UBC alum and devoted professor honoured at 93
Congratulations to Dr. Nelly Auersperg, the recipient of the 2022 Great Trekker Award.
Dr. Nelly Auersperg (PhD’68) has been named by UBC students as recipient of the 2022 Great Trekker Award. The award is presented by the AMS to alumni who have made unique contributions to UBC and the wider community. A pioneering researcher in the field of gynecological cancer, Dr. Auersperg’s distinguished career spans several decades, and her published work, which includes more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, continues to be cited. Now a professor emerita, she mentored more than 60 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.
Karen Chen, a third-year UBC student and writer for the AMS, recently interviewed Dr. Auersperg for her advice on careers after graduation, dealing with rejection, and overcoming adversity.
Q: Congratulations on winning the award! What does this award mean to you?
A: It made me very happy, it indicated that I had done something worthwhile scientifically.
Backstory: Initially, I applied to every medical school I discovered in Canada and the USA, and did not get accepted by any schools, including UBC. I did my MD at the University of Washington, then a PhD in biology at UBC. I stayed here afterward for research and medical opportunities.
Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for graduating students?
A: I have two pieces of advice:
- Choose a career that is worthwhile and fulfilling. Not just to make money, as a chore, or just for fun, but as something that you genuinely look forward to going to.
- On top of enjoying your job, choose a career that is useful and contributes to the greater good of society! It could be anything — being a sportsperson, a housewife, or a scientist — anything that will make a better world.
Q: What is the biggest lesson you have learned from being a professor at UBC?
A: One surprising lesson I learned, particularly from my graduate students, was how often they were smarter than the instructor. Even when students were not particularly interested or good at what we were doing, I found the best way to deal with them was to leave them alone because they had their own ideas, which were often as good as, or better than, their instructor’s.
Q: Nowadays, many fields in science and engineering are still male-dominated. What are some insights or encouragement you have for women hoping to find success in these fields?
A: Don’t lose hope, there has been much progress, and a lot has changed already. When I was in medical school, we were 105 students and five of us were women. To this day, I respond to when someone says “you guys,” because everything was always “you guys” and never “you gals.” It improved a lot. Back then, the UBC salary for women was substantially lower than salaries for men. The excuse was that women have husbands who can provide for them.
Another example of discrimination was in the emergency department in the Vancouver General Hospital. There were two toilets — labeled “women” and “doctors.” I could go into both!
Things have changed a lot, so do not lose hope — times are progressive — and do not let circumstances discourage you from working towards a goal!
Q: What is your best advice for dealing with rejection and overcoming adversity?
A: First of all, rejection and adversity are two different things.
- Rejection: Oftentimes, it is when someone does not care for you or doesn’t want to be with you, which is always upsetting. However, you can use this as a tool for self-examination. Ask yourself: Am I being rejected for something I have done? If it is your problem, it is up to you to do something about it. If not, just move on.
- Adversity: Something external, out of your control — [like] climate change, earthquakes, unexpected accidents, health problems in the family. It is not something you can blame yourself for.
When something happens, figure out what you are facing, and deal with it accordingly.