On her daily train commute to McGill, Viviane Yargeau works on her laptop, except for one brief ritual.
“As soon as we get on the bridge, I pause so that I can look at the St. Lawrence. It’s been 20 years. I do that every day – I find it so beautiful,” says Yargeau, a chemical engineering professor whose research focuses on water resources and sustainability.
“I have a strong attraction to water. I’m a scuba diver,” Yargeau adds. “I think it’s easier when your research is so close to what you value.”
Yargeau began her mandate as dean of McGill’s Faculty of Engineering in July. The following month, Lesley Fellows, BSc’90, MDCM’96, MedResident’01, took the helm of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences as the new vice-principal (health affairs) and dean.
A former Rhodes Scholar, Fellows is a cognitive neurologist at The Neuro and Royal Victoria hospitals and an expert on the neurobiology of decision-making.
Fellows and Yargeau both bring leadership experience to their new roles and track records of promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion. They’re also the first women deans in their respective faculties. The McGill News spoke to them this fall to learn about their career paths, research, and priorities for their faculties.
‘Students [are] being exposed to the cutting edge of things’
Lesley Fellows leads McGill’s oldest faculty (it dates to 1829) – the same faculty where she earned her Bachelor of Science in physiology and medical degree.
How different is McGill Med from when she was a student? “I don’t think it’s that different,” says Fellows, but she acknowledges some things have changed. During her medical degree, a lot of fundamental science was taught, especially in the first year. “The curriculum people are exposed to now is much more oriented to the clinical application of the information,” Fellows says. Students are in the family medicine clinics almost immediately and connected with mentorship support continuously through the four years, she adds.
“I think the evolution in generalists isn’t special to McGill. In general, the evolution of medical training in the interval has put maybe more emphasis on patient safety, more emphasis on the supervision of trainees than the slightly Wild West style that I had,” Fellows says with a laugh, “where you were sort of thrown in and you figured it out with the help of your colleagues and friends most of the time.”
But the basics are still the same, she says. “The hospitals where people work are still internationally leading, very strong clinical settings with amazing faculty who do a great job teaching and who are quite often world leaders in areas,” Fellows says. “I don’t know if students realize how they’re being exposed to often really the cutting edge of things, if not the clinical care, then at least the research around the care [and] sometimes the care itself, and that’s not necessarily par for the course everywhere. And that was true when I was a student, too.”
A native of the Maritimes, Fellows had med school in mind when she headed to McGill for her undergraduate degree. A course with Professor Dan Guitton, BEng’60, MEng’64, PhD’70, PhD’79, piqued her interest in neuroscience – a research area she pursued when she got the chance to do her PhD as a Rhodes Scholar.
“It’s really a wonderful opportunity,” she says of studying at Oxford University and living overseas. Fellows felt fortunate to end up in the research lab she did. “We discovered stuff and I got to write papers, and so on. I hadn’t really been planning on a research career. I didn’t know much about that option, really. But after my very positive experience at Oxford, I was oriented to ending up as a clinician-scientist,” says Fellows, a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery who also heads The Neuro’s Cognitive Neuroscience research group.
The line atop her Decision Lab webpage quips: ‘In frontal lobes we trust!’, referring to the area of the brain that plays a crucial role in many vital functions, such as language, memory, voluntary movement and problem-solving. Fellows works with patients who have had injuries to their frontal lobes. Her main research program examines the brain basis of human decision-making and the role of frontal lobes in that process.
“My research and clinical work is motivated in part by the idea that you can give people with such problems the equivalent of a walker for their thinking. The question and challenge is to understand what is happening in the brain in order to bring new ideas for rehabilitation,” she told the McGill Reporter in 2018.
Fellows is also part of a team that for the past decade has been studying the long-terms effects of HIV on the brain.
As Quebec’s strained health care system emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Fellows says there’s no shortage of demand for spots at McGill medical school and plenty of people also vie for competitive slots at the Ingram School of Nursing. “In some ways, the pandemic put into relief the possibilities in health care, the jobs one can have there, the important roles people play.”
But she acknowledges that these are “complicated times” in the healthcare system. “That same system that’s trying to provide health care under some duress is where our trainees learn. So, navigating that successfully is going to take everyone’s creative skills and helping them do that is important.”
Another challenge involves ramping up the number of doctors McGill trains. Fellows points out that it takes seven to 12 years to train a doctor from first-year medicine to the end of their training whether that’s in family medicine or a speciality.
The Quebec government has asked all four medical schools in the province to rapidly increase the number of students that they’re training over the coming three years.
“We’re trying to respond,” says Fellows, who notes that most universities, like the health care system, have been run at the edge of capacity for the same public-dollar reasons. “We don’t have a lot of elasticity. We actually lack the physical space, the equipment…and the people – to rapidly scale and nimbly go up and down.”
For medicine, most of the training happens in the clinical world, she adds. “They’re quickly out into the hospitals and clinics. And we’re already saturated in our traditional teaching partners – [they] are already full of medical students and residents,” she says. McGill’s medical faculty added a regional satellite – Campus Outaouais – in western Quebec, which welcomed its first cohort of med students in 2020. “There’s one way where we’ve been able to expand our reach and also meet community need and regional need,” says Fellows.
“We hope that by engaging more widely through the community beyond our most traditional classic teaching hospitals, we will also help to improve the quality of health care in our whole region. Not only by bringing students along who will eventually help to be the next wave of physicians and nurses, but also by helping our clinical colleagues help us teach our students.”
As for being the first woman dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Fellows says: “In one sense, 2023 is a long time to wait, what was McGill waiting for” adding, diplomatically, that she is in no position to judge what went into past decisions.
“I do think it’s important that our faculty, students, and staff reflect the communities that we serve. I think that’s true in general and it’s especially true in health care training, and research – medical research where you’re working on problems that have to do with human beings. That it’s very important that we be inclusive and that we bring all kinds of perspectives, so that we make sure we’re also serving all kinds of perspectives.”
‘If you ask, ‘who designed your phone’, people won’t say an engineer. They don’t know’
Viviane Yargeau didn’t expect to become an engineer. When it came time to apply to university, one of her chemistry teachers at CEGEP told her he thought she would be a good chemical engineer.
“I did not know what that entailed at all,” says Yargeau in her office in the Macdonald Engineering Building with its spectacular view of Lower Campus. “When I visited the university and they were describing the program, I realized that it was a perfect match. My chemistry prof was right because I really liked science, but I had a passion for creating. And I felt that engineering is a great combination of both because you’re creating but using science along the process,” says Yargeau, who earned her three chemical engineering degrees at the Université de Sherbrooke.
Happenstance also played a role in Yargeau landing her first position as an academic in 2004. She recalls flipping through the final pages of University Affairs magazine that featured job openings – a section she usually skipped – and seeing a posting at McGill.
While she could read English at the time, she didn’t speak the language and hired a tutor for a month before her interview at McGill. “It was challenging the first few years, but I think it was good with the undergrad students. I was teaching first-year chemical engineering, and I was telling them ‘be patient with me. I’m struggling with the language; you’re struggling with chemical engineering. As you learn, I learn, and we’ll both be better at the end of the semester,’” laughs Yargeau, an award-winning instructor.
When she applied to McGill, Yargeau chose a new research area to focus on. “Water resources protection quickly became what I wanted to do, and I don’t regret it, because now 20 years later, I’m still passionate about my research topic.”
The pioneering research program she leads examines water contaminants of emerging concern and optimizing wastewater treatment methods. When she started research in this field, Yargeau says people would often say ‘why would you care about contaminants that are present in such low concentration in the water’?”
They weren’t convinced it was an issue. “It took a while before people realized that there was enough evidence that it is an issue – that they might be at low concentrations, but those low concentrations have a significant impact on the environment and eventually could have an impact on human health, too.”
Some of the contaminants that Yargeau has studied include pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs, pesticides, plasticizers, and flame retardants. Her research mainly focuses now on PFAS, or “forever chemicals” as the group of synthetic chemicals are sometimes called. “They’re not necessarily at higher concentrations, but they persist more, so they’re really problematic,” she says.
“We focus a lot of our effort on designing or optimizing treatment technologies so that we remove these contaminants before the wastewater is discharged in the environment, or to remove these contaminants from the drinking water so that the tap water that you get is of better quality. That’s the engineering perspective.”
During her first few months at McGill back in 2004, Yargeau was the only female professor in her department. “I really feel like I’ve been supported the whole time. I have mainly male colleagues, of course, because it’s engineering – but they’ve all been very supportive.” She became the department’s chair in 2018.
In the 2021-22 academic year, 33 per cent of undergrads in the Bachelor of Engineering program were women, up from 23 per cent a decade prior. Yargeau has promoted engineering to young female students, through outreach programs and other initiatives. She started doing so as a graduate student when she would visit high schools to talk about engineering and science.
She felt compelled to promote engineering to other students – not just women – because she herself hadn’t been familiar with the discipline and ended up in engineering by chance. People know about doctors and lawyers because they see and hear about them, but they aren’t aware of the reach of engineering in our daily lives, Yargeau suggests. “If you ask people, ‘who designed your phone or who designed the board for your phone’, people won’t say an engineer. They don’t know,” she says. “I think we have to make people aware of what engineering is and what engineers do so that it’s easier to recruit students into our programs.”
What does it mean to her to be the first woman dean of the faculty?
“I really see it as an opportunity to make a difference and, of course, to be a role model for students, female students who might consider engineering or who are already in engineering, and [thinking about] ‘what will I do after my degree?’”
Yargeau says her priorities as dean will be twofold: within the Faculty, she’ll support students, staff and academics “to make them feel that we value what they’re doing – that the foundational value of the Faculty is equity, diversity and inclusion. I strongly believe that that’s how we can be successful, when everyone can really thrive in their work environment.”
She highlights the importance of experiential learning for students – “providing them with hands-on opportunities that not only enrich their education but also prepare them to excel in the real world.”
Yargeau also wants to reach beyond the Faculty to foster meaningful collaborations, facilitate the transfer of knowledge, and raise awareness about its work. “The more [we] talk about what we’re doing in engineering, the easier it is for people to … value the work that we’re doing.” It’s a message that she is eager to spread – to the public at large as well as to potential partners in industry or in other Faculties.
“It’s essential to showcase how our architects, engineers, and urban planners are actively contributing to a better future for all.”