the conference,” says Dr. Littlejohn, listing some of the ways that members keep in touch. “[As a member] you really feel like you’re part of a community and that you can reach out to others for help and guidance.”

Dr. Andrade acknowledges that there has been some progress in terms of gender parity in the sciences. But, she says, most initiatives introduced by university administrators and government have benefited white women. “No one was thinking about anything other than white women, that’s what ‘women’ meant to them,” she says. “So, the fact that racialized people or Indigenous people were also underrepresented, and we’re having various barriers, wasn’t really considered at all.”

The intentional focus on Black scientists and their intersecting identities, whether they are newcomers facing difficulty finding employment in Canada or young scientists who have considered leaving the profession, is what makes CBSN special, and the response from its members has been profound.

“People were crying at the conference,” says Dr. Andrade about the second annual gathering of BE-STEMM, which happened this past February. “This woman sent [us] pictures of her little daughters watching our closing ceremony,” she recalls. “People [were] saying, ‘I’ve never been to a conference where I wasn’t the only [Black] person. I’ve never been to a conference where I’ve heard this many accents among the people who are speaking.’ It was inspiring that it actually made a difference. And it made the work worth it.”

Planning for the future

Dr. Andrade is sitting on a train from Toronto to Ottawa thinking about succession planning. It’s February, she’s just wrapped up BE-STEMM and is on her way to the federal government’s celebrations for Black History Month. Since starting her EDI work, Dr. Andrade has seen significant change, but she’s been at it long enough to know that without long-term leadership and funding, the progress could stall.

“One of my biggest worries is that if I don’t figure out how to stabilize these things, one day we’re going to look back and just go, ‘Oh, that was kind of cool and that happened, but [now] it’s gone,’” she says.

Dr. Andrade co-leads TIDE and CBSN in addition to running a lab, supervising students and being an in-demand contributor to panels, conferences and popular media (she and husband Andrew Mason, also a biology professor, recently appeared on an episode of CBC’s The Nature of Things called “Bug Sex”). She does all that while juggling a personal life that also includes two kids. She has been called a superwoman and a master at having multiple irons in the fire, but these compliments are not particularly appealing to Dr. Andrade.

“It’s not a good sign,” she says. “It’s actually physically and mentally exhausting.”

For now at least, she doesn’t plan on slowing down – not when young Black scientists tell her that BE-STEMM and the CBSN have kept them in the field.

“Those of us who made it through [this] system that starts crushing you from the time of elementary school, we just learned how to do that. [But] there’s a ton of people who could be brilliant scientists who can’t deal with that, or don’t have the resources to,” she says. “What we’re seeing is all these young people who were considering whether they wanted to leave, reconsider.”

Ashley Okwuosa
Ashley Okwuosa is a journalist, researcher and editor based in Toronto.
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  1. Juliet Daniel / June 21, 2023 at 16:29

    Excellent article and delighted to see Professor Andrade and all her identities profiled this way! Congrats Maydianne!

  2. Prof. Jean-Marc Drouet / June 23, 2023 at 10:56

    Yet another UA article related to and promoting the Critical Social Justice ideology.

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