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Pandemic Parenting, Part I
Episode 1019th January 2022 • Academic Aunties • Ethel Tungohan
00:00:00 00:35:42

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We're talking about Pandemic Parenting. We will be talking about the compromises we’ve had to make, the hard decisions we’ve had to take, and also, more importantly, the reminder that we are enough and that blaming ourselves for not being able to be as ‘productive’ means that we let structures off the hook.

In Part I of our 2 part pandemic parenting series, we're talking with Dr. Sheila Colla (@SaveWildBees), Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environment and Urban Change at York University, about the expectations of academia while raising kids in a pandemic, and how science isn't as always as objective as it likes to say it is.

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Thanks for listening! Get more information and read all the show notes at Get in touch with Academic Aunties on Twitter at @AcademicAuntie or by e-mail at


Ethel Tungohan 0:00

So Freddie, what do you like about school?

Winifred 0:05

When there are special days, like Halloween when you have a marching line, we go walk around the school wearing costumes, or Christmas or Christmas. Remember that?

Ethel Tungohan 0:16

What has COVID been like?

Winifred 0:18

I feel, if feels like it's never going to disappear. And I wish there's a ball that can that can get all then the COVID and then pop.

Ethel Tungohan 0:38

d of feels like we're back in:

Ethel Tungohan 4:27

With us today is the fantastic Dr. Sheila Colla, who is actually my colleague at York University, and we haven't had a chance to meet in person, but I follow you on Twitter. And I know that we've had a few exchanges on Facebook. So Auntie Sheila, would you like to introduce yourself and tell our listeners where you're from and what you do?

Sheila Colla 4:50

Sure. So thanks for having me. I am an associate professor nearly 10 years now at York University in the Faculty of environmental and urban change. Interestingly enough, I didn't move too much out of Toronto. So I was born in Toronto, and went to University of Toronto for my undergrad. And then I did my PhD at York. And then I did my postdoc at University of Toronto and now faculty at York. So unlike many in academia, who have had to travel a lot, I have actually been able to stay really close, which has been amazing for building my research network, my community, and staying close to family, which I think is very important during these times as well, as I'm sure we'll be talking about, for sure.

Ethel Tungohan 5:35

And just so our listeners know, Auntie Sheila is our first auntie, from STEM. A lot of other other aunties are in the social sciences and humanities. So Auntie Sheila, can you speak a little bit about the work that you do? What research you do?

Sheila Colla 5:50

Yeah, for sure. So I started doing research, actually, in my undergrad, and I was researching bumblebees, helping out some grad students, I was an undergrad researcher. And I noticed that a species had gone missing that was supposed to be there based on like, PhD theses from the 70s. So going around Southern Ontario, looking for bees, and just noticing that actually, we don't have the species we're supposed to have. So I ended up doing my PhD trying to figure out which species are in decline. And it was really interesting, because at the time, I was one of the only if not the only person in Canada, looking at Wild bee declines.

Ethel Tungohan 6:30


Sheila Colla 6:31

That was like in the early:

Ethel Tungohan 8:04

Absolutely. And I think it's super fascinating the work that you're doing. So we are entering year three of the pandemic, you have all of this, like, amazing research projects. You are, you know, very prolific when it comes to research. But you're also a parent of, I think you said two kids, how old are your kids again?

Sheila Colla 8:26

it first hit, you know, march:

Ethel Tungohan 9:17

of the pandemic. So now it's:

Sheila Colla 9:57

I've always taken a different approach which is unusual, in my field at all, entomology, in particular, is a very white male dominated field. So the idea of, you know, not focusing on getting publications out the door all the time, but actually like supporting people in their lives where they are, is, I would think, I think it's quite unusual. From what I've seen, I recently got an award, I should show this to you. It's just so funny. I got this Entomological Society Award for research. And it's just like this giant, like face of this, like white man.

Sheila Colla:

I feel so conflicted about you. But it is indicative of you know, what this field is designed to support versus what the reality of our world is. There's so misaligned. So yeah.

Ethel Tungohan:

Can you talk a little bit about that? Like, are there conversations being had about. say, even the parenting expectations that make that make some of the standards a little bit unreasonable?

Sheila Colla:

Yeah. I don't know if science is really set up to really think about supporting their scientists. The kinds of solutions that you know, science, like tri Council institutions, what they've come up with, for the pandemic has been, you know, extending the 10 year clock, which to me is such a strange solutions, like, let's give them one more year of precarious employment. And that should help. What's going on here, this pandemic is going to have impacts on citation rates on publications for years to come. It's not like, if we lose two years of research, we just needed two years to catch up, that will never be the case, right? Like this will have long lasting impacts. Most of my students lost their first field season, you know, doing the work last summer, a couple of them were able to do field season, but it was you know, more expensive, because we couldn't have, you know, assistants driving the same cars or staying in the same rooms as people like it was just like, there's all of these things that come into play when you're trying to navigate this that will have really long term long reaching impacts. And I don't even know when it comes to like publishing. Now we're going to have people with like gaps in their multi year studies or times, they couldn't get into the lab and like, however yours gonna treat that they're gonna reject the papers, right? They're not gonna say, oh, we should, you know, publish this as is because there was these external realities that happened, and it's still good science. And they did the best they can that science isn't set up for that they think scientists think that they're so objective. But the reality is, it's like they make these decisions to make to exclude people who are struggling in whatever socio political context that we're living in at a given time. It's just been, it's been really fascinating and sad to see the disproportionate impacts and even now with schools opening and the people who are so excited about that, how unexamined their privileges around that, I mean, I trust me, I want school, so but I do not want my kids here, but just the idea that we can just send our kids and it not be safe places for students and some kids will get sick, some will die, but we're just gonna have to like, learn to live with it. It's just it's yeah, it's pretty sad.

Ethel Tungohan:

Well, let's let's talk about that, actually. Because that's one thing that I think you've been tweeting about as well, which I totally appreciate, like, you mentioned that there's been there's been an equal impacts, not just on people, but also on children and how, you know, there's a lot of been there's, there's, there's been a lot of kind of institutional indifference, if not outright institutional failure. Like, what do you think are some of the failures? I mean, what are some of the ways in which we parents have to meet these hard decisions?

Sheila Colla:

Mm hmm. So one paper that I have started assigning to all my classes is a paper that's called scientists take a side. And it goes through some examples of where you think you're asking an objective question or writing about something that objective way, but you're actually like taking aside so even just not commenting on a political decision, gives fodder to the status quo for what they want to do. And I think we've seen that like this week with the different doctors saying how important schools are for mental illness. Politicians just like taking that be like Nope, we have to open our schools. The doctors are saying that it's important for the mental health of our children, you know, and leaving out the fact that you know, the mental health of children who have now chronically Disabled Parents, you know, is not that great The fact that even when schools are open in Toronto, it was the racialized and poor communities that have their kids home because they were the ones that were most impacted. In New York and Chicago right now, during this Omicron wave, it's exactly the same. It's the wealthy and white people who are sending their kids to school in these unsafe situations, because they have access to better masks, they have access to private testing, you know, they are in private schools, in some cases of their classes are a lot smaller, and they have HEPA filters in every classroom and all of these things. But it's just the way you can see how the doctors themselves are not examining their privilege and how they're communicating the scientific concepts, and how it just feeds the status quo, you know, and it's totally neglecting the fact that there really disproportionate impacts here. So using my training of, you know, being a scientist and recognizing the failures of science, to be able to recognize these different intersections and equity considerations. It's, I've been able to, you know, speak at school board meetings, to email trustees and be like, here's the science, this is where we don't know something, this is where the precautionary principle comes into play. This is who's going to be impacted if you don't make this decision. So I've, you know, again, my research is all suffering here, but it's all very related. My training and, you know, in conservation science, and just being able to acknowledge the limitations has been really applicable for me to be able to help in my neighborhood, and my schools, and even at the school board level at this point.

Ethel Tungohan:

That's so important. And I want you to send me an email after this with the article. So I can link to my show notes, because you're absolutely correct, right. When you've got so called health experts delivering press conferences, making it seem as though you know, it's definitive that, you know, mental health is more important, it's definitive that these are the tactics we need to follow in order to guarantee you know, a safer return to schools. And you're like, well, that's not actually what you're saying. But because they speak from that position of authority. Some people think, Okay, well, then it's safe. But you're like, Whoa, it's, it's actually not.

Sheila Colla:

Yeah, and we're like, it's much like I work on B conservation. And there's, you know, we're all considered scientists, these people that work in this field, but some of us get a lot of money from pesticide companies. So how does that influence you know, which research questions we ask and which ones we ignore? And then how does that influence how we talk about a certain subject matter? It's like it permeates everything, our worldview, our stances, our privileges, it permeates everything we do about our work. And I can see it now with like, all these doctors signing on to these letters, and you can go in and read the references that they're citing, a lot of times, there's like huge holes and gaps, and they're really doing science by press release, as you said, or press conference, making these statements and, you know, really counting on the fact that people are not gonna scratch the surface and dig into it a little bit more. So yeah, it's it's been rough. But I think if anything, more people now see how science is not enough like it can only the vaccine, amazing, it works, people should get vaccinated. That was science that did that. That's amazing. But it only takes you so far. If you don't consider the equity component as well, you know, that the vaccines are only in these wealthy countries, and then other countries have these outbreaks. And then new variants are evolving. And then that impacts all the other countries and they just need more vaccines and like we could go on forever with like this, right? Like the science has its limitations. And I think we need to be more cognizant about that. And open to asking questions that interrogate scientists ability to solve problems.

Ethel Tungohan:

Yeah, I mean, I guess one question I have that is also something I'm kind of grappling with, as well as Do you ever worry about falling behind? Right, like much as we're like, look, we're going to create new standards. We're going to work with people who share our values. At the same time there is that ever present worry that, you know, we're just kind of lagging especially during the pandemic.

Sheila Colla:

Yeah, I think I've already fallen behind I don't think but I have students and they're, you know, I'm probably the limiting factor in some of their research getting. But yeah, I just like I I don't have What is it called the imposter syndrome, I just know that this system is not built to, you know, have women, women of color, black indigenous researchers, people with young children who have partners that you know, actually work. Who don't know how all of the things paid for, it's not currently built for those people to thrive. So I'm not gonna kill myself trying to I'm just gonna do what I can. When the kids were here doing virtual school, I mean, they're supposed to be going back to school on Monday, we'll see what happens. But like, if I got three hours a day of work in that would be like an amazing, good. What it looks like is I have no time to do my own writing, because that takes like a certain type of mental energy that they just haven't had. I can answer emails on my phone while I'm making lunch and stuff like that, you know, there's a lot of multitasking. So that stuff gets done, I can listen in on committee meetings, I'm maybe not participating to my best ability. But yeah, like everything just has been scaled down. And I do it again, but I'm not going to beat myself up about not doing the best and all of the different realms.

Ethel Tungohan:

Absolutely. And I think that's an important kind of reminder, too, right? Like, we're not, we're not superheroes, and we're just doing the best we can. And I guess my concern is, you know, I mean, we speak from the super privileged position of having tenure already. But what would you say to colleagues who are grad students or Gosh, who are on the job market, or who are pre tenure in STEM, who are having to kind of face these expectations? And even as they kind of can write, you know, on the reports, look, you know, I, I have two children, so I've had to take parental leave, but also the pandemic has compounded that. And you yourself said that, you know, this isn't really something that a lot of people recognize as well. And so they would get pushback. What advice would you give to those folks? And is there anything that we can do is meet more senior people to, to make things more humane? Yeah,

Sheila Colla:

yeah, definitely. Yeah, in terms of us being more senior people, if we're doing peer reviewing, for doing grant reviewing for on hiring committees, really just voicing these concerns, and acknowledging, you know, the privilege that you know, some people I mean, I've had people, my colleagues who, you know, took paternity leave and found it, like some of the best time to do their writing, right? Like,

Ethel Tungohan:

shut up. Like, no, no,

Sheila Colla:

right. So there's all of these like different places where we do have some things built in, but maybe they don't work the way that they're supposed to work. So constantly interrogating how we're evaluating people. You know, I don't know how much I can say. But when I've been comparing international and domestic applicants and stuff, like looking at access to grants in some countries that you know, have had like a lot of upheaval, if they don't stand a chance against applicants from the US and the UK, right, like and just just constantly just trying to think about why things look the way they do. And if there's any sort of way that we can move that dial a little bit and open it up to play to people who might not look on paper, as you know, the top. I'm constantly trying to do that. And then in my own lab, like I said, I am I don't know if I've done it on purpose, but I I do attract students who you know, are maybe not super wealthy, not all white. I don't, I have very few white male students, if any. And they know that they can come to me with sort of some, like mental health issues or what have you. And I don't, you know, require people to be at their lab bench from nine to five. I know, there are some scientists that do that I give my students a lot of leeway in terms of how they use their time and when they do their work. So there's that, um, in terms of advising students, I mean, this is something that we've, you know, never lived through before, right? So it's really hard to know how it's all gonna pan out. I think being honest, is usually a good thing. When you're applying for things and there are gaps or, you know, or if something is not at the completed position that you would want it to be like a paper or something like maybe being honest. But why that is. I think it may backfire in some cases, because there are people who just like aren't gonna value the humanity part and just want you to be like a productive person. But then maybe you don't want to work for those people. I don't know. Maybe that's like a way to select those people.

Ethel Tungohan:

One thing I kind of am wondering about, too is, I have been in those rooms where I'm asking these questions, but then there's pushback, right? Like, you've got folks being like, really? And so how do you deal with the people asking the release? Do you kind of try to see if there are other sympathetic colleagues in the committee? And you can amplify, speak together? And amplify, do you? Like, what are some of the things that we can do? Yeah.

Sheila Colla:

Some times it's just not worth the energy. Right. So I've been told that I was on a committee that ended up leaving, it was actually a government committee for the province. And like, there's only so much fighting you can do sometimes, you know, um, so just knowing that boundary, I think, is actually a really important in some cases and committee work where you're voicing some opinions. And you see, and maybe there are some that maybe are not as vocal as you, but are agreeing with you. Maybe having private conversations about what next steps could be. I've always had pretty good experiences with that. But yeah, it's really tricky. And there's all these power dynamics that go into it. What are the consequences? I personally don't join equity committees in the institution for that reason, because it's just such hard work. And you're often put into really awkward positions. I have been a rep for high end companies now. But in terms of like fighting for equity, I tend to do that more at the community level in my neighborhood and in Toronto, but not so much my place of work, because I've seen how fragility can backfire and really impact your ability to work with people.

Ethel Tungohan:

We need to we need to have an off the record Convo about that, because I am feeling everything that you're saying one of the things he said was he could you concentrate on your community and you concentrate on activism. And one thing that you had written actually, anti Shula is that it's sometimes hard to be both an activist and an academic. Why do you say that?

Sheila Colla:

I guess, for kind of more practical reasons. I've gotten rejected for grant applications for people like with the comment that I'm more of an activist and a scientist now these days.

Ethel Tungohan:

Whoa, what does that mean?

Sheila Colla:

I don't know if I mean, all of this stuff is done under the shield of anonymity. Right. So who knows what people mean?

Ethel Tungohan:

Like, how like, Was it because of the questions you were asking? Or is it because they looked at your CV? And they kind of were questioning some of the work there? Like, where are these comments coming from?

Sheila Colla:

I think in that case, it was about my ability to be objective, which was being put under question. And it's kind of a weird thing. Because if you recognize that everything is political, then you recognize that you can't be objective. But for some reason, and like being objective is like the goal. Absolutely. But I think it's actually impossible, because our worldviews and our positionality influences everything about how we do our work, who we work with, what we're able to work on. So it's it's a constant tension that I've had to deal with in academic societies, grants, all sorts of things, is constantly coming up. But I mean, I'm not going to stop. So if my funding decreases, because of my activism work, then so be it. But I can't just like sit by and pretend that scientists should not take aside on certain subjects or any subject, and that the other intersections of my, you know, identity aren't at play here, because they definitely are.

Ethel Tungohan:

Yeah, so I guess one of my final questions to you is, a lot of our listeners are women of color. Their parents too. They're trying to, they're trying to cope, they're trying to survive. Um, what's advice that you're giving our listeners, especially those who are just feeling you know, what, year three? We just don't know. We just don't know how to keep going. Right. Any hacks? Well, maybe not hacks. But can we hacker way through the pandemic, but any, any thoughts you want to share?

Sheila Colla:

Yeah, um, I guess just giving yourself grace and understanding that this is not what this job is supposed to look like right now. And it was never really built to support us in a way that would help us thrive. And now it's just you know, those inequities are just being completely compounded with all of this stuff going on. So just give me your grace, that giving yourself grace. And understanding that it's impossible. Everything that we're being asked to do is actually impossible to do. And then finding those people who can support you whether it's through a group chat, or you just need to vent, whether it's your dean or associate dean where you can You know, say, you know, I have this going on my life right now I can't do any more service or I can't do service for like the next six weeks. Or I need to do less service or I need help, you know, with my teaching for me, when we first switched online, I was teaching really large undergrad class. So I asked my dean, if I could have some ta help just to like set up the exam online and stuff because I'd never done that I would have been such a learning curve. And she was like, Yeah, sure, like she knew, you know, how much time that would have taken and how stressful that was. So just like, you know, asking for help, sometimes. You never know, it might actually work out for you. And just building that community of people who, you know, you can go to, with all of your fears. And just for a second opinion about things like I have so many group tribes that they use for different ways. I actually did this. The faculty, what is it called? National Center for faculty diversity and development? Yes, yeah. Yeah, Camp over the summer time. And there were a few things that really stuck with me. And one of them was, when you're trying to find like a mentor, just acknowledge that one person cannot be your everything. So if there's a person that can help you, like review a grant or a person who can help you bounce ideas off of our person that you can go to about like your life's struggles and trying to like do your research, like you need to identify who those people are, and then just go to those people and not just assume that, like, you know, one person has it all together, because none of us have it all together. I really like that that exercise that we did, and the other one was the writing the chapters of our career, I'm switching to that one. But basically, the take home message for me was like, if you don't define how you want this part of your life to look like someone else will write that chapter for you, oh, you will be by service, you'll be eaten up by admin positions, or whatever. So be very thoughtful about the kinds of research projects that you know, help get you out of bed, that you do feel like you want to do, everything else is awful. And really try to focus on those, even if it ends up being 15 minutes a day, because that's all you have time for. But really just, you know, keeping that as sort of a strategic move, you know, giving yourself that kind of I don't know if it's, like, nutritious, you know, I'm just trying to like the things that like, keep you going in terms of your work and your research, even if it's just a little bit, just keep that focus going on the projects that really interesting that you think are important.

Ethel Tungohan:

For sure, I mean, I love all of the advice that you've given. I mean, I think, you know, relying on community is so important. Like I think a lot of us feel that we've got to do it all and you know, seeking diverse mentors, diverse communities who can kind of review a grant or, you know, even like, do a guest lecture, I've done that as well, just to kind of ease off the workload asking for what you need. Because who knows, maybe, maybe you'll be given what you need, right? And finally, kind of being a little bit more intentional about, like, what, what you want to do, right, like doing the work that actually makes the most sense to you.

Sheila Colla:

And if you're not intentional about it, someone else will decide what that looks like for you. Whether it's like a student or you know, a collaborator or whatever. So just really being like, firm, and trying to do what you want to do as much as you can work it into your day.

Ethel Tungohan:

But yeah, 100% This is all so useful. I'm Auntie Sheila, thank you so much. Um, a lot of our listeners are on social media. So do you want to kind of share your social media handle in case, folks want to get in touch with you or follow you? Yeah.

Sheila Colla:

So really, I think Twitter is my main thing. Everything else was kind of like pictures of kids, which is not interesting to the handle is a wild bees. But on Facebook, I also one of my projects, called Finding flowers has a Facebook page. So if you wanted to follow our research, that's our project in collaboration with some of our indigenous partners, looking at the relationships of bees and plants and medicine, gardens and having really hard conversations about, you know, Canada and extraction and environment and all of these things. So yeah, so finally flowers were on Facebook and YouTube as well.

Ethel Tungohan:

Thank you so much. This was an incredibly illuminating conversation. Thank you. After talking with Auntie Sheila, it is no wonder that so many of us are feeling like we're at the breaking point. But in a way, it's empowering to know that you're not alone. And for me, I'm thinking about how NGOs in the social sciences and humanities can work hand in hand with those in STEM to disrupt the systems and structures that are hurting so many that academic Auntie's help us out and spread the word. Visit to learn more about how you can support the podcast. Today's episode of academic Aunties was hosted by me Dr. Ethel Tungohan. Our producers are Wayne Chuand Dr. Nisha Nath. Tune in next week when we bring you more academic aunties. Until then take care. Be kind to yourself, and don't be an asshole.

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