Canadian STEM Femmes
Read on to meet Canadian STEM Femmes: women working in science, technology, engineering and math. Hear their stories, find out about their career paths, struggles and successes and check out their advice. Most importantly, share their stories! The women contributing to this blog hope that their stories will provide inspiration to young girls interested in science, give strength to women who feel like outsiders in their field, and help us all celebrate women in STEM.
- Elizabeth Cowan, Occasional Teacher
- Lisa Anderson, Senior Project Engineer, Macdonald, Dettwiler, and Associates Ltd.
- A Passion for Engineering in the Public Service
- Anna Crawford, PhD Candidate, Carleton University
- Thank You, Jane
- Allison Sibley, Technical Officer
- Am I the stupidest person in the room? The life of a female tech writer
- Gabrielle Gascon, Physical Sciences Specialist, Environment and Climate Change Canada
Elizabeth Cowan, Occasional Teacher
Liz Cowan is a substitute teacher for the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB). Before becoming a teacher, Liz completed her B.Sc. at the University of Guelph and her M.Sc. at Carleton University studying biogeochemistry and carbon cycling in peatlands. She likes teaching science because it combines her love of science and lifelong learning. In her spare time, Liz likes to crochet, ride her bike and stare at clouds.”
As I completed a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in the field of environmental sciences, one of my driving goals as a teacher is to reduce the number of students—especially young girls—who think “I’m not a math person” or “I’m not a science person.” Unfortunately, teachers still hear these phrases all the time in the classroom from students who are more than capable of succeeding in STEM learning. There are renewed efforts in education to shift this mindset. For example, recent research by Jo Boaler and her youcubed team at Stanford University has shown that everyone can learn math to high levels. They emphasize that struggle and mistakes are important because they challenge your brain in a good way and that we should stop worrying about being fast in math and instead focus on developing a deeper understanding, finding patterns in space, and developing new ways of visualizing math concepts and connecting ideas.
Math can be a creative and captivating subject, as students at OCSB’s summer numeracy program have demonstrated over the past two summers. This math intervention program aims to reduce summer learning loss for K-5 students, leverage technology and home connections to develop positive attitudes in math, and increase students’ and educators’ math fluency. From a teacher’s perspective, it was incredible to see students’ increased confidence and sense of belonging as they worked at interactive math centres, participated in outdoor environmental inquiries, and collaborated on STEM-based activities such as building bridges, constructing boats that float and exploring with LEGO robotics. These types of learning experiences sparked my own passion to work in science education, so I can only hope that they will encourage more girls to choose a STEM career in the future!
Two students prepare to test how much weight their bridge can hold before collapsing.
A young student eagerly tests the capacity of her newly constructed boat.
Liz learns about LEGO robotics and how it can be incorporated in the classroom.
Liz conducting her Master's research at Mer Bleue Conservation Area.
Lisa Anderson, Senior Project Engineer, Macdonald, Dettwiler, and Associates Ltd.
Lisa Anderson works for MDA Geospatial as a Senior Project Engineer. Read on to learn about Lisa’s path to software engineering and her thoughts on challenges in STEM.
When I was a kid, the father of one of my friends was an engineer with BC Rail. For the longest time I thought this meant he drove a train. He was in fact an electrical engineer and that was my first introduction to the concept of engineering as a profession. Engineering was never actively discouraged, but neither was it really discussed as a career option.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but a few years after leaving high school and working miscellaneous jobs I decided to try going back to school. It took me a while to get there because I’ve always been a lousy student and I had to re-take several high school courses to qualify. But, eventually, I was accepted into the computer systems program at a technology institute and two years of student loans later, my career as a software engineer started.
I’m not going to say there are no challenges for women in an engineering field. But I do believe that adapting to those challenges and learning from them just makes you better at what you’re doing. Going into an engineering profession will give you some amazing opportunities and you’ll meet some really fascinating people along the way.
Probably the most valuable thing I’ve learned is that you don’t need to be stuck in a specific role. Get started. Get your foot in the door and then make your career what you want it to be. I started in software engineering but have moved into different roles through the years. Some technical, some management, some involving a whole lot of dirt under the fingernails. Don’t believe that you can’t do something because you don’t fit the stereotype.
A Passion for Engineering in the Public Service
Submitted by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
Simone Charron has always enjoyed bridging her technical skills in engineering with her passion for social and environmental issues. As a student at Carleton University, she participated in programs like Engineers Without Borders Canada and sought out work opportunities that would fulfill her desire to make a positive impact on the world.
“I liked the idea that a background in engineering could bring value to projects that are outside the traditional engineering box,” said Charron.
Years later, as a Project Officer working at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Charron’s desire for fulfilling work has not wavered. Charron leads work on the sustainability portfolio of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) project under construction in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Established in 2007, CHARS will be a world-class hub for science and technology research in the Arctic, bringing an enhanced level of research and analysis to Canada’s North. Construction of the campus started in 2014 and will be complete in 2017 in time for Canada 150 celebrations.
The Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) is under construction in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (Credit: POLAR)
Working on the project has been a full circle opportunity for Charron. She first worked on CHARS during her last co-op term as a student, and she credits the project for keeping her in engineering when she had doubts about her career path.
“Working on the CHARS project as a student really opened my eyes to some new possibilities, and encouraged me to keep moving in the field of engineering and environmental sustainability,” said Charron.
When she returned to CHARS three years later, she was impressed with how much the project changed, and she was excited to apply her knowledge and experience in her new position. Charron also found herself in a mentoring role, as she worked closely with Marie-Eve Hodak, a co-op student from the University of Ottawa’s Mechanical Engineering Program.
Marie-Eve Hodak (left) and Simone Charron (right) are part of the next generation of leaders in engineering.
“It was amazing to work with Simone. She mentored me, and shared some of her experiences as a woman in STEM. She was someone I could relate to,” said Hodak.
As Hodak enters her third year of university, she appreciates the opportunity she had at INAC to learn about Indigenous communities and Canada’s Arctic, and she looks forward to a future career in the public service.
“To me, engineering is applying science to solve problems for humanity. What better way to do this than working in the public sector?” said Hodak. “CHARS is a meaningful project that will hopefully have a positive impact on Cambridge Bay and all of Canada.”
As for Charron, she is heading to Dalhousie University in the Fall to pursue a Master of Resource and Environmental Management. She hopes to continue working on impactful projects within the field of sustainability.
Simone Charron visited Cambridge Bay, Nunavut during the winter to provide support to the CHARS project.
Charron and Hodak are examples of the strides being made to cultivate the next generation of leaders in engineering, and they encourage engineering students to be themselves as they pursue their careers. Although Hodak was a student on the CHARS project only a short while ago, she is well on her way to her own full-circle moment as a mentor to other engineering students.
“If you love what you are studying, then you should be confident that you belong in the field,” said Hodak. “The truth is that the world needs different types of engineers…if you stand out, it is not a bad thing, and doesn’t mean that you don’t belong – you do.”
Anna Crawford, PhD Candidate, Carleton University
Anna Crawford is a PhD candidate at Carleton University studying the deterioration of large icebergs (“ice islands”). She is also Co-Chair of Greenpeace Canada's Board of Directors. In her spare time, Anna enjoys running, cross-country skiing, and hiking.
Since 2008, the floating ice tongue of northwestern Greenland’s Petermann Glacier has lost 500 km2 of ice through calving events, which create massive, tabular icebergs we refer to as “ice islands”. Such ice islands have also recently calved from both Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves and, as you can imagine, thousands of smaller ice islands and icebergs are generated through their deterioration.
A NASA MODIS image showing a 300 km2 ice island that calved from the Petermann Glacier in 2010. The image was acquired on August 5, 2010 and this figure is originally from Crawford (2013).
In 2011, I was given the opportunity as a new graduate student to join a field expedition that would visit two ice islands in the Canadian Arctic. The CCGS Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker outfitted for research by ArcticNet, provided us with transport to these 14 and 60 km2 ice masses. Both had originated from the 300 km2 Petermann Glacier calving event that occurred in 2010. (That’s five times the size of Manhattan Island!)
A 14 km2 ice island, named “PII-B-a” in Lancaster Sound that Anna visited in 2011. Photo courtesy of Jesse Barrette.
The CCGS Amundsen next to an ice island in Baffin Bay. Photo credit: Lauren Candlish.
I have been researching ice island deterioration ever since that trip six years ago through the Northwest Passage, Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea. It started with an MSc degree and has now continued with the pursuit of a PhD. Both of these will have been completed in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University.
The CCGS Amundsen’s helicopter bringing an ice island research team a sling load of equipment in 2015.
Why would I stick around for seven years studying these inanimate, cold research subjects? Four points come to mind.
First, these study subjects exist as an interesting bridge between the causes and consequences of climate change. The calving events that generate ice islands have been occurring more frequently due to oceanic and atmospheric warming. Along with increasing the susceptibility of ice shelves and floating ice tongues to breakage, decreasing sea ice extents are also famously predicted to open up the world’s Polar Regions for shipping and resource extraction. However, ice islands and the fragments generated through their deterioration will pose formidable hazards to ships and resource extraction infrastructure operating in these regions.
There are numerous ways to detect the deterioration of ice, but ice islands are extremely difficult to access for setting up data collection programs. This leads to my second point. I have very much enjoyed being involved in a number of unique projects dedicated to the development of new technology, as well as the application of existing technology, for detecting the deterioration of these drifting ice features. This work, which has been conducted with others at the Water and Ice Research Lab (Carleton University) and with numerous collaborators, involves both remote and in-situ data collection.
Anna and team members installing equipment on an ice island in Baffin Bay, Nunavut, Canada. Video: Graham Clark.
One of the reasons that I enjoy geographic research is that there is often a chance to apply theory to real-world applications. Ice islands are of interest to government, academic and industrial researchers and stakeholders due to their recent connection to climate change and the varied potential consequence of their drift and deterioration on the marine ecosystem. Because of this, I feel that I’ve been able to dip my toe, so to speak, in the literature of numerous different fields of research, as well as produce results and develop research methods that will be useful to a wide audience.
Setting up a stationary ice penetrating radar system to monitor an ice island’s thickness change. Photo credit: Graham Clark.
Lastly are the field experiences, which have the best photo ops. Accessing the top of an ice island is a feat unto itself that can involve numerous airplane flights, ships, helicopters and/or snowmobiles. Each trip is its own adventure. Though I have been stymied more times than I’d like to count, the ever-continuing challenge of just getting to your field site makes the successful trips that much sweeter.
Anna and Jaypootie Moesesie collecting a thickness profile with ice penetrating radar in May 2016. This ice island, “PII-A-1-f”, was located close to Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut.
Due to the time crunch on field days, I find it to be difficult to stop and reflect on how amazing it is to be walking around on an iceberg so giant that you can’t even see where it ends. I am very fortunate to have been able to visit, study and share the stories of these impressive and beautiful ice features.
An ice island grounded near Baffin Island, Nunavut. Photo credit: Lauren Candlish.
Crawford, A.J. 2013. Ice island deterioration in the Canadian Arctic: Rates, patterns and model evaluation. MSc thesis. Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. 140 pp.
Granda is a Data Production and Dissemination Coordinator at Statistics Canada. She is an active volunteer for a wide variety of causes. She encourages women to be kind to themselves and each other. Choices are not failures.
I knew too many professional women who had gambled with their fecundity and lost.
I was approaching 30 and had finished my Master of Science. I was married to a Ph. D who had finished his degree and had already returned to a professorship back in Canada. I cared passionately about my research, but I also cared about the family I wanted.
I became exactly what my Ph.D. advisor told me not to become: a highly educated house-wife.
I became pregnant in a province where I knew no one. I struggled to try and finish my dissertation as my advisor spent a sabbatical year out of communication in a rainforest in Costa Rica and my husband travelled for weeks on end to present at conferences in other countries.
I spoke with one women who counselled me to put my daughter into full-time daycare. She said that she had put her daughter into daycare at six days of age and after only six months she had finished her dissertation. Only six months! I felt so, so sorry for her and for her daughter. I knew what she had lost.
Time passed and I slowly came to the realization that I had made a choice without knowing the full cost. “How can you have only one child?” “Who will they have when you are gone?” I was so sad that at night I cried. I cried when I was alone. It was not a problem. I was alone when she slept; I was alone when he was away. I had lots of time to cry.
I missed talking about science.
One day my daughter asked me why I don’t work like the other mothers she knows. She said she hoped that I would get a job in a flower shop. I have a Master of Science in Plant Breeding but she was six years old and all that she knew was that I was very good at gardening.
I got a job.
After being out of science for over ten years, I got a temporary job at Agriculture Canada preparing a large document about pesticide use for an international meeting. I was the herbicide expert. It was terrifying. I could barely remember the common names of those weeds in English, let alone in French and Latin. I had last used a computer back when Word and Quattro were the newest thing. Do you remember the cardboard cut-outs of keystrokes you taped over your F keys? Sending e-mail messages to your friends is not the same as calculating values with spreadsheets. The meeting was great. I met several researchers and someone offered me a position in research. They were looking for someone experienced in quantitative trait analysis. I was so excited! My laboratory skills were years out of date and so far no one wanted to hire me full-time. He said his research facility was in upstate New York. It was far away from my home. I said I would think about it and let him know next week. We discussed it all weekend. My husband said we could try and make it work. My children were young. I did not know how I could explain this to them.
More time passed and my daughter entered university this September. She chose the Faculty of Science. I hope the choices are easier for her. I try not to think about the past too much. I cannot change what I have done and I know that I have been blessed with many wonderful experiences. I know that I was fortunate to be able to choose, but I still have regrets.
I miss Science.
I hope she succeeds.
I was alone at University, the only student out of my high school graduating class who chose to study Plant Breeding. I loved my cytology course and I was so proud when I made my first Rye chromosome squash.
Working on my Masters of Agriculture with my pitchfork.
And then we got married, both graduate students and money was tight. I bought my dress for $50 at a second hand shop. I didn’t want to spend too much money because I was saving up to buy a good tent.
We spent our first Sabbatical living in Grenoble, France. We brought our bikes, and the fancy baby seat I had purchased at Canadian Tire. It was the first front-riding seat that I had ever seen and it had been invented here in Ottawa. Too bad that I only brought one. I had many, many people stop me in the street asking to buy the seat. I could have sold hundreds of them.
We named her after Demeter’s daughter, the goddess of spring. She named him Maxwell. Lucky for him we talked her out of her first naming choice, which had been “Princess Beauty”.
Thank you, Jane
Michelle Fairbrother is a physical science officer at the National Hydrological Service. In her own work, Michelle pushes herself to embody the same bravery and strength demonstrated by Jane Goodall. In her spare time, Michelle crafts, thrifts, hikes, and feeds baby squirrels.
As a child, hearing about the amazing life journeys of others elicited equal amounts of awe and envy for an individual’s choices and ensuing experiences. For me, this person was Jane Goodall. She embraced a deep love for wildlife and had a profound trust in her adventurous spirit. Jane’s decision to move to a faraway continent to conduct research struck me as the purest form of bravery and inner strength.
Taking to the streets of Ottawa to express the importance of our precious planet.
In reflecting on this childhood admiration and the words in Jane’s book “Reason for Hope”, I have come to realize that there are many other reasons I see her as a role model. As a woman without a formal degree in her field of research, Jane faced many forms of resistance when trying to present her findings and secure funding for her fieldwork. Despite this, she continued collecting what came to be very valuable information to understand the similarities between primate and human behaviour. Observing the mannerisms, tool use, and social structures of chimpanzees took immense patience, vast amounts of time, and self-sacrifice in the form of physical comfort and a conventional family life. Later in her career, she came to the realization that her knowledge could be best applied to essential conservation action and left the research she loved to lead initiatives in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park and beyond.
Michelle interacting with local wildlife.
Currently, there is ease and speed in the transfer of verifiable environmental science information. There are also still substantial portions of the population that continue to deny the negative impacts of human activity on the environment. Jane had the fortitude to conduct many years of thorough research and the courage to continue to share her message of the importance of respecting all creatures who inhabit the planet. While it may not have been her aim when she began research as a curious and driven 26-year-old, she also inspired a generation of young female scientists to commit the same passion and tenacity to their research and the value of their unique voices.
Conservation projects and their champions mean spaces like Algonquin Provincial Park can be enjoyed by lucky explorers like Michelle.
Allison Sibley, Technical Officer
Allison Sibley is a technical officer at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa ON. She got her BSc in Physics at Mount Allison University (she promises she didn't pick the school just because of the name) in Sackville, NB and an MSc in experimental laser process monitoring at Queen's in Kingston, ON. In her spare time she likes to bake (and eat) delicious treats, spend hours on Pinterest trying to find the perfect DIY project, and watch way more TV than is good for her.
Way back in the ancient days of grade 10, my father and I got into a huge fight, and I do mean huge. There was shouting and door slamming and lots of tears. Afterwards we didn’t speak for days. Why am I telling you about a long ago fight that has since been forgiven many times over, you ask? Well, because of the reason we were fighting.
It was time to pick my courses for my final two years of high school. Everything was going fine and I just had one slot left to fill. I wanted to take history, but my father, an engineer, wanted me to take physics. "You need to take 2 sciences," he said, "Don’t shut the door on your future." Naturally, since most of my exposure to physics came from movies, television, and hearing people say how much they hated physics in high school, I was VERY much so against this idea.
My stylish grade 11 self (check out those crocs) building a solar water pasteurizer over the summer
Obviously, since I’m telling you this story on a blog about women in STEM I eventually gave in and took physics. After the first class, I was hooked and I haven’t looked back. I just love figuring out why and how things behave the way they do! That’s not to say that there haven’t been times where I’ve struggled to stay motivated or thought about giving up on a problem or a project that seems to get more and more complicated the longer I work on it, but the moment when everything finally clicks is absolutely worth all of the pain of getting there!
Pretending to be much less scared than I actually was about to present the results of some of my early MSc research at Photonics North 2015 in Ottawa
Since the fight with my father and the discovery of my passion for science, I have completed both a BSc and MSc in physics and am currently working at the NRC in the Measurement Science and Standards division. Although I definitely get to do some neat science every day at the NRC, the coolest project I’ve worked on was during my MSc. My project was all about using lasers to observe the surface of molten metal (melted with a completely different laser) during 3D printing. Since the kind of 3D printer we wanted to work with is crazy expensive, we actually had to build our own! It wasn’t fancy, but it got the job done. In fact, we were some of the first people to measure the extent of the melt, which sounds boring and easy, but trust me it wasn’t! Even though I finished my part of the project, the work is continuing on and the hope is that this technology will help improve the quality and reliability of metallic 3D printing!
The (accidentally) super artsy photo I took of the first thing we built with our homemade 3D printer
I should wrap things up before I get too excited and end up rewriting my whole thesis telling you about how great 3D printing is (always leave them wanting more)! But before I do, a little bit of advice for anyone who is even a little bit considering pursuing an education or career in STEM: just give it a go! You never know, you could find out that you love it!
Am I the stupidest person in the room? The life of a female tech writer
Vicki Lynn Cove is a professional technical writer and amateur cat-sitter from Nova Scotia, who currently lives in California. She has a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Biology and a minor in English literature from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and an Advanced Diploma in Geographic Sciences from the Centre of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia. In her spare time, Vicki Lynn enjoys climbing up rocks while tied very tightly to a rope, creating knitting projects that are inappropriate for the Southern California climate, and explaining the Westminster parliamentary system to Americans. Vicki Lynn has very strong opinions on a wide variety of subjects; the ones expressed here are hers alone and do not represent the Government of Canada or any of her affiliates.
My first real experience in the tech industry was crossing the border. I’d been studying Geographic Information Systems (GIS) at the Centre of Geographic Sciences for eight months and I had a job interview with the California-based company that made the majority of the software that I’d used while at school. When I arrived at customs in Toronto for my pre-clearance the officer asked me where I was going.
“California. I have a job interview with a company that makes mapping software.”
He looked shocked. “You have a job interview with a software company?”
He didn’t seem convinced, but he stamped my passport anyway. “Ok, welcome to the United States.”
It’s hard to know from that short interaction what the border officer was thinking. Maybe he’s always like that, but to me he seemed surprised that I was interviewing for a tech job at a software company. And not in a “I’m really happy for you and I hope that you get it” kind of way, but in a “I’m shocked that anyone would ever consider you, you really don’t seem like the type” kind of way. I was already somewhat insecure about my upcoming interview; my tech experience consisted of eight hectic months of an Advanced Diploma where I’d started off learning what GIS stands for and ended with applying for a job with the most important GIS company in the world. The border officer didn’t know me, didn’t know what experience I had or what the job would entail, but his judgment stuck with me. I probably wasn’t good enough. I probably didn’t have anything to offer.
Six months later I was sitting in my first team meeting at my new job and I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even know what words everyone was saying. All I knew was that I was the stupidest person in the room.
I wish I could go back to that meeting now after working for almost two years to see what it was really about. Chances are I would know exactly what was going on. Unfortunately, I can’t relive that meeting and I still feel like the stupidest person in the room. It’s a feeling I’ve had for a long time, and one that many women in tech probably share: the feeling that we don’t belong, that we’re not good enough. It doesn’t matter that my company has an inclusive and diverse workforce and that their hiring practices are head and shoulders above Silicon Valley when it comes to women and people of colour. It doesn’t matter that my colleagues and supervisors are supportive. It’s a feeling that I’ve had for most of my life, a nagging in the back of my head that gets stronger every time a person looks at me, surprised, and says “you work for a tech company?”
I do work for a tech company. I do a really good job, too. So do all of the other women I know working in STEM professions.
I am not the stupidest person in the room. We are not the stupidest people in the room.
Hopefully I am from the last generation of women in tech that will need to remind ourselves of that.
Vicki Lynn in Cape Breton Highlands National Park overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Cabot Trail.
Gabrielle Gascon, Physical Sciences Specialist, Environment and Climate Change Canada
Gabrielle Gascon is a Physical Sciences Specialist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. She bikes to work almost every day. In her spare time, Gabrielle enjoys cooking, hiking, skiing, and taking care of her garden.
As long as I can remember, I showed interest in weather, from finding shapes in small cumulus clouds to playing outside in a snowstorm. Wanting to know more about the atmosphere, I enrolled in McGill University, with a specialization in meteorology and oceanography.
Performing kinematic GPS survey on the Belcher Glacier, a tributary glacier of the Devon Ice Cap (May 2011).
During my undergrad, I hadn’t considered a career in research. However, I was given a chance to be a part of the Storm Studies in the Arctic research program. I used this opportunity to complete a Master’s degree in atmospheric science at McGill University. As part of the research program, I went to Iqaluit for a two-month field campaign to study the dynamics of severe winter storms. On one of our research flights aboard the NRCan Convair-580, we flew over the Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island. I was in awe of such a large body of ice, and it raised a ton of questions about the Earth System I did not have answers for.
A time-lapse camera is installed to monitor the evolution of a moulin on the Belcher Glacier (May 2012).
With so many questions, I packed my bags and moved to Edmonton to pursue a PhD in glaciology and atmospheric science at the University of Alberta. My research project focused on understanding ice-atmosphere interactions in the Canadian Arctic. I enjoyed field work on the Devon Ice Cap, Nunavut, collecting glaciology and meteorology measurements. This included using snowmobiles and ground-penetrating radar to collect information on the ice stratigraphy, installing time-lapse cameras, and taking GPS measurements to track ice movement. Looking back, the biggest highlight of my graduate degrees was having the opportunity to combine research, field work, and teaching.
A GPS is used to ground truth a cliff in order to georeference satellite images (May 2012).
Now, as a Physical Sciences Specialist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, I am currently contributing to our weather forecasting capabilities in the Arctic through new and innovative applied research.
My advice to young researchers would be to follow your passion and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
Gabrielle enjoying the sun during a break on the Devon Ice cap (May 2011).
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