Helen Madill

Helen Madill

Minerva Mentorship Award 2007

Barbara Chabai


The stakes are higher than ever for today’s university students, hence the need for the support and guidance of trustworthy mentors. This is one of the factors that continue to motivate and engage Dr. Helen Madill in her mentoring activities as Professor and Graduate Programs Coordinator at the Centre for Health Promotion Studies in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.


“The pressure on students to succeed and to accomplish more things earlier has increased phenomenally in the past 10 years. Excellence is highly prized and many students are very stressed by the pressure,” says Madill, offering the example of how difficult it can be to convince a student that she’s still a worthwhile person even if she didn’t win a coveted scholarship.


Madill says that more students seem to be coming to the academic arena with different life experiences and values that may not have prepared them for graduate school. “Many haven’t had practice in dealing with people – they’ve had to fight for what they need and many are used to being very assertive about it,” she says. “At times, I think there’s a sense of entitlement and a drive to succeed that undoubtedly played a role in them getting here in the first place. But once here, they may find that continuing in that same highly-competitive mode works against them.”


For over 18 years, Dr. Madill has demonstrated her commitment to mentoring and student advocacy. She continues to consult with dozens of graduate students as they pursue awards and submit research publications while much of her own work is focused on career decision-making and advancement of women in science-related fields. She received the Graduate Students’ Association Academic Staff Award for 2004-2005 “in recognition of exceptionally high, quality contributions to graduate students.”


Madill is actively involved with Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST). Since 1994 she has led three research teams carrying out studies of the impact of special initiatives and the retention of women in science at key career transition points. A chapter summarizing what has been learned from these studies will appear in Burke and Mattis’ Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic: Upping the Numbers which is being published by Edward Elgar in July of this year. Madill is currently serving as Chair of the WISEST Research Committee.


Personally, Madill acknowledges the impact that several advisory relationships have had on her career over the years. Among those she considers mentors is Dr. Myer Horowitz, former president of the University of Alberta; Dr. Martha Cook Piper, former Dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and president of UBC; Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour, former Vice-Chair of WISEST and now Associate Dean of the Faculty of Science as well as Madill’s doctoral supervisor, Dr. Len Stewin former chair of Educational Psychology.


“These are informal mentoring relationships. I first came into contact with each of them as part of the responsibilities of my job. There was something in the chemistry of those relationships that enabled me to feel free to seek advice as I needed it and then, to some extent, I found they consulted with me as well,” Madill says. “In their own individual ways, they each provided trust, respect and support in my career – these are long term relationships.”


As a mentor, Madill is driven by the sense of excitement that junior colleagues and graduate students possess about their plans and accomplishments. Still, she advises mentors to recognize the power of their influence on others.


“Our comments and actions affect others and we’re not always aware of the extent of that impact,” she says.

What I’ve noticed is that sometimes a very small thing can make a very big different. A quick e-mail inquiry, a phone call, a congratulatory card – simply taking a personal interest is often what seems to matter the most.

Madill’s interest mattered greatly to Ghislaine Goudreau, a recent graduate in health promotion studies. Madill mentored Goudreau, an Ontario resident who was working full time as she completed her Masters thesis in which she explored the connection between Aboriginal women’s hand drumming and health promotion.


“She never once lost her passion, her commitment and her enthusiasm for completing the project,” Madill recalls, despite the geographical distance between the two women. “As a member of an Aboriginal community, Ghislaine engaged women through an indigenous research process where she taught and learnt from them, she also taught me about the interaction and the needs of Aboriginal communities.”


In a note of gratitude Goudreau penned to Madill, she wrote: “You had a big influence on me. I always appreciated your thoroughness in helping me understand the thesis process. Moreover, your openness to my ideas and cultural views is what helped keep me going.”


In 2007, Goudreau became the first University of Alberta graduate to receive the Western Association of Graduate Schools’ Distinguished Thesis Award and was also awarded a YMCA-YWCA Women of Distinction Award. “I truly consider Ghislaine to be a woman of distinction,” her mentor says with pride. “She’s done extremely well and worked extremely hard. It’s wonderful to see.”


Just as students must be willing to engage in the mentoring process and be communicative, disciplined and self- motivated, Madill says mentors not only need sufficient time to devote to the mentoring relationship but to possess particular interpersonal qualities.


“You obviously have to be a people person and it helps to have a track record of being successful with people. I think you also need to have a genuine interest in seeing younger, less experienced people advance and in being able to relate to the issues and problems that they have,” she says.


You need a thorough understanding of the organization and how it works to be able to help someone else navigate their way through it. It requires a combination of patience, good listening skills and the ability to receive advice as well as give it. You should not be afraid to offer constructive criticism, but expect to be challenged along the way.


This year’s recipient of the Minerva Mentoring Award, Dr. Madill is clear about what ultimately continues to inspire her. “It is the people I work with,” she states. “I certainly like to engage with others to be able to share ideas. It still gives me a thrill to see graduate students succeed.”