November 2007 Issue


Stepping Stones to Science Success

Every summer, high school girls — and a boy or two — join actual research teams at the University of Alberta. The group that places them there is working on a number of fronts to even the distribution of the sexes
in science, engineering, scholarship and technology

At a wrap-up event at the University of Alberta, Lucia presents results she helped generate during the WISEST Summer Research Program. She spent six weeks working on a nanotechnology project with the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
 -Photo by George Lee


As unglamorous as spending the day with fecal mounds and their fossils may sound, Lynn Dafoe, Geol.I.T., loves her job. And the PhD student in ichnology is working proof that a few influences in the right places can change a young woman’s life.

“I am the only person in my family to finish a university degree,” explains Ms. Dafoe, a University of Alberta researcher. “Growing up, I didn’t know anything about what a PhD is, what research is, what a career in academics is or anything like that.”

Then along came Women in Science, Engineering, Scholarship and Technology, or WISEST. The charitable group is dedicated to balancing gender distribution in science and engineering, and it planted the seeds for Ms. Dafoe’s academic and career choices.

Her future began taking shape at a one-day WISEST conference in Grade 10, “and I couldn’t wait to get back to the university.”

Just over a year later, she did return. U of A-based WISEST was behind that visit, too, this time having chosen her for a computer science placement in the six-week Summer Research Program.

Ultimately, Ms. Dafoe decided on an honours geology program. She followed up her bachelor’s degree in 2003 with a master’s, and then transferred into her geology PhD program.

Roots of Change
For more than two decades, WISEST has been inspiring young women like Ms. Dafoe. It draws on sponsors and a community of some 600 volunteers to support its work.

WISEST grew out of an observation made by the late Gordin Kaplan in 1982. The  U of A vice-president, research, noticed just one woman among the 150 people at a micro-processing seminar.
The way to change the imbalance, Dr. Kaplan decided, was to create a university-based group to research the under-representation of women, and then to take action.

That led to WISEST and its flagship initiative, the Summer Research Program, which celebrated its 23rd annual incarnation in August. Some 60 teens — most of them female and all of them on summer vacation before Grade 12 — converged on various labs and departments at the U of A.

The research projects covered the gamut of science and engineering — chemistry, physics, earth sciences, civil and environmental engineering, chemical and materials engineering, biology, agriculture, health, renewable resources and much more. These were matched with students from neighbourhoods in Edmonton, rural communities across Alberta and even points beyond the province, in the Northwest Territories, B.C., Saskatchewan and Ontario.

What do worms have to do with geology? Plenty, says PhD student Lynn Dafoe, Geol.I.T. Her job involves comparing the burrows and fecal mounds of today's little organizms with those of their ancestors, preserved in fossils from millions of years ago. WISEST helped steer Ms. Dafoe towards the sciences and a career in academia.

Real Research
Says Gail Powley, P.Eng., the vice-chair of WISEST: “This is not a camp. The students are paid. This is a summer job and participants are working members of research teams.

“They’re doing trials, doing experiments — they are directly contributing. Some even end up having their names printed as co-authors of papers.”

The students bring fresh perspectives, Ms. Powley says. “They tend to ask questions that the established members of a team might not consider. A comment I sometimes hear is, ‘We were so focused we didn’t actually see that. But our placement student did.’

“You can feel the excitement they bring. It’s like the teams get a shot of adrenalin.”
Katie Krause, P.Eng., a nanotechnology PhD student, worked with a teen named Alison.
“Alison asked a lot of excellent questions. She really wanted to fully understand her project and determine for herself what the value of it was.”

Her questions covered everything from basic concepts to more complex ideas. Says Ms. Krause: “She asked very insightful questions, ones that required us to work out the answers together. There were several times when her fresh perspective caused me to rethink how we had designed the experiment.”

Ms. Krause works in the nano-structured thin film group, led by Dr. Michael Brett, P.Eng., in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Some of the group’s projects involve nano-sensors, and several researchers have explored using the group’s unique, nano-structured thin films as humidity and gas sensors.

 “We needed someone to explore more fully our optical nano-structured humidity sensors. We had proven that the optical properties of our films changed with varying humidity, but we didn’t know how repeatable the effect was or how susceptible to aging and heat treatments the film was.
“Alison arrived at just the right time, and she had just the right background in physics. She also had the computer skills to set up and run the experiments.”

The nano-newbie created several samples of the thin films, then helped set up a humidity chamber for them.

And she did a great job. “Alison was meticulous in performing her experiments and was able to acquire some excellent preliminary data, which will direct our future work.”

Not only the research benefited — Ms. Krause learned a few things, too. “I found that my work, and the work that I had Alison doing, was being constantly questioned and reassessed. Alison evaluated my work from a new perspective and probed many of its strengths and weaknesses,” says Ms. Krause.

That, she says, is great preparation for her thesis defence.

Fun With Worms
Ms. Dafoe speaks just as positively about the six weeks with her placement. “It was super-fun,” she says with a laugh. “Amanda was great.”

By happenstance, the researcher had ended up with a sample of worms from the North Saskatchewan River. For someone in ichnology, that’s an exciting occurrence — organisms from today are important to her work. If a worm exhibits a burrowing behaviour, it might tell Ms. Dafoe something about what its forebears so many millions of years ago were up to and what conditions they faced.

 She said to Amanda: “I really don’t know much about these worms so you’re going to have to research them.”

And so the project began. “It was really all her own, and she spent the whole time working on these fresh water worms. I’d ask her to do things and she’d do them, and she’d do a good job at everything.
“When we saw the results and how fast the worms were burrowing, there was this nice linear progression. We said, Oh wow, it’s working out so well!”

Now What?
But when the wows are all done, what happens? How many female students actually end up in science?

Overall, WISEST and programs like it across Canada are having an effect. These days, about half of the students entering the sciences at universities are female.

That estimate doesn’t include engineering, where the percentage is more like 20-25 per cent in Alberta. Still, there’s been growth — back in 1980, only one in 10 students in first-year engineering was a woman.

How females and males are spread between the sciences remains uneven. Some of the health sciences, for example, attract a disproportionately high percentage of women (and WISEST does place boys on some research teams).

Everyone benefits as the percentages even out, says Ms. Powley. Women bring different perspectives to the workplace, which are good for academia, industry and the economy.

“The value for Alberta and industry is that the workplace needs more engineers and scientists. There’s a lot of potential when half the population isn’t being tapped as well as it could be,” says Ms. Powley.

Attraction strategies start early for WISEST. A program called Choices features one-day workshops for girls in Grade 6 and their teachers. Then there’s SET, a one-day conference for students in Grades 10-12.

Mingling With Role Models
But building first-year numbers is only part of the solution. Retention and support are also big in the WISEST programs.

WISEST founded and supports UA-WiSE, a student-led organization for undergrads. Last month, UA-WiSE put on a mixer, which garnered record-breaking support of over 200 participants — 150 female undergrads met and mingled with career role-models from APEGGA, IBM, Alberta Ingenuity, Weyerhaeuser, Stantec, and other companies and organizations.

From this outstanding show of support, Ms. Powley is now starting an industry advisory board for WISEST, as well.

Efforts like these are one way of combating a drop-off at five to 10 years into women’s careers. It’s also a key area for WISEST’s current research.

That drop-off is top of mind for Ms. Dafoe, these days. “When I was an undergraduate, I never really saw that separation between men and women,” she says. “Now that I’m completing my PhD, as well as looking at planning a family, at getting a post-doctorate career, at getting everything organized, I’m starting to realize — oh, yeah, there really is a difference.

“This is what the challenge is for women.”

Adds Ms. Krause: “It was nice to have another female in the lab during the summer. There are unfortunately not a lot of women doing graduate studies in electrical and computer engineering.
“Not only did WISEST help Alison, but I think she added something to the atmosphere in the research labs.”

Like Alison, a teen named Lucia was placed on a nanotechnology team. “I could really see myself in research in a few years,” she says.

She was treated well by the team, despite her age, Lucia says. But just as evident for Lucia was that many women don’t end up becoming nanotechnology researchers.

“In my building, there were more women’s washrooms than women,” she says. If WISEST has its way, Lucia and others will get to see that change.

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