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92 Years Of Resilience And Perseverance For UC Grad

At 92, UC graduate Dr Patricia Roberts Pichette reflected on her pioneering career at UC’s 150th Anniversary.

Dr Roberts-Pichette’s return from Ottawa, Canada marks not just a personal milestone but serves as a testament to her legacy and groundbreaking career that overcame institutional and gender barriers.

After graduating 70 years ago with a Bachelor of Science followed by a Master of Science from Canterbury University College (CUC), now known as Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC), Patricia left Aotearoa New Zealand in 1954 for Duke University in America on a Fulbright scholarship to complete her PhD in Ecology and Forestry.

Having taught for ten years at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, in the late 1950s and 60s, Patricia married, had two sons and went on to lead the way in global ecology.

To this day Dr Roberts-Pichette continues researching and her work is regularly cited in academic research, specifically her work on the venus fly trap.

While Patricia reflects on her life with pride, it was not an easy road, often finding herself the first or only woman in her work. For ten years she was the only female professor in the science faculty teaching biology at the University of New Brunswick and discovered that her less experienced male colleagues were being promoted while she was not.

“I went to the department head and said I should be promoted too. He said my name was brought up in a promotions meeting where it was decided I hadn’t published enough research,” recounts Patricia.

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“So, I went to the chair of the university teachers’ union and he told me that my name was not discussed. My own Head of Department, whom I trusted, had lied to me. I insisted that something be done. I’m not sure what happened but I got the promotion that year.”

“I also found out that the men had higher salaries than I did. I thought with the similar academic qualifications our salaries would have been the same – that was never rectified.”

Her grit and tenacity were again put to the test when she became the first woman appointed to the TAC secretariat at the FAO in Rome.

“Shortly after I arrived in Rome, two of my colleagues separately came and told me that I was unwelcome, that they were against my appointment, that I should have left my two boys in Canada, that I should have a spouse to do all the technical things like signing contracts and that I was taking advantage of FAO,” Patricia recalls.

“When that happened, I wanted to go back to Canada immediately, but I’d signed a two-year contract, and my belongings were coming over by boat, so there was no way I could go back. I just had to grin and bear it and get down to work.

“Within six months I was appointed the TAC Deputy Executive Secretary and outranked them all; I enjoyed that position for nearly seven years.”

Speaking on resilience, Patricia, noting she no longer had a spouse to share parental duties, said there was often no choice but to push through the difficult times.

“If I hadn’t been resilient, then I couldn’t have survived. I had two sons to raise. There were things to be done, there was no choice, there was nobody else who could have done them.”

After 92 years of life, Patricia’s best advice was about passion: “If you really want to do something, and if it’s that important – go do it. Go around the corners, go under barriers, put your head down and go straight through, that’s what you do. But you’ve got to love it; if you don’t love it, don’t try.”

Patricia’s career included roles in the Canadian federal public service (Environment Canada) on the UNESCO Program on Man and Biosphere (MAB) in the 60s and 70s, where she managed the Canadian MAB Secretariat.

After working at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), she was appointed to the secretariat of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture (CGIAR) with an office at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. Patricia later had a national award for excellence named after her by Environment Canada.

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