Dr. Saxe explained that mentorship has provided her with, “access to wisdom from experience I don’t have yet, perspective from the other side of the hurdle.” PHOTO COURTESY OF RACHEL WALLACE

Dr. Shoshanna Saxe is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering. Her research focuses on how the infrastructure we build shapes the society that we live in: everything from how we work, to the ways in which we consume and travel. 

She is particularly interested in the relationship between infrastructure and environmental sustainability.

How infrastructure affects our environment and lifestyle

Saxe recently wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times, in which she described the role of an infrastructure engineer as someone who “[seeks] the simplest effective solution to a problem with a minimum of negative consequences.” 

“Infrastructure [serves as] the skeletal structure of society, [and] everything relies on infrastructure,” wrote Saxe to The Varsity. “If we can get the infrastructure part right, we have the potential to have a more sustainable society.”

Infrastructure touches almost any urban design we can think of: sidewalks, roads, public transportation systems — even sports facilities and public parks are deliberately shaped by infrastructure engineers.

Saxe’s research has examined both the impact of Toronto’s Sheppard subway line on greenhouse gas emissions and the influence that airport infrastructure has on the reliability of flight arrivals in remote North Canadian communities.

Overall, Saxe noted that her research focuses on finding “levers that would allow us to better align our infrastructure delivery and societal scale goals.”

She described her path to becoming an infrastructure engineer as a winding one, having accumulated research experience in wind energy, geothermal heat storage, and subway design, among other areas. 

Facing exclusion in academia 

Despite the barriers she has faced, Saxe noted that she has found supportive colleagues. 

“The most painful challenges have been when I have been excluded from events based on my gender or religion,” noted Saxe, singling out a golf event in a workplace outside of U of T, where no women were invited.

While instances of clear differential treatment like these are extremely difficult to handle, Saxe also highlighted that there are other times where exclusion may be more subtle. 

Saxe wrote that she has worked through these challenges in two ways. The first, she wrote, is by “continuing to work and not letting any of these occasional events make me feel like I don’t belong in engineering.”

The second is remembering that “many people stood up in harder situations before me making it possible for me to be where I am today.”

Reflection has encouraged her to “stand up for what I think is important even if it feels like it would be better for me (on a personal career level) to be silent.” 

Her advice for those in academia navigating sexism is to “focus on the big challenges,” find mentors and allies, and ask for help. 

Celebrating mentorship

Saxe explained that mentorship has provided her with “access to wisdom from experience I don’t have yet, perspective from the other side of the hurdle.”

She expressed that one of the benefits of having a woman mentor is “the shared experience.”

At each stage of Saxe’s career, her women peers have been some of her greatest mentors. One of which is her sister, Dr. Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscience professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who Saxe lists as her biggest mentor. “Talking to her about my work always makes it better,” wrote Saxe. 

Advice for undergraduate and graduate students 

Saxe’s main advice for undergraduate students interested in research is to stay well-informed. 

“This involves researching the current ongoing research at U of T in the area you are interested in,” wrote Saxe. She recommends that before contacting a professor, students should read their recent publications and draft an email that explains their specific interests in the professor’s work. 

Her advice for graduate students is a little different. “Don’t forget to have fun,” she explained, noting they should “take some advantage of the flexibility being a grad student offers.”

In her experience, wrote Saxe, she has seen an increase in diversity in her field since she began her career. Her advice for women in STEM is to “work hard [and] speak up.”

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