UTSG: WISE Conference 2020

Women in Science and Engineering is proud to present our 8th Annual National Conference!

The WISE National Conference serves as a catalyst to inspire and empower individuals to pursue their passions, broaden their horizons, and form meaningful connections. The conference brings together delegates from all across Canada to share ideas and become inspired over the course of a two-day event dedicated to professional and personal growth, featuring inspirational leaders from a wide range of STEM fields, as well as workshops, case competitions, and career fairs.

Women in STEM: Shoshanna Saxe

Civil engineering professor discusses the importance of infrastructure investment, finding mentors

Women in STEM: Shoshanna Saxe

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.”

Women in STEM: Kath Intson

PhD candidate discusses research, using Instagram to spread diversity in science

Women in STEM: Kath Intson

Kath Intson is a PhD candidate at U of T’s Department of Pharmacology and a popular science communicator on Instagram, with the handle @weekday_neuroscientist. Her neuroscience research could lead to a better understanding of various neuropsychiatric disorders.

Intson’s doctoral research centres on neuropsychiatric disorders

The malfunction of a receptor for a neurotransmitter named glutamate has been linked to the development of neurological disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Intson studies the effects of altering the ability of the glutamate receptor in mice, under the supervision of Professor Amy Ramsey. She specifically studies the NMDA receptor.

To function properly, the receptor requires a protein subunit called gluN1 to function, which is produced from the expression of the GRIN1 gene. By performing a technique called ‘gene knockdown,’ Intson can suppress the gene’s expression.

This suppression enables her to examine the effect of a malfunctioning gene on mice. The results of Intson’s research could help advance knowledge of human health, due to the similarities between the anatomy, physiology, and genetics of mice and humans.

Intson’s secondary project examines how environmental factors can influence organisms to develop characteristics associated with schizophrenia.

Paired together, these projects could enable Intson to better our understanding of schizophrenia, as the disorder is a result of both genetics and environmental factors

Representation and science communication 

Intson developed her Instagram account in response to snarky messages online from users skeptical that Intson is a PhD candidate.

In a social media post online, Intson explained that it’s normal for scientists to have a life outside of their research. “It doesn’t matter what I look like on Instagram,” she said to The Varsity, summarizing her post. “I can still be a scientist.”

The post garnered attention, which encouraged Intson to post more science-related content on her account.

With her Instagram account, Intson strives to represent a “voice in the diversity that is STEM.” The ability to communicate with her followers on Instagram is essential for this.

“I think I just love chatting with people more than anything,” Intson said. “And if something that I post can spark a conversation, then that’s the whole goal of the account.” 

According to Intson, Instagram science communicators are pushing the idea that there is no ‘one image’ of a scientist — something that Intson strongly supports. 

“I think it’s true that literally every single person that I pass on the street could be a scientist,” said Intson. “I don’t conjure that one image.”

Representation to Intson means that leadership positions across professions are represented by people of races, genders, and orientations proportional to the diversity of individuals in these fields.

Role models and the experiences of women in STEM 

Intson credits her women mentors for giving her confidence and “arming [her] with the tools that [she] needed to go forth and conquer.”

Understanding the career trajectories, challenges faced, and work put in by her mentors has been especially valuable for Intson. 

“Just seeing somebody who’s in that position as a woman has been very helpful for me,” she said.

Women in STEM: Marianne Hatzopoulou

How her interdisciplinary contributions could improve the quality of urban life

Women in STEM: Marianne Hatzopoulou

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.”

Women in STEM: Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher

PhD candidate discusses challenges faced by women in physics, and what it means to be a scientist

Women in STEM: Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher

Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher is a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics in the lab of Dr. Sidhartha Goyal, specializing in biophysics. Bonsma-Fisher’s research focuses on applying physical concepts to solve biological problems. 

Unlocking science: knowledge behind closed doors

The way bacteria defend themselves against viruses is the focus of Bonsma-Fisher’s research.

“Just like us, bacteria can get sick from viruses,” wrote Bonsma-Fisher, “except that, for bacteria (which are just single cells), this often means imminent death.”

One of the ways that bacteria fight against illness is through the CRISPR-Cas system, an adaptive immune system. 

Bonsma-Fisher tries to “understand how CRISPR-Cas immune systems change the way populations look and behave” by “using mathematical tools from physics to create models of bacteria and viruses.”

An open source project she has been working on, in collaboration with over 30 colleagues internationally, is named phageParser.

As its source code is free to use and adapt for the public, Bonsma-Fisher hopes that the project “will make it easier for people to explore and use all the available information about CRISPR immune systems in known bacteria.”

“Science is largely funded by the public and should be accessible to the public,” she noted. “The problems we need science to help us solve are becoming so large and complex that not one person or group can do it alone.”

Fostering resilience through “failure” in research

A challenge highlighted by Bonsma-Fisher was accepting the inevitable delays and setbacks that happen in a research project. 

“It’s hard to look at months of work and realize it will never see daylight,” she explained, “but I try to look at slow or ‘failed’ projects as part of the process.” 

Bonsma-Fisher has since reframed these setbacks as learning experiences. “It’s like doing a homework assignment to learn something: trying something that doesn’t work or doesn’t have an obvious point is still not a waste of time.”

“I always learn things, and I think that learning to enjoy the slow process has made me a more resilient person and a better scientist,” added Bonsma-Fisher.

Subtle pressures facing women in STEM

Another challenge she has faced has been subtle forms of prejudice due to her gender.

“I have experienced many microaggressions over the years: each one by itself is hardly worth mentioning, but some people describe it as ‘death by a thousand cuts’ — eventually the never-ending low-level discomfort wears you down.”

Microaggressions are “subtle, often unintentional, [forms] of prejudice,” according to an article from Psychology Today

Examples of what she has experienced include “overhearing people saying sexist things or making sexist jokes and not being called out, having people say or imply that I experienced some aspect of my success because I’m a woman, [and] being asked on dates by male colleagues who were older or more senior than me.”

Another experience includes her repeated encounters of people who are “completely unaware” that systemic biases exist against women.

As a result of these experiences, she has felt pressured to change the way she dresses. She avoids appearing “too feminine” to blend in better with her male colleagues. 

“The feeling of not belonging is reinforced by things [that] imply that women are newcomers and outsiders in science,” she wrote, “even though this isn’t true.” 

Women who “stick it out in the face of hostility”

As she has progressed through her academic career, Bonsma-Fisher has noticed a drop in gender diversity. 

According to Bonsma-Fisher about a third of the students in her undergraduate program was comprised of women, while her graduate program only comprises about 10 per cent. 

“In terms of other underrepresented groups of ethnic, gender, and sexual identity,” she wrote, “my experience is that physics is woefully lacking.”

The issue of diversity in physics was discussed in an article by The Varsity, which noted the number of women in physics is lower than in biology or chemistry.  

A contributor to the imbalance, wrote Bonsma-Fisher, has been “a continual stream of microaggressions,” referring to a 2016 paper in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

“In a recent study, 74% of surveyed women undergraduate physics students had experienced sexual harassment in a physics context,” she further noted. “Faced with that kind of environment, why would anyone want to stick around?”

“These kinds of systemic biases are almost invisible to any individual woman in, say, a physics undergraduate program,” wrote Bonsma-Fisher, “but it can be very sobering (and it was for me) to learn that the system is subtly stacked against you, mostly in ways that will never be obvious to you.” 

Advice for students pursuing a career in STEM

When asked for advice for other students pursuing a career in STEM, she wrote that it’s difficult to give general guidance, as “what helps one person is often specific to their situation and might not help another.”

“But I think some things apply in general: the system does suck in a lot of ways, but there’s no one right way to do science and be successful.”

Rather than feeling out of place, she encourages students to remind themselves that “[their] perspective and unique experience is important and makes science better, and it’s okay to be yourself AND be a scientist.”

“I wish I knew then that there is no one kind of person who is meant to be a scientist, and also that “academic success” isn’t the only, or even best way to contribute to science.”

“I saw only a narrow path forward at that time that was basically just get good grades, go to a prestigious grad school, and write good papers. I would tell a younger me, ‘you belong in science,’” wrote Bonsma-Fisher.

Women in STEM: Gabriela Krivdova

PhD student on challenges in scientific research, positive trends for women in science

Women in STEM: Gabriela Krivdova

Gabriela Krivdova, a graduate student from U of T’s Department of Molecular Genetics, studies blood stem cells under the supervision of Dr. John Dick. Her research may improve our understanding of leukemia, a human cancer that affects our blood and bone marrow.

“Failed experiments and rejected hypotheses”

Krivdova studies what makes blood stem cells different from mature blood cells, such as red and white blood cells. Her lab also aims to uncover the similarities and differences between healthy and cancerous blood cells by applying lab techniques used by geneticists.

While Krivdova remembers always liking the study of biology and chemistry, she recalled that her path to PhD candidacy was specifically sparked by her interest in immunology and genetics, which she developed during her undergraduate studies.

Her fascination with how the immune system works, as well as the complexity of the molecular mechanisms within our cells, led her to complete a Master’s degree at U of T under the supervision of Dr. Kathi Hudak.

Her research with Hudak was a rewarding experience that further solidified her interest in molecular biology research, and led Krivdova to her current position as a PhD student in Dick’s lab.

The biggest challenge that Krivdova faced stems from the regular prospect of failure associated with scientific research.

“I learned to not become discouraged from failed experiments or rejected hypotheses,” she noted. She added that unexpected findings are often learning opportunities.

The change in perspectives of women in science  

“I must say that I am very lucky to be in the lab I am in and work with so many amazing people,” Krivdova wrote. “I have not felt or experienced any challenges associated with my gender.”

While Krivdova has not personally experienced gender-related challenges in the workplace, she considers female scientist Rosalind Franklin to be her greatest inspiration.

“There are many [inspirations that I have],” wrote Krivdova, “but Rosalind Franklin comes to my mind as she did some pioneering work on the molecular structure of DNA and viruses during the time when scientific discoveries were dominated by men.”

Franklin was a chemist whose work in developing X-ray diffraction photographs was vital in the discovery of DNA’s structure. However, molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick saw Franklin’s photographs of X-ray diffraction without her knowledge.

These photographs proved crucial to their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, but neither scientist acknowledged Franklin’s work in their announcement published in Nature.

Watson and Crick both went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 while Franklin remains officially uncredited.

Today, female scientists are more welcome in research. Krivdova noted how she’s been happy to see an increase in the number of female undergraduate and graduate students studying the sciences at U of T in recent years.

Krivdova has also seen a rise in gender and ethnic diversity in undergraduate laboratory classes which she instructs as a TA.

A piece of advice she would have given to herself as an undergraduate, she added, would be to focus on “the bigger picture in concepts,” and avoid dwelling on the little details of her coursework.

For women considering a career in scientific fields, Krivdova’s advice is to not give up and to continue pursuing their passions.

“Keep pursuing your interests,” she wrote. While there may be disappointments or failures along the way — whether it be from failed experiments or declined scholarships — her experience has shown that hard work pays off, and that there are always fascinating ideas to research as a scientist.

Women in STEM: Mehnaz Ahmed

Recent Master's graduate discusses representations in media and challenges of academia

Women in STEM: Mehnaz Ahmed

This year, Mehnaz Ahmed completed her Master of Science at U of T’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. In addition to conducting scientific research, Ahmed has participated in Dove’s Project #ShowUs, an advocacy project that aims to better represent women and non-binary individuals by creating a library of stock photography for use in advertising and media, and was a mentor to undergraduate students like me. 

The hidden challenges of academia

As a graduate student, Ahmed investigated the relationship between the activity of an enzyme — named peripheral glutathione peroxidase — and the cognitive performance of individuals at an early stage of vascular dementia. Vascular dementia is a neurological disorder caused by impaired blood flow to the brain.

She described the challenges she faced as internal ones. “In essence doubting myself and wondering if I would ever be successful in research or in science overall,” she wrote in an email to me.

What helped her overcome these obstacles, she wrote, was changing her perspective: “redefining what success [means] to [her] in terms of establishing a certain work-life balance.”

But striking a work-life balance is a challenge on its own.

To reach this balance, she planned for “things to look forward to after a long period of working,” which helped prevent feelings of burnout or demotivation, which can stem from long-term work.

Having completed her Master’s degree, Ahmed is in the process of choosing a path that will enable her to pursue a fulfilling career.

She is motivated “to build a life that is worth living according to [her].” Ahmed also believes that “material items will [neither] make [her] happy at the end of the day,” nor contribute to her efforts to make positive change in the world.

Mentorship as a tool for growth

Ahmed was my Senior Peer Mentor in U of T’s “First in the Family” program, which connects first-generation university students to mentors, with the aim of easing the new students into university life. We eventually fostered a close friendship.

“[Being a mentor] gave me the validation that I had important knowledge to share and reminded me that I had overcome the same difficulties my mentees had and I was able to hopefully serve as a source of support,” wrote Ahmed.

Ahmed’s own mentor, Dr. Krista Lanctôt, a Senior Scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, played an important role in her development.

Ahmed noted that having a female supervisor and mentor is crucial as she “was able to see that conducting productive research was possible while still living a fulfilling life outside of the lab and juggling a family as well.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re doing a lot better than you think.”

Dove created the Project #ShowUs initiative alongside Getty Images and Girlgaze to create a stock photo library of women and non-binary individuals.

Ahmed was photographed for the project by Alia Youssef, who had previously captured Ahmed’s image for Youssef’s “The Sisters Project,” which strives to dismantle discriminatory beliefs against Muslim women.

Participating in Project #ShowUs was important, wrote Ahmed, as it reinforces “the notion that these images of beauty in all forms must first start with appreciating the perspectives of women.”

The importance of a diverse representation of people in the media was noted by Ahmed, who added that “not all women and Muslim women are similar and they can often be painted with the same monolithic brush. The more representation there is, the more people will be comfortable being themselves.”

Ahmed added that the particular stereotype of Muslim women being reserved has sometimes been a challenge for her.

“There have been instances when I describe potential career trajectories [to others] where I can’t help but feel a tiny instance of being judged, in terms of not conforming to what others may perceive me as,” she wrote. This has sometimes created a pressure for her to perform to a certain standard, to challenge these expectations.

Ahmed’s advice for women pursuing STEM is to believe in yourself, be curious, and be resilient.

“Whatever is meant for you will not pass you.”

Wikipedia’s lack of representation

Addressing the systemic gender bias that pervades the free online encyclopedia

Wikipedia’s lack of representation

Wikipedia is not only one of the most popular websites on the internet, but it has also become a commonly consulted educational reference for enthusiasts and experts alike. The site is at once the starting point of scholarly research and the ending point of everyday research.

But “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” suffers from systemic gender bias.

“Everyone goes there, so making sure the encyclopedia is a fair representative of the world is a great thing,” wrote Farah Qaiser to The Varsity. Qaiser is a U of T graduate student who has organized multiple Wikipedia edit-a-thons to boost representation on the website.

A number of student groups, including Women in Chemistry Toronto, Toronto Science Policy Network, and Women Of Colour in STEAMM Canada, have helped organize Wikipedia edit-a-thons in partnership with U of T Libraries. Each workshop session teaches participants the basics of editing Wikipedia pages and lets participants build on and create new Wikipedia pages. The most recent Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon at Gerstein Science Information Centre added 2,560 words on Wikipedia pages for Canadian female scientists.

Representation is important because it leads to recognition and acceptance. It’s especially important on Wikipedia because of its role as a central junction for obtaining information. Thus, editing Wikipedia has become the newest frontier in balanced representation.

A 2018 study by the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia, found that only 5.2–13.6 per cent of Wikimedia project contributors are women. Women also make fewer edits, which has resulted in fewer female administrators — gatekeeping positions with privileges like the ability to block others from editing.

There is also an overwhelming focus on English Wikipedia. A 2011 study by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 76 per cent of all Wikipedia users make edits to English Wikipedia. Focusing on regional languages not only pushes for greater diversity in contributors, but also in relevant content.

“While it shouldn’t matter who edits Wikipedia, their biases matter,” wrote Qaiser. “It’s reflected in facts like only 17.67 per cent of English Wikipedia biographies are about women. That’s a very tiny number.”

Wikipedia is an open-access community. Everyone and anyone with access to the internet can edit and create articles. However, the editorial community is still predominantly male. According to Alex Jung, U of T’s Wikipedian-in-residence, one of the reasons for this predominance is a culture of gatekeeping and pushback toward women.

“Female editors have anecdotally reported that they face targeted editing on Wikipedia,” wrote Qaiser. For example, Dr. Jess Wade, British physicist, challenged herself to create one Wikipedia page a day to recognize the achievements of female scientists.

This February, Wade wrote her 500th entry. Qaiser said that as Wade became vocal about her efforts, her pages have been specifically targeted for editing.

Another reason for Wikipedia’s gender bias problem is a lack of sources. Wikipedia is merely reflective of a larger trend of underrepresentation. There simply aren’t many sources on women and marginalized communities. To counter this, Jung advocates searching harder for sources that tell untold stories.

UNESCO recently organized #WIKI4WOMEN on March 8, International Women’s Day. It advocated for a public effort to help share the stories of extraordinary women.

Editing Wikipedia can also be done any time from the comfort of one’s home and is very easy to do because of the user-friendly visual editor that Wikipedia uses. “It’s like editing a Word document,” said Qaiser. Jung is currently working on a guide to editing Wikipedia, available soon on the U of T Libraries’ website.

Contributing could even be as simple as uploading images. “There are a lot of pages on professors at U of T, but none of them have pictures,” noted Qaiser. “It’s as simple as taking a photograph of them — with their permission of course — and uploading it onto Wikipedia.”