The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Pride in STEM, with Dr. Daniel Gillis, Associate Professor in the School of Computer Science at the University of Guelph.
Dr. Gillis finds himself at the confluence of many communities and uses his background to not just talk about change, but build it! From his work with the Saugeen Ojibway First Nation to being a prominent LGBTQ+ figure creating a space where all of his students and colleagues feel safe, seen, and respected.
Why Did You Choose Your Current Technical Field?
Dr. Gillis My background training is in Mathematics & Statistics (although I’m in the School of Computer Science). I ended up in Mathematics and Statistics because I’ve always been interested in math. As a kid, I often found myself awake at night because I was thinking about patterns in numbers. Ultimately, math and stats provide me the opportunity to connect with so many other researchers – which means I get to participate in so many different types of studies – and learn so much!
In fact, my work in Statistics ultimately led me to a research position with the Saugeen Ojibway First Nations, which in turn led to the creation of a co-sponsored faculty position in the School of Computer Science. And like mathematics and statistics, I’ve found that computer science has opened me up to many more collaborations with researchers from a variety of fields.
What Does a Typical Day or Week Look Like for You as an Associate Professor?
Dr. Gillis My typical day as an Associate Professor in the School of Computer Science generally begins with identifying one or two goals that I want to accomplish, but this completely depends on the time of year. In the fall/winter semester, when I’m usually teaching, most of my days are devoted to what happens in the class and working with community partners. My classes are almost always community-engaged, so a lot of time goes into maintaining relationships while working with students on (often) large social justice challenges such as food insecurity, environmental sustainability, and more. However, between classes and meetings with undergrad students, I also will have numerous meetings with grad students, research assistants (both undergrad and graduate), co-op and/or Mitacs Globalink interns, industry and/or community partners, and colleagues.
There are also service commitments – which have recently included being a member of Senate and Chair of a Senate standing committee, serving on and/or chairing University or College-wide committees, co-chairing the University’s Annual United Way Campaign (which typically raises more than $500 million for our local United Way and community), organizing hackathons, writing reference letters, drafting award nominations, reviewing papers, publishing blog posts, engaging with folks on social media (for outreach purposes), giving public talks, organizing events (such as Pint of Science Guelph or interdisciplinary hackathons), connecting with student groups, and more. I’m almost never bored.
What’s Been Your Greatest Professional Challenge as a Member of the LGBTQ+ Community, and How Did You Overcome It?
Dr. Gillis This is a tough question because I don’t know if there is just one thing, unfortunately. Despite the progress that has been made over the last few decades, there are still many challenges that LGBTQ2S+ members face. And although I am out at work, I still question whether or not it will be safe to share my true self when I meet new people in a professional setting. This comes from many experiences growing up and at work that have left me feeling “less than” and, at times, unsafe. I wrote about this earlier this year on my blog.
Sadly, I worry that much of the progress that has been made in the last few decades pertaining to LGBTQ2S+ rights is at risk because of right wing ideologies. I am deeply troubled by laws that have been proposed and passed recently in the United States that target and harm folks from the LGBTQ2S+ and other equity seeking communities (particularly the trans community) and their allies. And I’m concerned that I’ve seen similar language making its way into Canadian politics.
What Is One Piece of Advice You Can Give to LGBTQ+ Students and Early Career Professionals?
Dr. Gillis If it is safe to do so, and if you have the energy, be out and proud. Students need to see themselves in the academic world, as do our colleagues. I have an amazing and supportive network of colleagues, but there are still colleagues who do not identify as part of the LGBTQ2S+ community who need to see what we bring to the table. And there are also colleagues who aren’t out who need to know that they aren’t alone.
What Are Some Ways Computing Can Aid the LGBTQ+ Communities That You’re Not Currently Seeing in Research or the Market?
Dr. Gillis Computer Science touches so many disciplines and industries. It is inherently diverse in terms of where and how it can be used, and the outputs and contributions it produces – yet it still suffers challenges encouraging members of equity-seeking communities (including the LGBTQ2S+ community) from participating and further retaining them once they have joined. We can’t just create a scholarship or two and expect that to change the landscape of students in the discipline. We need action and policy that promotes diversity and the strength that it brings. We need to create space for communities to form, and we need to foster their growth – so that every person feels that they can contribute. We need to demonstrate to LGBTQ2S+ students that they are part of the Computer Science community, and we need faculty to be true allies.
Beyond this, I would love to see computer science faculty across the country (and beyond) bring real challenges from the community into their classrooms – including challenges faced by local LGBTQ2S+ organizations. I believe that we shouldn’t just be teaching students the technical skills that are necessary for a job in the computer science field – we need to introduce them to the broad array of problems that are out there, and show them how to use their technical skills to build solutions while providing them the opportunity to practice their foundational/transferable skills (such as knowledge mobilization, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, active listening, and more). I have seen the incredibly creative solutions that students in my class have brought to community challenges such as food insecurity, environmental sustainability, education, mental health, and more. I have no doubt that they’d be able to bring the same creative energy to support challenges identified by local LGBTQ2S+ organizations.
Based on Your Personal Experiences, What Is One Step Companies/Universities Can Take To Make Stem More Welcoming and Inclusive for Members of the LGBT+ Community?
Dr. Gillis In the university setting, I think more resources need to be provided to the different units to support initiatives that create a more inclusive space for folks who have been denied equity. I see a lot of work at the administrative level creating 5-year strategic plans (for example) that include justice, equity, diversity, and inclusivity efforts. However, these plans (in my opinion) aren’t converted to action quickly enough – instead, it seems they sit on the shelf having served their purpose of checking a justice/equity/diversity/inclusivity box.
In short – the policies can’t just be equity theatre. They need to be actioned in a way that is sustainable and that fundamentally reimagines/renovates the way we currently research and teach. And I believe the lack of action in this space is partly due to a lack of resources which means staff and faculty who are already stretched too thin are tasked with doing even more. And while this is absolutely important work that needs to be done, we can’t expect change to occur if those who are tasked with implementing administrative policy within a unit are overworked.
About Dr. Daniel Gillis:
Dr. Gillis is a cis gay man with he/him pronouns and is out at work. He has a BSc and MSc in Mathematics, and a PhD in Statistics. He received all of my degrees from the University of Guelph, where he is currently employed as an Associate Professor with tenure.
While his background is in mathematics and statistics, he is a faculty member in the School of Computer Science. He has four research programs (ecological and public health risk assessment, community-engaged software design, transdisciplinary pedagogy in higher education, and bridging the digital divide) which are interdisciplinary and community-engaged or community-led. This means that while his training has been specific to mathematics and statistics, he tends to work at the intersection of many fields.
Celebrate Pride with the IEEE Computer Society and read more interviews from the computing community: Dr. Christian Newman | Ivan Zhao | Alexander Serebrenik | Didem Gurdur Broo | Griffin Solot-Kehl