Meet four female engineering profs for International Women in Engineering Day

profs

More innovation, greater productivity, better governance: what organization wouldn't want these things? One way companies can achieve them, a large body of research shows, is by having a diverse group of employees. Yet in Canada, women — who account for just 20 per cent of students who enroll in accredited undergraduate engineering programs in this country — make up under 13 per cent of practicing licensed engineers. 

Over the past decade, Canada has seen positive developments on the gender diversity front. According to Engineers Canada, the percentage of women enrolled in engineering programs has gone up by about one per cent a year since 2008, and between 2006 and 2016, the number of female practising professional engineers increased from 12,740 to 26,113. But women are still vastly underrepresented in the engineering profession, and everyone who can make a difference — not just companies and educational institutions, but also parents and the media and entertainment industry — must continue to work to transform the STEM fields into places that are more reflective of the world around us. 

In recognition of International Women in Engineering Day, we asked four UBC faculty members about their paths to engineering and what it might take to inspire more girls and women to follow in their footsteps. 

 

Amanda GiangAmanda Giang - Assistant Professor, UBC Department of Mechanical Engineering 

What sparked your interest in engineering?

I wasn’t really aware of what engineering was until very late in high school, when my older brother started studying engineering. Through conversations with him, I realized engineering could actually be a powerful way to combine my desire to serve the needs of my local and global community with my interests in science and technology. A lot of the world’s most pressing challenges have important technical and social components, and engineers — in partnership with many other roles and professions — have an important part to play in working towards more sustainable, healthy and just futures.

What are your research goals?

My research focuses on understanding the links between environmental modelling and policy, using interdisciplinary approaches from engineering and the natural and social sciences. The overarching goals of my group’s work are: to better understand the links between humans, technology, and the environment; and to develop computational tools and methods that support environmental decision-making around air pollution and toxic chemicals (with and for local communities and policy-makers).

One project we’re working on right now is modelling the dispersion of a subset of industrial air pollutants in Canada, to better understand inequities in exposure.

Is there a misconception about engineering that may deter women from pursuing it as a career?

I think popular media can present a pretty narrow view of what an engineer does, and who an engineer could be. In reality, there is a huge diversity of engineering roles and skills that are important for society.

What is one thing that can be done to encourage more women to study engineering and become engineers?

I think it’s important that we support women (and other identities that are underrepresented in engineering) in not only choosing to study engineering, but staying in engineering. As educators, we might think about how to build cultures of inclusion in the classroom. Do we embed these values in the assignments we give, and how we evaluate collaboration, for instance?

Nadja KunzNadja Kunz - Assistant Professor, Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering and UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs

What sparked your interest in engineering?

To be honest, I didn’t know what an engineer was until the latter stages of high school! I had always performed well in math and science, but also cared deeply about environmental issues. I aspired to find a career that would allow me to influence positive change within industry, and a mentor suggested that I consider engineering. I was lucky to fall into a career which was perfectly suited to my skills and career aspirations. Engineering requires critical thinking, but also an ability to see the big picture in resolving complex societal problems.

What are your research goals?

My research goal is to transition the mining sector towards more sustainable water management practices. As I’ve progressed through my career, I’ve realized that good engineering solutions are of their own insufficient to achieve this goal, and so my research team is intentionally interdisciplinary. Our projects focus at two geographical scales of analysis: (1) within the mine lease, and (2) within mining regions. At the mine site level, my team develops novel models to improve quantification of water risk and analyze trade-offs such as energy use and societal impact. At the regional level, I’m interested in the evolving role of the mining sector in water stewardship and governance. I’m especially interested in how mining can best contribute towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG6, which focuses on the provision of water and sanitation.

Is there a misconception about engineering that may deter women from pursuing it as a career?

Some might perceive engineering as a relatively narrow field that is highly technical and socially isolating. However, the opportunities for engineers are diverse and varied, ranging from more traditional positions in processing and electronics through to finance and food production. I recently read a story about a female engineer in Melbourne who used her training as an aerospace engineer to design some of the world’s best croissants!

What is one thing that can be done to encourage more women to study engineering and become engineers?

Educate women during high school that engineering is a viable career choice. Invite guest speakers who can inspire young females and open their eyes to the diverse and exciting careers that engineering can offer.

 

Julia RubinJulia RubinAssistant Professor, UBC Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

What sparked your interest in engineering?

My mother was a computer scientist — probably one of the first computer scientists in the world. When I was four years old, she started taking me to the university lab where she worked and I’d spend my days playing with these big machines, including games like Pac-Man. That’s probably when I first got excited by technology.

What are your research goals?

My research aims to analyze existing software and figure out ways to make it more secure, reliable and robust. I also want to provide developers with techniques that enable them to build high-quality software more efficiently.

Is there a misconception about engineering that may deter women from pursuing it as a career?

I believe the common misbelief that girls aren’t good at math and technology puts women off engineering at a young age. I grew up in Russia, where nobody told me I’m not supposed to be good in math, so I became good at math.

What is one thing that can be done to encourage more women to study engineering and become engineers?

One way to help get rid of the misconception that women aren’t good at engineering is exposing girls to stories of great women scientists and engineers like Ada Lovelace, the first computer algorithm designer, and Margaret Hamilton, the person who wrote the software that sent the Apollo to the moon. These are just two of many examples of women who have been successful in the fields of science and technology.

 

Rebecca SchallerRebecca Schaller - Assistant Professor, UBC Department of Materials Engineering 

What sparked your interest in engineering?

I have always enjoyed looking at the world from a scientific perspective, but have gravitated towards engineering as I like to have the ability to apply scientific knowledge to solve practical problems, as well as enhance design for future needs.

What are your research goals?

My research is in corrosion engineering, with an emphasis on understanding corrosion properties of a material from the local scale to better predict corrosion rates at the macro scale. My two main areas of focus concern hydrogen embrittlement; specifically development and application of local and spatial detection techniques, and the corrosion of 3D printed materials; how their novel microstructures govern local scale interactions.

Is there a misconception about engineering that may deter women from pursuing it as a career?

One thing that may deter women from engineering is the current lack or unbalance of women in the field. However, I don’t think women should see this as a deterrent, but rather an opportunity that we can change. Reaching out to each other, whether it’s as a mentor to mentees, or vice-versa, and engaging a system of support of women can help us to feel more comfortable in a male-dominated career area.

What is one thing that can be done to encourage more women to study engineering and become engineers?

For me, I found encouragement through having interaction with strong role models, both men and women, throughout my career. When I was recognized for my ability rather than my gender by these people, I felt a sense of accomplishment and a desire to continue to pursue engineering. From my experience, I feel it is important to provide a support network for young women in engineering, but at the same time recognize their abilities and accomplishments in an unbiased manner in order to encourage them to further pursue their career goals.