Profile: Dr. Lillian Dyck
By Elizabeth Maier
with permission from
Conversation with Dr. Lillian Dyck leaves you with lots to think about. She is proud of her accomplishments as a scientist, but humble about her own position as a role model for young Aboriginal women in Canada. One gets an immediate sense of the strength of character it has taken to achieve what she has in her career. There were few women in the sciences when Dr. Lillian Dyck entered into the discipline of Neuro-science and none who achieved a Doctorate and a position as a top researcher and educator in her field as she did. It has not happened without difficulties and hard times. She points out that life circumstances kept her from recognizing her Native roots until she was in her thirties, but she feels these influences have always been there. They are fixed within an understanding that enables her to pursue her career and life interests with a wider range of knowledge. Drawing on the inner strength that comes from the deep and rich spirituality of her dual heritage, she feels that the struggle has indeed been worth it. Certainly the past year has been an exciting one for Dr. Lillian Dyck.
On March 12, 1999 the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation honoured her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr. Dyck explained how excited she felt when she got the call saying she had won. She said the hardest part was that she was only allowed to tell her closest family members. For over a month she was not allowed to share her news with her friends and co-workers. It really got difficult when John Kim Bell and a camera crew showed up at her office to film her in her work environment and she still couldn't tell anyone what was going on. They filmed her working in the lab, walking around on campus and at her request, at Wanuskewin.
Dr. Dyck has been at the University of Saskatchewan for close to thirty years as an undergrad student, through her Master's program to obtaining her Doctorate. It seemed a natural thing for her to pursue her research career where her formal education took place. She mentioned how many things have changed over the years and said, "When I first started here, and I think that this holds true for a lot of women, I wanted to do something where I was working with people where I might make a difference." Dr. Dyck described the studies she did around alcohol metabolism in different races. She said that this appealed to her in part because "there were a lot of things written about how alcohol affected Indian and Chinese people." Her interest in this area was in part due to her own mixed heritage. Her father was Chinese and her mother a Cree woman from Gordon's Reserve.
When asked if she experienced racism as a child, she said that she was not really aware of it when she was young. She felt that perhaps because her last name was Quan, and because her mother told her brother and her not to tell anyone that they were part Cree, they were in fact shielded from possible incidents of racism. A statement she feels, in retrospect, says an awful lot about life in Saskatchewan at that time. She talked about "pretending to be only Chinese," and how she felt later when she got to know more about her mother's family.
Dr. Dyck discussed the struggles she encountered in her field as a female student and scientist at the University of Saskatchewan. Recalling the idealism of the late sixties, and her admiration for the Human Rights Movement as she got older, Dr. Dyck mentioned her involvement in the women's organizations on campus. She said that the women's organization provided support for her struggles in being a minority as a woman, and as an Aboriginal Chinese woman in her field.
Recalling the early difficulties and the times that she wanted to walk away and just quit, Dr. Dyck said that thinking about her mother kept her going. Although her mother died in 1956 when she herself was only 10, she said that it was her mother's strength that kept her on task. She felt that if her mother could survive Residential School experiences and "the incredible racism so obvious at that time, if she could overcome what she did in her lifetime, I'd be damned if I was going to let anything push me out of my job."
She said though, that finding the balance between the gains and the losses in any of life situations often comes out of the difficult times. One such time was the recognition from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation after some hard times in her work environment.
Describing how she felt when she received the Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. Dyck said. "When I walked across that stage, I felt so good. I knew that this was the sort of thing that you can't consciously plan. I had struggled for so long and this validated my struggle. I kept asking myself why I was in the position I was in, and winning the award helped clarify that." She explained that her gender and her heritage had limited her in some people's eyes and it made the work in her field extremely difficult. Receiving the award helped put things into perspective. She said "In the bigger picture, somone has to go through this, so that the ones coming along after would have things a little easier."
Dr. Dyck talked about the combination of biochemical medicine and the day to day issues that influence our mental health and sense of well being. She felt that her Aboriginal roots helped her understand and practice the holistic approach in treating the whole person. Dr. Dyck explained how biomedicine is focused on genetic causes and often ignores the environmental (personal-day-to-day) circumstances that affect our health. This type of thinking often places her in difficult circumstances in the fairly rigid field of Biochemical Psychiatric research. She says, "I was always aware of the differences in how I approach my work compared to some of my colleagues." She discussed the ups and downs of working in a predominantly male field where value-laden assumptions caused her ideas to be ignored and discounted as being unscientific.
Recognizing that there are cultural and gender issues that influence the individual scientist and guides scientific research is an important aspect of Dr. Dyck's approach to a brighter future. She sees more well-rounded medical and biochemical research incorporating holistic approaches that would include the traditional medicines practiced in both of her cultures. In an article published in the Native Studies Review in 1996, Dr. Dyck strongly acknowledges the difficulties that the Western Hemisphere has in accepting that scientific knowledge is "based on personal and cultural beliefs." Often frustrated by the fact that not too many people in her field want to talk about these issues, Dr. Dyck firmly believes that it is the connection to her spiritual belief systems that will provide the impetus for her to continue her work.
She urges young people to continue on with their education. She says that although it has been tough at times, "I have never regretted the experiences I have had. The financial independence gained in a well paying job allows for the freedom to choose the things you wish to pursue." She encourages more young women to choose sciences because the career choices are very diverse. She also encourages students to "trust yourself in your choices, and go forward with what you know is right. Talk to someone who has been there and stay connected to who you are."
Dr. Lillian Dyck attended the University of Saskatchewan throughout her Under-graduate, Masters degree and her Doctorate, which she received in 1981. She currently lives in Saskatoon with her son Nathan who recently graduated from the College of Engineering.
Two additional articles by Eagle Feather News:
An article that appeared in the Saskatchewan Sage:
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