Professor Hatzopoulou's efforts could improve the quality of life in cities. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE FACULTY OF ENGINEERING/UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

Associate Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou researches transportation and air quality at U of T’s Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering. She discussed her experience as a woman professor in the most male-dominated field in STEM to The Varsity, and why she believes that positive self-perception is crucial for women to succeed in STEM fields. 

What it means to be an engineer

Hatzopoulou’s research team looks at the generation of vehicle emissions, emission dispersal in urban areas, the effects of emissions on populations, and the population’s exposure to air pollution. 

The goal of her research is to advise new policymakers and government agencies to make informed decisions about investing in transportation. Her advisement helps reduce the emission of greenhouse gases associated with these investments, which could improve both air quality and public health in cities.

This interdisciplinary work is not classified as traditional civil engineering. 

Civil engineering is defined by the U of T program website as the “design, construction and maintenance of structures and infrastructure.” 

Following her completion of her Bachelor’s of Science in physics in 1999, she grew interested in research that was not at the time under the umbrella of physics research. This led her to study civil engineering, completing a Master of Science in 2001, and a Ph.D. in the field at U of T in 2008.

“[The way] I identify as being a civil engineer,” explained Professor Hatzopoulou, “is [with] the kind of questions that I am asking and to whom they are relevant.”

The reality of research

To Hatzopoulou, interdisciplinary research is essential to solving major problems in the world. “The questions the world is asking,” she said, “Are so complex that there is no single discipline that can actually answer those questions.” 

She has applied her research to solving everyday problems through an online tool named the Clean Ride Mapper

The Clean Ride Mapper is a map that allows cyclists to plan their routes and navigate Toronto with minimal exposure to air pollutants. 

The idea came from a need to disseminate research results. It originated from a map generated of sampling campaigns, which was then developed into a statistical model to spatially interpolate air pollution in different locations. 

“It wasn’t a research project,” she explained, “It’s really a dissemination project. It’s a way to disseminate research results in a way that’s meaningful for the public.” 

Research dissemination is essential according to Professor Hatzopoulou, as “people have the right” to access research. 

The power of perception

The most difficult gender-based challenge she has experienced is the perception of her as a woman in engineering. 

“Sometimes you’re the only one around the table participating in decision-making at any different level,” she explained. “It has nothing to do with your capability — it has to do with how people perceive you.”

“The challenge is always in the sense of making yourself heard, making sure that your opinions are actually weighed at the same level as anyone else’s opinion.”

The importance of woman role models

Throughout a 12-year academic career, Hatzopoulou had only one course with a woman professor.

While she was not mentored by a woman, she realizes the importance of woman interaction and support through her woman graduate students. 

“Being in academia,” she explained, “you constantly feel that you are not doing enough.”

What Hatzopoulou is describing is imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome was defined by the Scientific American as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” 

She reinforces the concept to her students, especially women, that the effects they may experience from imposter syndrome stem from flawed self-perception, rather than a lack of genuine ability. 

“It’s the sense that… most women constantly feel that they’re less able, and [it] has nothing to do with their abilities.”

Women, stressed Hatzopoulou, are “as able.”

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