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Healthy Campus Community Champion

Department of Biological Sciences faculty member and previous Chair, Dr. Isabelle Côté Awarded as a Healthy Campus Community Champion

March 30, 2022

By Daksha Jadhav

Dr. Isabelle Côté is being recognized for her outstanding contributions to the health and well-being of SFU staff and students as the 2021 faculty recipient of the Champions for a Healthy Campus Community award.  As the previous Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences and a professor of marine ecology and conservation, Dr. Côté’s nomination highlighted her genuine  care for student and staff well-being, her steadfast commitments to the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and her exceptional leadership during a time of uncertainty. 

Cultivating a Community of Care During the Pandemic

Dr. Côté’s commitment to fostering a community of care and building resilience among students, staff, and faculty is evidenced through actions big and small. Her fellow teaching staff nominated her for this award, because of the many actions she took within her role as Chair to strengthen both individual and collective well-being. In this role she regularly supported a culture of care by providing thoughtful notes of recognition and encouragement to students, faculty, and staff. Her commitment to well-being and social connection also shone through in her advice for faculty on the importance of checking in with students and asking, “not just how their research is going, or you know, how their coursework is going, but how they are. If they are well.” She emphasizes that meaningfully inquiring about students’ wellbeing is necessary, “I am very aware of the distinction between professional relations and personal relations. Having people ask how their students were, whether they're graduate students or undergrad, and…showing that you care for their mental wellbeing as much as you care for their research output or their grades, I think is a bit of a mind shift that people have to do. And if people have started to do this mind shift because of the pandemic, that might be one of the best things to come out of [it].”

As Chair during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Isabelle had a unique opportunity to positively contribute to well-being and resiliency in her faculty. She quickly recognized the impending challenges of the pandemic and proactively consulted with faculty to identify contingency plans and minimize disruptions to teaching and learning early on. Effectively collaborating and strategizing to sustainably and reliably move activities online early significantly allayed anxiety among students and staff. Her decisive leadership and collaborative innovation in the everchanging landscape of the pandemic served as a model for other SFU departments and was adopted by several other Canadian institutions and featured on the CBC radio show, Quirks & Quarks. While reflecting on the situation she says that the pandemic “…took a huge toll. And…[with] what little power I had, it was important to me to try to reduce that burden.” Her collaborative efforts further strengthened connections between research and teaching faculty, leading to a strong exchange of ideas and sense of connection during uncertain times. 

Supporting Well-being through Policies and Procedures

Throughout her 16 years of work at SFU, Isabelle has enjoyed finding ways to create positive chance in relation to policies and procedures. In her role as Chair, she welcomed feedback from the department’s Graduate Student Caucus through regular meetings and began inculcating the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion into policies and procedures in the department.  Under her leadership the department revised their Constitution in order to make procedures more inclusive and recognize the initiative of staff engaging with EDI activities. “My ways have been more to target the procedural levers that I could tug on as a department Chair,” said Isabelle. With particular efforts towards improving the scholarship of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) graduate students, the department then established an official EDI Committee. Isabelle emphasized that the strong desire for change was echoed by other faculty members saying, “I’m the figurehead in front, but I’ve got all these faculty [members] backing me up and supporting these decisions”. She hopes to continue improving the experiences of graduate students in the department by considering ways to minimize the power imbalance between graduate students and their supervisors. 

Creating Opportunities for Students into the Future 

As Isabelle steps away from her role as Chair, she is excited to return to research and continue supporting students in other ways. “In less than two years now, I'm rowing across the Atlantic to raise funds for marine conservation and marine education to create a scholarship for less privileged people to go to Bamfield,” she says. Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre is co-owned by SFU and Isabelle hopes that her efforts will better support BIPOC students looking to explore opportunities at Bamfield for coursework and research. 

Isabelle sees academia as her passion and credits her successes to the support and encouragement of her fellow teaching staff. She greatly values the opportunities she has had as Chair to make the department a place where students and staff thrive and shares the advice she gives her graduate students: “Distinguish yourself by your kindness.”