Professor blazing a trail for Black women in science
January 25, 2018
Being a full-time musical performer was the career Dr. Cassandra Extavour thought she was going to pursue.
As early as age five, Hughgo Extavour put his daughter on stage to sing and by the time she was enrolled at Palmerston Avenue Public School, she was playing the flute, violin, steel pan, recorder and percussion.
It was not until Extavour was at the University of Toronto Schools – an independent secondary institution -- that she decided she was going to be a scientist.
“It was an interest that I developed late in high school,” she said. “After graduation, I wanted to know more.”
Graduating in 1995 from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular genetics and molecular biology, Extavour completed a PhD. in drosophila genetics in 2000 at the Severo Ochoa Centre for Molecular Biology at the Autonomous University of Madrid and performed post-doctoral work at the Institute for Molecular Biology & Biotechnology in Crete, Greece and at the University of Cambridge in Boston where she received a research grant and became a research assistant in the department of zoology.
“By the time I got to Cambridge, I had learnt enough about the possible career structures in academic research to realise that one way I could basically get paid to keep learning more about what I thought was something interesting was to become the leader of my own research group,” she said.
In 2007, the Extavour independent laboratory was launched.
Its primary focus is on understanding early embryonic development, the genes that control this development, the evolutionary origins of these genes and how their functions have changed over evolutionary time.
The lab is mainly interested in the development and evolution of reproductive systems, including germ cells which make eggs and sperm in sexually reproducing animals, and somatic gonad cells which create the structures to house and protect the germ cells and regulate egg and sperm production.
Extavour began working on germ cell development in graduate school. In her doctoral thesis, she used classical drosophila genetics to explore the genetic requirements of germ cells during development.
Her cutting-edge work led to an appointment at Harvard University as an assistant professor in the summer of 2007. She was elevated to associate professor in 2011 and made a full professor three years later.
Of the nearly 1,600 professors at the 382-year-old Ivy League research institution, about 40 are Black and almost all of them are in the African and African-American studies department.
As the first female Black tenured scientist in the Faculty of Arts & Science, Extavour is aware of the significance of her position.
“It means so much for me to be able to stand in front of a class and show students that it is possible,” she said. “Every time I hear a student tell me, ‘I am so glad you are in the department and just knowing that gives me so much strength to go through my studies’, makes it worthwhile.”
The developmental biologist is also doing her part to change the way in which scientists are perceived.
Extavour is a project adviser and program contributor to The People’s Science campaign started in 2015 to help fill in the gaps of the educational system by improving the relationship between science, society, and the self.
As part of the campaign, she has agreed to have her photo displayed and share her compelling story on the organization’s website.
“The goal of that campaign is to provide educational experience for elementary school students so that they can see pictures of what scientists look like and hear, in the words of these scientists, what type of things they do,” Extavour said. “There are many professions that children know about that they can easily visualize. Scientists are kind of mysterious. I had no idea that being a research scientist was a full-time job until I was in my 20s.
“Unless you happen to know somebody, you really have no idea what scientists look like. Most kids think they are old White guys in lab coats. A lot of scientists fall into that category. The point of this campaign is to demonstrate that scientists also look like young Black women and middle-age Asian men. They are all kinds of scientists.”
On sabbatical until September, Extavour was in Toronto last week to visit family and participate in Martinsday celebration organized by A Different Booklist.
Her father, who passed away last October at age 78, co-founded the celebration in 1987 to celebrate the legacy of late American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I attended the first event and a few others,” Extavour said. “I am so proud of my dad’s role in helping to bring King’s message to the Black community in Toronto. He had a strong moral compass and he believed that the most important thing in one’s life was to find that internal compass and to unwaveringly march to that beat knowing that pressure from the outside might try to tell you that what you were doing was wrong and unacceptable.”
Leaving Trinidad & Tobago in 1967, Extavour -- a member of Afropan which is the city’s oldest and most successful steelpan outfit, having won 28 Panorama title -- released his first album – Jazzy Afrobana – on his Fun Time Beats label in 1985.
He also loved African drumming and was a broadcasting technician at CBC for three decades.
“I have very fond memories of my father,” said Extavour. “He showed me how to care for plants and gardens and helped to launch my musical career. He came to my elementary and high school to give drumming workshops and I was slightly embarrassed sometimes when he showed up at my school. On the other hand, I was very proud because there was no other dad like him.”
Extavour’s mother – Doris Matyas Extavour – also played an extremely integral role in her development.
“Growing up in a mixed-race household was very critical to my identity because of my parents’ strong sense that their children were going to be categorized as Black and that we were going to have a Black experience in the society that they were bringing us up in,” she noted. “We were blessed because we had had the influence of two cultures, our father from Trinidad & Tobago and our mother from Switzerland and Hungary. My mother has an amazing understanding of the potential for empathy, adaptability and leadership. She’s one of the most independent people that I know and she clearly understands that her experience wasn’t going to be the experience of her children.”
Nothing is easy, even for Extavour who is blazing a trail.
She worked full-time to pay her way through school and overcame challenges as a queer Black woman in science.
“When you are a woman in a male-dominated society and a Black woman in a White-dominated field, you have to be very careful where you seek your support,” Extavour said. “One thing I recommend to young Black women making their way in this profession and other White male-dominated professions is to seek out allies and develop relationships with them. On the other hand, watch out for people who clearly aren’t your allies like those who might try to put you down, display jealousy or try to undermine your work. Do your best to distance yourself from those people. Understand that you have to forge your career based on the networks you build on your own.”
Science isn’t the only field in which Extavour excels in.
She’s an outstanding soprano in the Handel & Haydn Society and Emmanuel Music in Boston and loves dancing, cooking and hosting parties.
Away from Toronto for the last 23 years, Extavour expressed a keen interest in coming back to this city to live and work at some point in the future.
“I live in Boston now for professional reasons because of my job at Harvard, but I hope not to settle here permanently,” she added.
The celebrated scientist is the eldest of four children.
Dr. Marcius Extavour was the director of government & corporate partnerships in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto for three years before taking up a position in September 2015 in the Greater Los Angeles area as director of technical operations with Carbon XPRIZE which seeks to inspire the brightest minds around the world to tackle a significant challenge and help solve climate change.
Ericka (Juma) Extavour is a vegan chef and nutritional wellness consultant in Trinidad & Tobago and Mariea Extavour is the staff accountant at KT Partners LLP.