Women in STEM 2020

Posted on Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

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Featuring seven outstanding women in STEM at the University of Guelph

On the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in STEM (February 11, 2020) and International Women’s Day (March 8, 2020), CEPS is profiling a series of outstanding staff, faculty and undergraduate students who each have unique stories about their journeys in science, technology, engineering and math. For International Day of Women and Girls in STEM, meet: Carolyn, Sarah, Joanne, Anemmeabasi, Karen, Jennifer and Valerie.


Carolyn

Carolyn Martinko

Biomedical Toxicology Co-op (B.Sc.), Department of Chemistry
Anticipated graduation year: 2020

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got where you are today.

I’ve always been curious, determined, and hard-working, which are important attributes to have when working in science. I have learned a lot and had great work experiences through the University of Guelph and its co-op program, and now approaching graduation I have experience in environmental, biomedical, and analytical toxicology. I have performed research and regulatory testing, worked in government, industry, and academic laboratories, presented a poster at the Canadian Ecotoxicity Workshop, and helped organize the Annual Toxicology Symposium at U of G as Co-President of the Toxicology Students’ Association. Now I’m doing an undergraduate research project investigating gene expression changes in bovine respiratory tract cells treated with inflammatory stimuli. I think my initiative, enthusiasm, and desire to keep learning have allowed me to make the most of these great opportunities. 

Why did you choose a degree in toxicology?

I chose toxicology because I love understanding how things work, like the mechanism of toxicity of a chemical in a biological system, and I wanted to help protect humans, animals, and the environment from potentially harmful substances. Both are still exciting motivators for me!

What’s the question you get asked the most when you tell people your field of study? How do you respond?

“What is toxicology?” “Do you know how to make poison?” “Are you like those people on CSI?”

Toxicology is the study of toxic substances (toxicants). Some toxicologists may work in drug discovery or other types of biomedical/environmental research, some may work in forensics like on CSI, and others may work in regulatory affairs or risk assessment to try to ensure the safety of products for humans or the environment.

The main principle of toxicology is “The dose makes the poison.” This means that every substance can be toxic but the danger lies in how much you’re exposed to. A small amount of an opioid like fentanyl could kill a person, but even water is harmful to the body if enough is ingested! That’s why toxicology risk assessment is so important – it’s how we assess the risk of toxicity to a person, animal, plant, or ecosystem based on how the organism reacts to a substance (like a drug or pesticide) as well as how much of that substance they’re likely to be exposed to.

What advice would you have for a woman or girl considering a career/degree in a STEM field?

Talk to people, especially women, who are doing work you’re interested in to learn more about how they got to where they are! They were at your stage in life once too. I look up to my professors and past supervisors, and I love chatting with them about science or asking for advice. 

If that feels overwhelming, try talking to upper year or graduate students to get a better idea of what classes, networking opportunities, extracurricular activities, or work experiences they’ve had that made big impacts on their lives and their experiences in STEM. Take advantage of opportunities like networking events on campus and get involved with your academic program society.

Also, keep in the loop of science news – follow scientific journals on social media, read papers by your favourite professors, and do more reading on the things you don’t understand. Science is a constantly changing discipline so you’ll always learn something new!


Sarah

Sarah Smook

Mathematical Science with an area of emphasis in Physics (B.Sc.), Department of Mathematics and Statistics
Anticipated graduation year: 2020

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got where you are today.

Throughout high school, I hated math. I did relatively well for the first three years, but it wasn’t until grade 12 that I really began to excel in the subject. I can remember the day I sat in grade 12 calculus and vectors, and I found math to be exciting for the first time. I was totally against doing my undergrad in math, but when I was touring Guelph wandering around the science complex with my parents, I found my way to the room with people talking about math and stats.  

Where do you see your field or specialization in the next 25 years?

I believe with everything happening in the world today, there will be a need for individuals well versed in biological and environmental mathematics (specifically to fix the issues we find ourselves in today).

Why did you choose this program? What excited you about it?

When I began undergrad, I was in a different program. I was dead set on becoming a doctor but after taking a few introductory math and physics courses, I realized that there was something else in store for me. I loved spending my time solving these more advanced and complex mathematical topics, much more than I did any of my other courses! After speaking with a few of the math and stats department’s fantastic professors, I decided to make the switch leading me to be where I am today!

What’s the question you get asked the most when you tell people your field of study? How do you respond?

“What job can you get with a math degree?” I too had thought the options were limited, but in reality, you can do so many things with a degree in math. Some examples include research analyst, risk analyst, actuary, lawyer. What I have learned working between winter and fall semesters is that with a degree in mathematics, or other similar fields, you learn how to problem solve. Having the ability to do that will help you no matter what you choose to do post undergraduate studies.  

What advice would you have for a woman or girl considering a career/degree in a STEM field?

Be proud of yourself, your accomplishments and your ability.  Do not be afraid to ask for help, build your resources and relationships.  Have faith in your abilities, don’t be afraid to answer a question and be wrong, that’s when learning is at it’s best! You are smart enough for this; you can do it. It takes time, effort and a lot of practice, but you can do this and you can do it well.


Joanne

Joanne O’Meara

Professor, Department of Physics

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got where you are today.

I did my undergrad at McMaster, and then stayed there to do my Ph.D. After a postdoctoral research position at MIT, I returned to McMaster for one year as an assistant professor before moving to Guelph as an assistant professor in 2002. I’ve always loved teaching, from my first experiences as an undergraduate TA, so joining a department that so strongly values excellence in teaching has been a terrific fit for me.

Where do you see your field  in the next 25 years?

An undergraduate degree in physics needs to continue to evolve rather than remain the same as it has been for decades. We will continue to find innovative ways to provide the core physics content while also developing the critical skills needed in today’s job market, from computational and mathematical proficiencies to confidence in oral and written communication for diverse audiences.

Why did you choose this career path? What excited you about it?

I always loved science and math, especially observing the natural world around me and then trying to understand why/how things work the way they do. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I was introduced to the field of medical physics, where I could combine all my passions in one! Taking basic physics principles, such as how x-rays interact with atoms, and applying them to measure heavy metals in people who were occupationally exposed to these toxins, was a hugely rewarding experience.

What has been your biggest challenge in achieving your goals?

With any job/career, there are always elements that are not so fun. Trying to keep the big picture in mind when projects get derailed or collaborations become unwieldy is probably the biggest challenge I’ve experienced.

What’s the question you get asked the most when you tell people what you do? How do you respond?

It’s more of a statement than a question … “Physics? I HATED that in high school!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this. I really wish our discipline didn’t have such an undeserved reputation!

I usually smile politely and then ask what they hated about it in particular. Generally it boils down to not seeing the relevance to their daily life, so then I try to point out a few examples that might resonate (why do we salt the roads in winter? why do ice cubes float? how does x-ray imaging work? ….)

What advice would you have for a woman or girl considering a career/degree in a STEM field?

Same advice I have for any student considering a career/degree in a STEM field – go for it! Do what you enjoy – any undergrad degree has its challenges and if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s going to be especially difficult to get through those challenging times. No one can really predict what the job market will look like in 4-6 years; the best preparation you can give yourself is to pursue a degree that you love so you can do your absolute best.


Anemmeabasi

Anemmeabasi Bassey

Software Engineering (Co-op), School of Computer Science
Anticipated graduation year: Winter 2022

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got where you are today.

I am 20 years old and from Nigeria. I got interested in the general field of computing from the age of six, when I got my first phone and laptop and just fell in love. I originally wanted to do law, but I realized very quickly how much I enjoy creating on my laptop and decided from then on, I wanted to do software. Now here I am, years later, taking Software Engineering and loving it.

Why did you choose the University of Guelph for your degree?

I chose Guelph because the software engineering curriculum focused more on covering the basics of a computer science degree while teaching and simulating through experimental learning with courses based on software teamwork. Also, the co-op program was a big attraction to me, coming from Nigeria/England, such an integrated opportunity to study and apply my knowledge at the same time was too exciting to not take a chance on. 

What’s the question you get asked the most when you tell people your degree, and how do you respond?

When I tell people my field of study, I get this look of surprise as if whatever box they already mentally put me in could not be able to comprehend that I could excel in such a field. I always smile and ask them why they seem so surprised, tell them that anyone can be anything and do anything they set their minds to, and should not let unconscious bias cloud how they perceive people.

What advice would you have for a woman or girl considering a career or degree in STEM?

I would say go for it. You really do miss 100% of the opportunities you do not take. If there’s a job you want to apply for, but you don’t feel “good” enough for it, close your eyes and still hit submit. If you feel there’s a class you really want to take, but don’t feel confident to pass, still register and give it a shot. Believe in yourself and your ability and you will surprise yourself. Also, have supportive friends that would push you to do your best no matter what.

What’s next for you?

With the way technology has been rapidly evolving in the past couple of years, I would really love to dive into AR/VR/XR development and game development after graduation. I also would love to do a master’s degree in the future, but not immediately after graduation. My brain needs a study break!


Karen

Karen Gordon

Associate Professor, School of Engineering
Associate Dean (Academic) College of Engineering and Physical Sciences

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got where you are today.

I grew up in Paris Ontario, and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do for a career through to the end of high school. I was interested in literally everything, and narrowing things down was very difficult.  I wound up applying to engineering with the hopes of getting a broad, but applied degree.  Sometime during my undergraduate degree I became very interested in medicine, and decided to apply to medical school. I didn’t get in, so decided to pursue a Master’s degree after my undergrad and then reapply to med school. During my Master’s, a few things changed my path – the most important being that I loved the work I was doing. I found it very interesting to use technical skills and knowledge to optimize an orthopaedic implant or surgical technique, before it is tried out on a patient or clinical trial. I also really enjoyed working with the people that I was interacting with. Working with people has always been important to me, so at one time I thought that I needed to be in a clinical setting to get that interaction, but I have learned that most jobs involve that interaction in one way or another.  

Where do you see your field or specialization in the next 25 years?

The field of biomedical engineering stands to experience significant growth over the next 25 years. I think we will see improved collaboration between medical professionals as well as other expertise in areas like engineering, computer science, and the social sciences. Interdisciplinary teams will be required to solve our big medical problems, and we will see more of more of this in the future, which is very exciting. One of the reasons I love working in this field is the opportunity to continue to learn, and interact with people from different backgrounds on new projects.

What has been your biggest challenge in achieving your goals?

That is an easy one – learning to balance. I still have not mastered this. Balancing a personal life (I have a husband, three kids, a dog and a cat), interests outside of work, and a demanding career is difficult. I am not always good at saying no to new ideas or tasks because it feels like turning down an opportunity. However, I can wind up overloaded at times as a result. At these times, it is important for me to just take each day and focus on the work at hand and the things that need to be completed to the best of my abilities. It may not always be my best work, but it is always the best I can do that day. When things get a little less busy, it is time to recalibrate and make sure you are still on track towards those goals.

What’s next for you?

That is a good question, I am happy in my current role. The one thing I do realize is that it is difficult to predict what is coming next. You can try to plan, but things hardly ever work out quite that way. I enjoy the work that I am doing now…and look forward to new opportunities, but I am not sure what these will look like right now.


Jennifer

Jennifer (Jenny) Lawson

Mathematical Science (B.Sc.), Department of Mathematics and Statistics
Anticipated graduation year: June 2020

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got where you are today.

I am a fourth-year mathematical science major, with an area of emphasis in computer science. 

Coming out of high school I knew I wanted to have a career in STEM, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I started out in a different program and quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. At the time I was taking first year calculus with a professor, Kim Levere, who made math my favorite class. It brought me back to my love of problem solving and math. I had never thought of myself as the type of person who could be a math major– I thought that was reserved for a special type of genius. But now I was taking first year calculus with a professor who was a lot like me, and had them as a role model who made the field seem less intimidating. After a lot of thought, I decided to switch into Mathematical Science.

I have had people in my life who have supported, encouraged and given me opportunities. This past summer I was given the opportunity to apply my learning by doing research with the same professor that I took first year calculus with. This opportunity was invaluable and gave me a boost on my career and challenged me to be the best I could be. I even got the chance to present my research at an international conference in front of experts in the field. I can honestly say I would not be where I am had I not had people that took a chance on me.

Why did you pursue a degree in this area? What excited you about it?

All my life I have loved solving puzzles. As a kid I loved sudoku, jigsaws, brainteasers and basically any other kind of game or puzzle you can think of. That love of puzzles naturally translated over into a love of math and science. One of my favorite things is to work through a math problem and see how with a little bit of effort and creativity you can turn a big ugly problem into a simple solution.

What has been your biggest challenge in achieving your goals?

The biggest challenge in achieving my goals has always been getting past the fear of starting. When I was choosing a degree, I was afraid I couldn’t do mathematics because I wouldn’t be smart enough. I was too afraid to even try. I had to get past the fear of not being good enough.

In first year, I took an introductory programming course and struggled. I thought that it wasn’t for me. I avoided programming at all costs until I couldn’t do so any longer and had to take a math course that involved programming. I remember walking into the lab room on the first day of class physically shaking because I was so scared. But as the course progressed, I ended up really liking it! I realized that coding was just another puzzle I could solve and was an incredibly useful skill. As a result, I eventually decided to add an area of emphasis in computer science to my degree, as much to gain the skills as it was to prove to myself that I could do it.

What’s the question you get asked the most when you tell people your field of study? How do you respond?

I get either “Wow! You must be so smart!” or “So you want to be a teacher.”

When people say, “So you want to be a teacher.” I usually tell them “not necessarily!” Math relates to every part of the world and can be used anywhere. There are so many interesting problems in the world to solve that I can use mathematics with. But also, so what if I did want to be a teacher? It may not be the path for me for my career, but teachers have an awesome opportunity to shape the next generation of leaders.

When people say “Wow! You must be so smart!” That’s a little harder to respond to. On one hand, I’ll take the compliment¬– thanks, yeah, I work hard and am just as smart and capable as any other person I work with. But on the other hand, this is the kind of attitude that kept me from thinking that I could be a math major. If you are willing to put in the hard work anyone can do it. I usually try to incorporate these things into the response. 

What advice would you have for a woman or girl considering a career/degree in a STEM field?

Don’t let fear make your decisions for you.


Valerie

Valerie (Val) Bauman

Master of Applied Science in Engineering, Collaborative Specialization in Artificial Intelligence, School of Engineering
Anticipated graduation date: Spring 2021

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got where you are today.

I am self-driven, very independent, and I live by “don’t knock it ‘til you try it”. I love to travel and make pottery. In high school I considered pursuing nursing or physiotherapy but ended up pursuing engineering because my biology teacher recommended that I apply to an engineering program. Throughout my undergrad in biomedical engineering, I realized I really like working with numbers, specifically drawing patterns from numbers and making data-driven decisions. It wasn’t until my final co-op work term in my last year of school that I was introduced to artificial intelligence and the potential impact it could have in biomedical applications, specifically in biomechanical devices such as smartwatches and instrumented shoe insoles. After this brief introduction, I realized this is where I wanted to further pursue my education and take my career.

Where do you see your field or specialization in the next 25 years?

25 years feels like an eternity from now, especially considering I’m not even 25 years old. But thinking about AI and where it will be in the future, I feel like the most popular answer is “AI is going to replace everyone’s job and take over the world,” but I prefer to take a more optimistic approach… I didn’t choose to pursue AI to take over anyone’s life, I chose it to improve how we’re currently doing things to ultimately improve our quality of life. As a broad example, instead of having only a physiotherapist observe you while you perform a rehabilitative exercise, you could wear a device that measures some aspect of the movement. The data from this device could then be used in conjunction with the physiotherapist’s expert opinion to determine your course of treatment. I’m hopeful that AI applications like this can break down the “us vs. them” mentality that’s sometimes associated with AI.

What advice would you have for a woman or girl considering a career/degree in a STEM field?

Looking back on my experience in high school and undergrad, a lot of the time I was worried about speaking out and participating in discussion because I was worried about sounding stupid or being wrong. I know this isn’t specific to women or even STEM, but I think it’s amplified for us because there’s typically a smaller number of women in the room. Once I acknowledged that being wrong and making mistakes is arguably the best learning opportunity and that no one is going to remember that incorrect thing you said in class that one time, no one could stop me from doing or saying anything. From all of this, I’d say my advice is to make all of the mistakes you can, especially while you’re in high school or undergrad where the stakes are low, and take everything as a learning experience.

What’s next for you? 

I’m going to be a data scientist and (eventually) be the head of a machine learning group. Ideally, I’ll do this at a company that makes biomechanical devices or at the very least works with human motion data, but I’m open to working in other fields.

Is there anything else you want to tell us?

I am hopeful that the general attitude towards AI is not “I’m not a coder so I’ll never pursue AI” or “only introverted people that would rather be on their computer than talk to people are in AI”. Anyone can learn to code and, like any other career path, there is a home for any and all personas.


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