An Insight into the STEM Field with Forest Sciences Graduate, Sally Ou

From an impressive academic background in genetics to inspiring the next generation of young scientists, UBC Forestry Bachelor of Forest Sciences graduate, Sally Ou, shares her story on what drew her to the STEM field, the challenges and her advice for incoming students.

Read her story below.

Sally Ou, Forest Sciences Graduate

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself!

“My name is Sally! If you ask anyone, they will likely say, ‘you can hear her before you see her.’  I graduated from UBC Forest Sciences with a specialization in genetics in 2017! I also did my undergraduate thesis under the supervision of Dr. Sally Aitken! If I am not found at the hospital volunteering or working then I am teaching somewhere within BC. If I am not working or teaching then you can find me travelling, hiking, biking and eating. Through travelling, I can spend quality time with my family and friends, but most of all, learn something new or simply relax!

I also ask, ‘why’ or ‘how’ very often like, ‘how can I cool down my house this summer without using a single drop of energy’. This then led me to think about the albedo effect, which then led me to cover my house in white tarter sheets. This just shows how STEM can be applied to our everyday life. Some solutions can be expensive but if you get creative enough, it may cost you little to nothing.”

Q: What drew you to the UBC Forestry Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Forest Sciences program? What pushed you to enter the STEM field?

“Anyone who knows me knows that my grandma has been the biggest impact to my education and my career. My grandma moved to Canada in the early 1980s and unlike most Asian grandparents of her time, my grandma encouraged me to study and take my study as far as possible. When my grandma began to slowly fade due to a genetic disease, I began wanting to enter the STEM field even more to find a solution to everything my grandma was experiencing but before I could, I began to suffer from the same disease as her.

Long story short, Forestry Bachelor of Science I have always had a passion for climate change, our ecosystem, medicine and genetics. When I was applying for university, it was my STEM teachers who have taught me for 5 years in a row, who encouraged me to go into UBC Forestry Bachelor of Science in Forest sciences, rather than Bachelor of Science. Forest Sciences taught me so much more than textbook sciences, it taught me how to appreciate and protect our ecosystem. It taught me how to learn outdoors, apply everything I have learnt to my everyday life and into healthcare.”

Q: What were some of your favourite courses and areas/topics of study?

“There are so many courses and topics I enjoyed during my undergraduate. My top two courses I really enjoyed were second-year biology taught by Dr. Sally Aitken, she was the reason why I studied genetics. She not only did lectures but she would often take us out into the forest to learn hands-on. In addition, she is often teaching her students how to apply everything we learn to our everyday life. Dr. Sally Aitken made me look forward to her class and every second I got to learn from her, I would think to myself, ‘tell me more!!’

The second course I really loved was Fall Camp which everyone has to take in Forest Science in third year! The reason why I loved this course so much was because we were in the middle of nowhere up at Gavin’s lake where there was no phone signal! Every morning, I would wake up at 6 AM to enjoy the sunrise and the fresh air. Did you know that our sunset in the city is colourful due to pollution? Up in Gavin’s lake, the sunset was blue skies and golden. I made lifelong friends through fall camp because it was just us and the forest.”

Q: What were some of your most memorable experiences throughout your Forestry journey?

“My most memorable experiences throughout my Forestry journey are the staff and my peers. Forestry isn’t a big faculty! Everyone knew everyone’s name and everyone was always ready to help each other. The professors in forestry are outstanding! They care for our well-being more than our success and they always make time to help you and get to know you! Before entering university, many people warned me that no one will remember me, but this wasn’t the case for me. My professors and TA were always aware of each and every student’s needs. In addition, our counsellors were always encouraging! My peers and I never missed a single class of ours because we were always looking forward to learning from our professors! When I failed my first year of university due to my health and other matters, my professors and counsellors were beyond encouraging! Even when I leave for a year, every so and then, they will check on me! Upon my return to UBC for my third year, they never saw me less because of my failure. If anything, my experience in first and second year gave me all the tools I needed to succeed through my education journey! Hence why, I always tell people, ‘mistakes and failures always give you more tools to navigate anything and everything than your success.’ After all, success is only a destination while mistakes are the journey!  My success at UBC was made possible because of my professors and the entire Forestry team.”

Q: What are you doing now? How has your Forestry experience helped you to bring you where you are today?

“I am currently working with Fraser Health and I am a STEM educator at Science World. I am also a volunteer instructor at Genome BC and Let’s Talk Science. I am a patient advisor at Patient Voice. I also volunteer on a weekly basis at VGH and Burnaby Hospital. Yes, I volunteer a lot because only so much impact can be done by a professional! Volunteering gives me an opportunity to give back and impact in a different way in STEM. Through volunteering, I am able to reach more people and hear their concerns, then as a professional, I can work towards how I can help my community with their concerns.

The degree I have obtained has helped me in many ways. How does the green space around us impact our health? Do you think our ecosystem plays a big role in our mental health? How do our actions impact our ecosystem health? What is the relationship between our ecosystem and our health? What can we do in the field of STEM that can help combat climate change? These are the questions I challenge my colleagues and students to think about every day. However, my favourite question I like to ask all my students about their creative ideas is, ‘how does this idea of yours impact the green space around you and global warming?’  Through my education and my passion, I have been able to integrate forestry and medicine together. No matter which field of work you are in, you will find yourself asking, ‘okay how will this impact our ecosystem? How can I make this more green-friendly? How would this impact human beings?’ Everyone has an amazing life-changing world, but we need to take actions to positively impact our climate through the work we do every day.”

Q: What are your experiences being a woman in STEM? Where do you find inspiration? 

“As a woman in STEM, I often am asked by students, ‘can I be like you one day?’ The truth to every young woman out there, ‘if I can do it, you can too!’ As a woman, a woman of colour and a woman in STEM, I challenge myself to continue to serve my community through education to nurture and provide young girls, women and anyone the confidence they need to succeed in STEM. 

Another important thing about being a woman in STEM is being able to show young scientists that you can combine your passions and you are never limited! Everything in this world is interconnected, maybe decades ago many people didn’t think health and climate change are linked but through many breakthroughs in STEM, we now know it is!

My patients and my students are my inspiration. Despite the fact that many of my patients are often presenting health issues, they often also talk about climate change. Moreover, today’s generations are even more observant than I ever remember myself being when I was their age. My 8-year-old nephew asked me in Summer 2021, ‘why is it that we are experiencing a heat dome? Is it because of climate change? What is climate change? Why do I see scientists talking about how climate change impacts our health.’ My grandma is the reason why I entered STEM but is it the people I get to help every day that inspires me to continue to work. In life, you will always encounter many ups and downs, but if you are genuine to everyone, then everyone will find you inspiring as they are to you.”

Q: What advice do you have for incoming students aspiring to pursue a STEM field?

“Through a decade of being in the STEM field, my biggest advice for anyone who aspires to pursue a STEM field is to treat everyone the same. No matter what your goals are, the one thing you should work on is shaping who you are. After working with millions of people (patients, students, colleagues etc), the ones I have seen to succeed are the people who are genuine! If you genuinely care and have put effort into your thesis, your supervisor will help you succeed. If you genuinely care for your team, your team will take care of you too. If you genuinely love your work, your actions will speak for themselves.  Your attitude is everything! Don’t worry about how people react to you because you can never control how they react, but you can control how you respond to them. Whenever I lack something in life or I am being treated negatively, I work with more patience, compassion, harder, empathy, passion, and more.

Never fear to ask questions, the only way to build your bank of knowledge is to ask questions and to stay curious! If you want to improve on your skills in anything or who you are, then consistently ask for feedback! Every door that opens, believe that there is a reason why it showed up to your doorstep, take that opportunity! Something I really have learnt through all my experiences is that mistakes are the most valuable thing in life because mistakes are how we find millions of solutions to how something works or does not work.

Nonetheless, laugh tons! STEM is a very very stressful field of work but through laughing and feeling relaxed, it is the best attitude to find a solution to what you are so passionate about.

One last tip, take care of your team and your team will take care of you.”

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