Community Papers

From pathogens to people, De Whalen’s passion evolved

De Whalen has gone from lab work to safety. -
De Whalen has gone from lab work to safety.
— image credit:

De Whalen has followed an usual path to her current role as president of Cinevolution Media Arts Society, one where she’s managed to develop all regions of her brain.

While many might recognize her name from the advocacy work she’s done for the Richmond Women’s Resource Centre, or the Richmond Poverty Response Committee, did you know she previously worked for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, as a public health lab scientist?

After earning her biology degree from Simon Fraser University, Whalen worked mostly in virology (the study of viruses) at the CDC for many years before her interests were turned to lab safety.

She cast a critical eye on the procedures used in the lab, and was concerned about lab safety and the health of her colleagues. At that time, drawing biological samples entailed using one’s mouth to suck from a glass-straw-like pipette. (Imagine coughing or sneezing and accidentally ingesting a sample of a noxious, possibly hazardous substance.)

After sitting on the safety committee, she eventually became a shop steward, where her love for advocating for others blossomed in a union environment.

“I was brought up believing social justice was the most important thing in the world,” she said. “I learned that on my mother and father’s knee.”

Her parents taught her it was important to speak up for others who couldn’t speak for themselves, she said.

Her advocacy work has gotten better with age, she offered.

“The older I get, the less I care about what people think of me,” she chuckled.

She honed her skills at “arguing convincingly to get what we needed” during her time working for the union.

Following her retirement from the CDC, she was hired as a union staff representative for the B.C. Government and Service Employee Union, something she did until 2005.

The non-profit world was opened to her at the time she was helping child care workers negotiate a collective agreement.

She soon found herself advocating for child care issues, for worker rights and the rights of all parents to have access to safe, affordable and quality child care.

Upon retiring from a 30-year career split between the lab and the union, Whalen then moved on to the Richmond Women’s Resource Centre, where for seven years she took on a number of lead roles, including as past president, vice president and secretary of the board of directors.

While she devoted a lot of her life to learning the sciences, today the arts region of Whalen’s brain is being stimulated.

She’s now the president of the Cinevolution Media Arts Society, where she’s helping in the areas of governance and policy development.

“I’m really enjoying that,” she said about fostering greater community engagement and finding new audiences.

When she’s not learning to read music, or singing with the seven-member women’s group Re:Sisters, Whalen can be found on her hobby farm in East Richmond.

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