BY KATE ROBERTSON I PHOTOGRAPHY BY CARLYLE ROUTH
Dr. Roberta Bondar’s resumé reads at first glance like a list of disparate — albeit extraordinary — achievements. Now a celebrated nature photographer, educator and speaker, she became Canada’s first female astronaut when she went aboard NASA’s space shuttle Discovery as a payload specialist in 1992. No matter which hat (or helmet) she chooses — a North York General Hospital physician, board member for satellite part manufacturers COM DEV, Discovery Channel broadcaster or environmental science and art teacher through the Roberta Bondar Foundation — the 65-year-old insists there is a common thread that links every endeavour she embarks upon. That link, she says, is a value system based on service above self.
“It’s one of the things I love about teaching, about volunteerism and about medicine,” Bondar says. “It’s the idea of being able to make someone else’s life easier because I’m able to. Because life is hard enough.”
Bondar’s values, she says, come largely from her upbringing in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Growing up in the 1950s in a small town, she and her sister, Barbara, were highly involved in Girl Guides, athletics and volunteerism from a young age. Both of their parents, Edward and Mildred, were active in the Rotary Club, church and YMCA. It was also through her father that Bondar says she learned the importance of education — another element that links each milestone in her career. Not unlike her curriculum vitae, Bondar’s list of academic achievements is nothing short of astounding. She first studied science at the University of Guelph with the intention of becoming a high school science and physical education teacher. But doors continued to open as her interest in graduate work took hold. And after attending the University of Western Ontario, the University of Toronto and McMaster University, she became a fellow at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in neurology. Now, Bondar has more than 20 honorary degrees from various universities and has studied nature photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography. She also holds a private pilot’s licence and has done so since she entered the space program.
“My dad was conscripted during the war,” Bondar says, “but at the time he wanted to become a chartered accountant.” When he returned to Canada after the war, she says her dad was unable to get the high school credits needed to attend university. “It was heartbreaking. My dad always said, ‘You need that piece of paper,’ because he couldn’t get anywhere without it, right? So I was damned determined to get every piece of paper because I didn’t want doors to shut.”
Education, Bondar says, has been crucial to both learning a skillset and gaining confidence she needs to succeed. With that in mind, she also considers herself a lifelong learner who is intent on imparting wisdom on others. From 2003 to 2009, she acted as volunteer chancellor of Trent University. And with the goal of mimicking Ansel Adams’s documentation of the America landscape from a Canadian perspective, Bondar shares her uniquely scientific, creative and conservationist point of view with others in her photography books Landscape of Dreams and Passionate Vision.
Similarly, the Roberta Bondar Foundation’s Bondar Challenge invited middle-school students to do the same: to snap photos of their natural environment and to write accompanying mini-essays explaining the science contained within the photograph.
“My hypothesis is that if you fall in love with something you’ll embrace it as part of your heritage,” she says. “I think that if people are committing to actually taking a picture and seeing what they photograph, it really makes them look — and that’s when people have respect. That’s when people honour and people maintain.”
Whether looking through the lens of a camera or lens of a microscope, Bondar says her support system has played a crucial role in her journey. At various stages in her career, she’s felt some men feel threatened by a woman’s success, particularly in the space program where an adventurous, “macho” personality is common.
“It’s uncomfortable if women get the same job,” Bondar says. “Somehow it takes away from [men’s] image of themselves because they don’t see women as being their equal in a professional sense. I think there are some people who still have that problem and it makes it difficult for women in many fields, but in the astronaut program it’s a big one.”
But no professional challenge has been as difficult as the personal one of losing her mother. In 2006, her mom sustained several injuries while being transported from her bed to a wheelchair. Her health swiftly declined and she died shortly after.
“I could never really get rid of that horrible feeling that when people die they should die with dignity and with as little pain as possible,” Bondar says. “But you know, this is why family and friends and support are so important. People like Chris [Bondar’s assistant] and a couple of other really good friends, they rallied around me and my sister.”
Since then, she has rediscovered the passion that fuels her latest project. She is currently writing an epic children’s tale about a sandhill crane who travels from Canada to Siberia on a quest. And although she hasn’t yet found a publisher for the work-in-progress, Bondar is confident she’ll be able to take the book to international markets.
“You need to have confidence,” she says.“As long as you have the skillset, it’s all about confidence and it’s all about support. Success deals with not being arrogant, but rather about being confident.”