SFYou: Dr. Lesley Schimanski

Of mice and neuroscience: A look into Dr. Schimanski, neuroscientist and long-time researcher of rats

Photo courtesy of Dr. Lesley Schimanski

By: Katarina Chui, SFU Student

Name: Lesley Schimanski
Pronouns: she/her/hers
Departmental Affiliation: Department of Psychology
Hometown: Pincher Creek, Alberta
Occupation: Sessional Instructor, Psychology and Cognitive Sciences

Among students, Dr. Lesley Schimanski is known for three things: living on the Sunshine Coast (and thus having a long commute to SFU), her unwavering kindness, and her dedication to students. A single glance at the Facebook page Must Knows for Courses at SFU attests to these traits. Countless students recommend their peers to take classes with her, often mentioning their experience with her or her personality in the comments.

Dr. Schimanski (or Dr. S., as most students refer to her) came to SFU as a sessional instructor in 2017. Her resume is impressive: before SFU, she taught for over a decade at the University of Alberta and in multiple schools in Arizona. In addition to teaching at the University of Arizona, she studied rat brains in mazes there with Dr Carol A Barnes, a prominent neuroscientist. Since coming to SFU, she has taught a multitude of classes, such as introductory psychology, data and research methods in psychology, cognitive, and neuroscience courses. 

Similar to how she teaches, Dr. Schimanski exhibited a quiet, calm demeanour in the interview, preferring to pause before answering and carefully crafting out her next sentences. She acknowledged this, saying, “I’m pretty quiet, generally. And in real life, I’m not a big talker, really, socially.” 

Our conversation shifted easily from one topic to another as we swapped stories about our experiences and interests, her openness and the ease she shared stories about herself evident.

“I grew up in Pincher Creek, a small town in southern Alberta. It’s this [rural, conservative] town right outside the Rocky Mountains. We could see the mountains from my backyard,” she recalled fondly. 

Her childhood filled with nature influenced her life-long passion for the environment, and gave her an appreciation for aesthetics — something she captures with photography. 

“It’s [the only] way for me to be artistic that I have enough patience for,” Dr. Schimanski added with a laugh, explaining that she usually abandons arts-and-crafts projects a quarter of the way through. “I can’t do repetitive things! I just can’t. It drives me crazy. Photography does not require too much patience; it’s almost instant gratification. My [mother and grandmother are] probably totally embarrassed by me [as] they are knitters, crocheters, stitchers, [and] seamstresses.”

As an adult, she and her family eat a mainly plant-based diet. When asked about her favourite food, she said, “I can’t pick a favourite [food], I like food. [ . . ] Chocolate. Pizza. Pie. Cake. I’m gluten-free so this has become more challenging; many of my favourite foods are not compatible with my dietary restrictions these days.

Dr. Schimanski also does freelance photography of people and animals. She is a big believer in animal rights and against animal cruelty. On the side, she does volunteer freelance photography for animal rescue shelters, such as SPCA. 

“If I [can] use my talents to help [the animals], I want to help,” she told me. 

Her love of neuroscience began in high school, when she took an IB class on the brain and genetics. This sparked her interest in neuroscience and psychology, inspiring her to enrol in pre-medicine at the University of Lethbridge. She wanted to help others and decided that the best way to do so would be in the medical field. However, there was one catch. 

“I’m a very empathetic person,” said Dr. Schimanski. “I figured I wasn’t cut out for this life-and-death stuff; I didn’t trust that I could leave [the things I saw] at work.” Remembering her love for the brain and genetics from IB, she transferred to a neuroscience program in her second year of university.

When asked about her favourite subjects, she said “biology, math, and writing [ . . . ] three things that make up a lot of neuroscience/psychology research, actually.”

She taught in Arizona for five years, but eventually moved back to Canada, settling with her family on the Sunshine Coast. She attributes her decision of living outside of Vancouver to her childhood: “When you [grow] up living under the Rocky Mountains, [ . . . ] you miss that when you leave.”

Her lecturing style says a lot about her personality and interests; she carries herself with a quiet demeanour, is empathetic toward her students, and frequently mentions her dog, Jake. 

“I see my role as a facilitator to help each person achieve their best,” she said. “It’s difficult with the way university is structured, but I don’t want my [students comparing] themselves to everyone else. It’s my goal to make things interesting, accessible, and to provide whatever support I can so that everyone can achieve their best.” She believes everyone brings different things to class and strives to make psychology personalizable for her students to individually relate to the material in some way.

She has been focusing on improving her craft and her teaching methods since she began teaching in Arizona. “It was really scary!” she exclaimed, recalling the first time she taught. “I was really young, maybe 23 or 24 at the time. I have no doubt that a bunch of my students were older than me. [ . . . ] I wasn’t a particularly confident person at that time [and] I didn’t have much experience speaking [at the time].” Dr. Schimanski added that she was really worried about being accurate and “knowing [her] stuff.” 

So how did Dr. Schimanski. become the confident teacher she is today? She credited her students. 

“I’ve [probably learnt] just as much from my students as they have from me.” She sees her students as individuals, acknowledging that every single one of them has different skills, talents, different methods of understanding and relating to the material, and different strengths and weaknesses. 

Dr. Schimanski tries her best to find a middle ground so everyone can feel like an equal participant in her classes. This is one of the things she enjoys most about teaching, she told me. 

“My job [is] to assist other people in furthering their knowledge as best I can. It’s not my place to judge; it’s not my place to have any particular expectation on anyone other than what they are able to give at that point. That being said, I ask a lot [of my students] [ . . . ] because I want them to do their best. As I’ve learned, the more I ask for, the more I can push people to achieve their best without asking. They may not realize their potential.”

She noted her teaching style was influenced by her own experiences as an undergraduate student. 

“I was afraid to talk in class,” she revealed. “[So now,] I’m mindful of that when I design what we’re doing in class. [ . . . ] I want to be [someone] my students are okay with approaching. I don’t want to be [the] scary person up in the scary office. I want them to come to me if they’re having a problem or if they need help with something.” 

Something people may not know about Dr. Schimanski is that “[she] enjoy[s] listening to classic rock a lot and [her] favourite author is non-fiction novelist Eckhart Tolle.”

As our interview came to a close, I asked Dr. Schimanski one more question: what four words would you use to describe yourself? 

“Empathetic, approachable, kind,” she said. “And determined,” she added after a while, acknowledging that that last one can also be a weakness as she is “ambitious to a fault.”