• Dr A Bashir

08 The Kaida Path: Part II

In this month’s episode, we continue our delightful conversation with Dr Angela Kaida, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Global Perspectives in HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health at Simon Fraser University. Here, we chat about her life outside of work, starting our conversation discussing the notion of balance. We also discuss the nuances of having lived in both Canada and South Africa with her young family, and teaching her young sons about power, privilege, inequity, and gender. I hope you enjoy Part II of 'The Kaida Path'.


You'll find the audio version of this episode on our website, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and more.


The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.


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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thanks so much for tuning in. Today, we'll be continuing our conversation with Dr Angela Kaida, an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at Simon Fraser University. In today's episode, we discuss the concept of balance and undue pressure that is placed on women in academia⁠—and in general⁠—to be superwomen. If you haven't yet listened to 'The Kaida Path: Part I', please do. It is a lovely conversation in which we discuss her captivating research, which focuses on the links between HIV and sexual and reproductive health. To kind of switch gears a little bit, would you mind talking a little bit about your family, career, and the interplay between the two?


Dr Angela Kaida: Women who are pursuing scientific careers, academic careers, I know this weighs heavily: how to have the family that you want or that you don't want. The discussion about it I personally have found pretty unappealing, <laugh> you know? It's like, 'How do you find balance? How do you do all this stuff?' A lot of it just seems pretty unachievable. It sounded pretty unachievable, pretty foreign, and not fun, the way it was being discussed at least in my time. Maybe things have gotten better. The examples that were being given were people who either gave it all up for their career and some didn't regret it, some did regret it, but [there were] not a lot of different models of maybe how you can do it in a way that feels good for you.


I think it's really important for women to share the way they did it. It's not the way to do it.


AB: Yes.


AK: Or maybe it's not even the way they did it⁠—the way they are trying to do it. There's no model, there's no one model, but I think more models make it more likely that something will resonate with who you are, what you want, where you're at, and what supports you might have in your life. That part of the picture, you know, it's hard for people to talk about. It's like, 'Oh, I'm a superwoman. I did everything by myself,' you know, versus talking about like, 'I really had to draw on this type of support. I was lucky enough to have my in-laws or my parents or other members of my family be there to support me through this.' It takes a village, man.


AB: Yeah, it does.


AB: Or, 'This is the ways that my partner maybe sacrificed during this time, and that's kind of how we made it happen.' Or, 'We had money, and we could pay for some of that!' <Laugh> Nobody is raising kids and having a scientific career without...


AB: Any help, assistance, care, guidance, right?


AK: Yeah, and if they are, I just feel for them because this is a hard journey. This is a hard path, and so we could do a lot more as a community to support people who are in those circumstances, for sure.


AB: So then for you⁠—that's a great lead⁠ in—how did you do it? What support did you have?


AK: I like to think of parenting as like⁠—how do I say this without sounding sanctimonious⁠... I'm happy. I wanted to do it. I wanna do it. It's not as if it's easy or I always like it, but I didn't resonate with the narrative that it was always a burden to my career. It makes things, some things, a lot harder, for sure. But I didn't want to just think about it as a burden to my career, in that it motivates me in some ways, it makes me better in some ways, it makes me healthier in some ways. For me, for me⁠—this is not everybody's story⁠—for me, it makes me better.


AB: Yeah.


AK: Maybe not better scientists, but better overall, maybe a better thinker, maybe more compassionate, maybe research questions that come to me are different than they were before.


I would say it's a journey, and I really struggled with like, 'Okay, what's the right time to have a child? When will you be taken seriously? When will you not be taken seriously?' If you kind of show up at job interviews and you have... <chuckle> I remember for me, I had my first son during my PhD and I had my second son in the first year of my tenure-track appointment. <Laugh> I don't know if it's good or not! I don't know, but at the same time, for women it takes an amount of time to get through graduate training, and so there are just some realistic, I guess, constraints on the years you have available; it's ridiculous. And so, I was panicky about having to tell people, hated that it was a part of my life that I couldn't keep private, had such jealousy of my male colleagues that could announce that they had a baby after the baby was born and nobody would've been the wiser. I hated the personal entering your professional life without your control over it. Maybe that's just control freak problem, but I really... I personally struggled with that a lot. A lot. I struggled with how seriously I might be taken and all of these kinds of questions. I think women ask ourselves all the time, 'How much would they trust that I'd be able to handle it? And how much was I gonna overcompensate?' Oh my God, it's stressful, and I guess I just wanna validate that for anybody who is thinking about it, going through it, struggling through it in maybe less supportive environments, both professionally and personally, I just really want to give every woman in that circumstance a huge kudos, because it is tough to navigate.


AB: It is; it is so incredibly tough. One question that I had because of what you just said is how do you parent differently because of what you've learned in the world of public health and global health? What do you teach your boys?


AK: I mean, it's such a great question because I do so much work with women and understanding women and then I've been given these two boys to raise and I find it just a hilarious sort of life thing. I guess I teach my kids about... Well, let me see. I don't know if they're learning it, I'm trying... I try to teach them about power, what it looks like, how it manifests in a lot of different ways, how to be aware of it, how to not abuse it, how to understand people's circumstances through a lens of power and inequity, and of course, how to talk about gender. And it's been pretty fascinating! I mean, we talk very openly about HIV!


Just to tell a small anecdote: my son was maybe four. He was playing a game of 20 questions where you ask, 'Is it bigger than bread box? Is it smaller than this? Is it alive?' And he used to play it with my sister-in-law and her family. At the end of it, they couldn't guess what the item was, and he said, 'Guys⁠—it's HIV!' <Laugh> They just thought this was wonderful, and it was accurate. He knew it was a pathogen. He knew it was a virus. He answered the questions properly. I think it's interesting for me to talk about sexual and reproductive health with them, because they don't know stigma yet in this space, right? They don't know that kind of stuff yet, and so it's been really interesting to just talk to them about it as information, as knowledge.


We'll see! I'm not in the tough years yet in many ways, so we'll see. But I think that that's been part of a blessing of parenthood, to really try out your big ideas on these small people and try to answer their questions.


AB: Of which there might be many!


AK: Of which there are many and weird! They're always weird questions! <Laugh>


AB: <Laugh> Yeah!


AK: Because of my research, we as a family spent a year in South Africa, in Durban, and I was working with our colleagues there to get a study on adolescents up and running, focused on HIV prevention. And so, we all moved there, they went to school there and they did all this sort of stuff. Of course, you know, in South Africa you bring up tons of issues of racial dynamics and inequities, bigotry⁠—all of this stuff that we wanna pretend in Canada that we don't have; we have it!


AB: We totally have it.


AK: We have it, okay? We don't need to look far to look how bad we have it. We totally have it. But it's different there, so I think navigating through that and their own privilege, their own access, their friends and, you know, meeting other families and going to other families' houses that were really different from ours, stuff like that. And I'm blessed to have the opportunity to show them, for them to be who they are in those spaces and have that exposure because of the work that I'm fortunate enough to do.


AB: How do they identify in South Africa? Did they end up sort of passing for white South Africans? Were they more close to the Black population? Where do they fall? How did they fit in, what did they feel?


AK: It's complicated! I think for myself, there's a large Indian population in Durban, so I get a lot of that kind of expectation, which great⁠—no problem. My husband's Australian, so he's white, but he has an Australian accent, which can be confused for South African.


AB: It has a lot of South African-ness in it!


AK: Exactly, so he sort of navigated that space. Then my older son looks quite a bit like me and really was considered 'coloured' [which] they use in South Africa, mostly from the Western Cape, so that kind of gave him a certain… you know, interacting with folks from a different lens. And then my younger son is quite fair-skinned, so he was probably more in the white South African, weird-looking, but like probably a bit more in that space.


For us as a family, I think it's why I loved living in Durban, because Durban has a lot of different things going on compared to Johannesburg. But we really, depending on who was walking with whom, we had very different... We were received quite differently, I would say.


AB: Do you have any stories of that? What were those differences?


AK: I would say my older son, when people thought that he was 'coloured', which as terminology is difficult to explain...


AB: Yes, it's not the way it was used in the US in the 1960s, for instance. It's a term⁠—actually an ethnic term⁠—


AK: Exactly.


AB: ⁠—that refers typically to people who are mixed in descent.


AK: But I think in South Africa, more than just mixed; there's a style of talking. There's a cultural...


AB: It's become its own ethnicity.


AK: Exactly. The language around it is complicated to explain to somebody who's not South African but lacking the cultural connection or cultural identity to it, it's like, 'You have a look, but you don't have the way of speaking or the cultural references or any of those types of things.' His friends were quite confused by him in some ways at the beginning, but delighted, I mean, he's a delightful person!


I think we got a lot of questions about, 'Does everybody in Canada look like this?' You know, those kinds of questions that little kids ask each other. I think overall we had such a positive experience there. Then my parents came to visit us, and my mom is Black, my dad looks very Indian. When they came to Durban and were with us, then we've got a whole other kind of dynamic going on.


AB: ⁠I can imagine.


AK: And because of South Africa's complicated history, it looks a little bit more pronounced in that setting. But certainly, we got a lot of questions about it, a lot of interest, a lot of curiosity, a lot of like, 'What's happening here?'


AB: Did you ever find that that was the case here, that you got those same questions?


AK: We do, but in different ways. You know, people who think that I'm my younger son's nanny, stuff like that.


AB: I didn't know people still did that.


AK: Oh my God. There's just... There's stuff like that, but honestly the questions in South Africa are from kids, right? That's mostly who you're interacting with, [they] were just so genuinely curious about this type of thing as a young country and things were highly segregated; they're still very segregated. To see that kind of thing is interesting in some parts… probably in Johannesburg, <whispers> it's not interesting. <Regular voice> I don't know, but that's certainly where we were.


AB: Just to kind of give our listeners a little bit of background if they don't know, South Africa was under the rule of apartheid for a very long time, up until '94, I believe. That means people who are my age had the remnants of this very firm, awful system that kept people of different ethnicities away from each other and also subjugated majority Black South Africans. Some of those remnants are definitely felt today. I wonder what it's like now, I haven't been to South Africa in ages at this point, so I have no idea what the dynamics are now. I have some family that live there, but I have no idea. Were you there in the nineties at all?


AK: No, I wasn't. The first time I went to South Africa was in 2006, I wanna say pregnant, and primarily in Johannesburg, Soweto kind of area, by myself obviously, before all of these people came into my life. Yeah, I'm resistant to talk about it because I see it just through the lens of a foreigner coming in, that sort of thing. I mean, the stories of racial segregation and separation of South Africa extend till today, unquestionably, of course; also, the legacy of that is not obviously undone by any stretch of the imagination. It's a bit surreal⁠—where we lived in Durban was an area that Black South Africans were not able to access during apartheid rule. You sort of think, or you see pictures of the time, which is not that long ago—


AB: It must be mind-blowing.


AK: —it's mind blowing!


AB: So, now for parting words: what would be the thing that you’d tell a graduate student that's in Year 3 or 4? Maybe things aren't going that well⁠—I'm very happy, I just defended on Friday so I'm excited!


AK: Congratulations!


AB: Thank you so much! But there were moments that were really difficult and at times you might talk to your principal investigators, and sometimes you don't feel like you can. As a person who's in a position that's, you know, made your way up, what would you tell that person?


AK: Trying to make my way up! I was thinking about this on my way here. I think, honestly, it's connecting with other researchers. Your supervisor is hopefully a good support for you, but supervisors can't do everything and we are good at some things and we're less good at other things.


AB: What are the things you're not good at? Just so I know! <Laugh>


AK: <Laugh> Maybe doing some thinking in terms of talking to other people about your supervisor. These are things that they're not good at, personal advice, or they travel a lot so getting information back [is difficult]. There's just some knowledge of who your supervisor is, their strengths and maybe⁠—I don't wanna say weaknesses⁠—areas that they're working on, that can be really help. And I'm sure my students do that about me, without question. I think trying to figure out, 'Who are the other people in your field, and how can you reach out to them? How can you get connected with those folks in various ways?' That can just give you a broader network to draw upon. Sometimes those are your committee members, and sometimes they're not. They're other people that you might TA for, work with, or just want to be more familiar with. I think that's important because part of what you're gonna have to do post-PhD is start to become an independent researcher, but the pathway to that is not obvious.


AB: No, not at all. There's so much they just expect you to know or figure out on your own!


AK: I really felt that! And like I said, maybe I'm not as clever or strategic, so I really felt that I didn't know how that was supposed to happen. I think that trying to make those connections⁠—going to other people's talks, reading their papers, seeing if there's an opportunity to co-author work⁠—those kinds of activities broaden your network so you can get support from different places. And then, of course, the students that I trained with through my PhD, many of them have become my most valuable collaborators and colleagues. Even if we don't work on the same topical area, just that constant check in of like, 'Okay like I'm not getting funding from this? How are you guys doing this?' Or, 'Do you have a student?' When you're a little bit more on the same level, there's different types of questions that you can ask each other in that way. That has proven to be a complete lifesaver for me, making and transforming those relationships, those friendships, into very personal relationships that support families. We support each other's families, et cetera, but [we’re] also professional sounding boards. Like, 'How does this work? You've got a great mentor. You've got a great director. How are they doing this kind of stuff? I don't have that right now.'


AB: I thought that was gonna be my last point, but now I have another question. Is there any competition in your field? I always felt like neuroscience was so competitive and I never liked it. I'm not a competitive person. I feel like science is best when we're doing it together, but it [isn’t] that way necessarily.


AK: I mean, of course. It's naive to say that it's not. There's competition and, oh my gosh, we're all competing for a very few research dollars and we're all competing for probably even fewer positions, so there's no question that there's gonna be competition in this space. I think when I say that it's about collaboration, I've found that [it’s with] my friends and colleagues that are in fields that are adjacent to mine, but not identical, in the same institutions or in the same space is easier for obvious reasons. Sometimes you can have great colleagues that are in your same space and what you do is you actually collaborate. When I put in a grant, you're a co-investigator. When you put in a grant, I'm a co-investigator, and we try to build this together. I think all of those relationships are important. They have different functions and you should be very clear on what's what.


It's tough out there, but I think really being mindful about who your colleagues are, working with good people when you can⁠—people always say that, and then you're like, 'Well, you have to find them!' If you do find them, oh my gosh, hang on to them. Some of my best collaborations of the work I do in Uganda came through a woman who was interested in similar work that I do. She's more clinically-trained, I'm more epidemiologically-trained, and we just managed to find a space where if the question was [clinical], she was the lead. If the question was more epi, I was the lead, and we could work together. It's one of my most valuable collaborations; started during my training days.


AB: Wow, so it's about creating the community, it sounds like. And your community can come in different forms and be assembled with people from all over the world or right here at home—


AK: Definitely!


AB: —at different levels of their career.


AK: Definitely, and it saved me because I think in terms of having kids and my own family, and as they've had their own families, we've stepped out for each other in times where we're busy at home and sort of recalibrated over time. That's been a real gift in my own pathway.


AB: I do wanna say thank you. Thank you for agreeing, first of all, to doing this!


AK: Yes!


AB: You were so responsive and I was so excited, and then I spoke with you and I thought, 'This woman is heavenly!'


AK: Oh!


AB: You are incredible!


AK: I appreciate so much of what you're doing because I believe in storytelling. I believe that multiple stories are necessary to increase success. I mean, I care deeply about women, of course, and I think for women who are really underrepresented in academic circles, we just need examples. We do. And one example is not enough.


AB: Yeah, because we're not a monolith. If we see one variant of ourselves and then we only have that to look to, you go, 'Well, I'm kind of short and she's tall. Guess what? Short people can't be scientists.' You do that in your own mind, because you don't see the truest version of you in other people.


AK: Exactly.


AB: You kinda have to see a bunch of different people and realize that you fit in, in your own little way.


AK: You fit in and you belong! You belong here, and that can be a major mental/emotional barrier to overcome, to think that what I want in my life and what I wanna do belongs here.


AB: Oh, that's something that I've thought about [in] tiny moments, where we take a lab photo and I'm literally the only person from the continent of Africa, and it's not like we are a small group of people. They're not, like, 20 of us, I swear! <Laugh>


AK: <Laugh>


AB: Walking around Vancouver, sometimes it's hard to tell. But I had a moment where I thought, 'The minute I leave, there's no more of me.'


AK: Exactly!


AB: 'And how long is it going to be until another one of me shows up?' I also just represent one corner of the continent. I'm just East African; there's so many types of us that I don't represent everybody either. Yeah, that's something that's obviously very close to my heart . It's the reason why this was always so important to me. Obviously, storytelling is really important. I'm also just very nosy, so⁠—<laugh>


AK: Good combination!


AB: It works out for everybody! Anyway, thank you!


AK: My pleasure! Thank you so much for doing this.


AB: Of course, of course. Hopefully we'll do it again someday.


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AB: Funding for this episode was provided by the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and the Graduate Program in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. As always, peace and blessings.