Balancing family and work, excelling in a male-dominated field and breaking barriers for women in science across the province, Jean Springer leaves a lot in the way of legacy.
Now 80-years-old and retired, Springer fondly remembers her years as the dean of science and technology at Mount Royal University, her time as president of the Alberta Women’s Science Network (AWSN) and the lifetime spent as a student of mathematics. But most importantly, Springer cherishes the time she devoted to her family.
“For me, my children and my family came first,” Springer says. “And my academic studies came second. So, once you decide that and stick with it, you don't get stressed about it. Because you know that those things are more important.”
Springer discovered that her children became a motivational force as she moved through her career. It became important that she was a strong role model for them.
“I had thought that if things became too hectic, I could quit. But I had kids and I couldn't quit,” she says.
Her children certainly received the message. Wayne Springer, now in his 50s, admits he still looks up to his mother’s example.
“She’s an unbelievable role model for almost every aspect of life that is important,” he said. “So if you're in a situation, you generally think, ‘What would my dear mother do?’”
Springer was raised in Jamaica where she developed a love for mathematics. She began studying medicine in her post-secondary studies, switching back to algebra after a year.
After marrying a Trinidadian engineer, Springer moved to her husband’s home country where she taught high school mathematics. Her growing family then emigrated to Canada and Springer began teaching at the University of Calgary, SAIT and Mount Royal University.
Within three years of teaching full time at Mount Royal University, she was chair of the math department. In another three, she was dean of the faculty of science and technology.
“She just didn't sleep very much – I think that's what happened, she just worked,” Wayne Springer says.
In 1986 she received the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award from the university, eight years later she received the Teaching Excellence Award. To Springer, however, nothing was as rewarding as the personal connections she formed throughout her career.
“In many ways, the most meaningful reward isn't the award you win,” she says. “It is when you're out and someone taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘You were my prof I want to thank you for what you did.’ Those are the meaningful rewards.”
Though Springer admits that mathematics is largely a male-dominated field, she joined the community fearlessly.
“People can only discriminate against you if you're prepared to recognize it. And so that wasn't something that became a problem for me,” Springer says.
As part of a group that founded the AWSN in 1993, Springer served as their president until 2013. The AWSN encourages and supports underrepresented populations to pursue STEM careers.
“As we grew up [in STEM], we came to realize how important it was that girls didn't get dissuaded from entering those fields,” Springer says.
She served as a strong role model for many women who are now following in her footsteps and the AWSN continues to grow under the leadership of current president Alicia Bjarnason.
“It’s nice to have a voice that's been before you, many of us are still navigating it. She is definitely someone who, when she speaks, we all listen,” Bjarnason says.
Bjarnason estimates that the organization has contributed $2 million to the STEM ecosystem in Alberta in the past 25 years. They serve the community in many ways including acting as an idea incubator for start-ups, providing financial support to other organizations and working with classrooms to connect young people with female STEM professionals.
Springer said that she has seen an increase in the number of women entering these fields because of the AWSN and organizations like it.
“You have to remember that it's not just about you,” she says “It's about seeing where the department is going.”
- By Stephanie Gabriel