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‘Engineering heroes’

June 23: Celebrating Memorial’s women in engineering

Campus and Community

By Jackey Locke

Today marks the eighth annual International Women in Engineering Day.

It is a day designated by the Women’s Engineering Society to celebrate, and raise the profile of, women in engineering and to highlight the important career opportunities the industry provides to women and girls in the world of engineering.

The theme for this year is Engineering Heroes.

The Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science reached out to some of its heroes to help celebrate this important day.

Darlene Spracklin-Reid
Darlene Spracklin-Reid
Photo: Submitted

“I knew I wanted to have a job that made a difference in people’s lives,” said Darlene Spracklin-Reid, acting director of first-year engineering.

“I attended a Women in Science and Engineering event in Grade 12 and that’s where I first learned about engineering career options. I knew right away that was the path for me.”

Dr. Helen Zhang
Dr. Helen Zhang
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Helen Zhang, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Coastal Environmental Engineering, says she is an environmental engineer because as a child she was interested in exploring nature.

“At that time, I knew very little about the major,” she said. “Through years of systemic training, I know what the major means, how interesting the journey is and I am becoming increasingly passionate about this field.

“After working in the field for years, the research breakthroughs and the achievements of my students make me feel very proud of my career. These rewards become additional driving forces.”

A woman with black hair and shirt wearing glasses holds a sign that says "I am proud to be a woman in engineering!"
Dr. Ting Zou
Photo: Submitted

For Dr. Ting Zou, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, it was watching her father repair a cellphone in the 1990s that instilled in her a passion for engineering.

“My father told me that the cellphone was such a complex electronic system that even repairing it was challenging, not to mention the design and fabrication, and that’s when I decided to become a girl in engineering,” she said.

“I dreamed of helping my father in the future. My dream has come true.”

All three feel that the biggest obstacles to attracting more women in engineering are societal norms and a lack of understanding about what engineers actually do.

“Many professions are featured in popular entertainment, so even if a young girl doesn’t personally know a nurse, lawyer or doctor, she can see fictional role models,” said Ms. Spracklin-Reid.

“We don’t have a lot of those relatable role models for female engineers.”

Dr. Zhang added: “From childhood to adulthood, women are discouraged from entering this field due to biases or stereotypes simply based on our gender. In some cultures, engineering is still seen as a man’s job. Negative comments and lack of support from family, friends and society in early ages can easily push girls away, making them not feel confident enough to pursue a career in engineering.”

She says women, including women engineers, are generally directed towards taking on more child care and domestic responsibilities than men.

Below are some Memorial engineers who are sending out personal messages to aspiring young engineers.

1/ Dr. Susan Caines

Engineer and instructor, Marine Institute

Photo: Submitted

2/ Michelle Craig

Engineer and academic staff member, Engineering Co-operative Education Office

Photo: Submitted

3/ Jennifer Williams

Engineer and president, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro

Photo: Submitted

4/ Dr. Yan Zhang

Engineer and associate professor, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science

Photo: Submitted

5/ Noeleen Wadden

Engineer and academic staff member, Engineering Co-operative Education Office

Photo: Submitted

‘Options are unlimited’

In the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, efforts are being made to recruit, retain and assist with the professional development of women in the engineering profession.

However, Dr. Zhang says there are still many systemic biases throughout science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions to address, including raising awareness and providing needed support for women and girls at the organizational or systemic level.

All three have words of encouragement for young girls thinking about pursuing a career in engineering.

“If you want to make an impact on the world, have a successful and rewarding career and take on exciting challenges, definitely think about engineering,” said Ms. Spracklin-Reid. “There are so many different career paths in engineering to choose from. The options are unlimited.”

“Imagine how exciting it would be to be an astronautical engineer and speak with astronauts in the space station.” — Dr. Ting Zou

Dr. Zhang’s advice is straightforward. She says if a woman is interested in engineering, take advantage of opportunities to obtain knowledge and skills.

“Follow your heart and never hesitate because of your gender,” she said.

“Remember, there is no intelligence difference observed between women and men. For sure, there will be barriers and challenges, but that is how we become stronger and better. Staying motivated and taking actions are the keys to achieving your goals.”

Dr. Zou says being a woman engineer is “pretty cool.”

“According to employment statistics worldwide, engineering provides significantly more jobs than any other sector of study. Imagine how exciting it would be to be an astronautical engineer and speak with astronauts in the space station, or a robotics engineer controlling robots, or a computer engineer developing apps to create a beautiful world.”

Women engineering students on the rise

While the percentage of international applications, which is more likely to be male, has increased at Memorial, female enrolment for the fall 2021 semester stands at 28 per cent female.

Process engineering is leading the way with 42 per cent female students.

A woman with blonde hair, glasses, denim jacket and pink shirt holds a sign that says: "Defying expectations: That's the fun part"
Danika Snelgrove
Photo: Submitted

Danika Snelgrove, a fifth-year process engineering student, says having a strong female faculty in the department, such as Dr. Lesley James, Dr. Yan Zhang and Dr. Kelly Hawboldt, makes significant inroads on female enrolment.

“Seeing accomplished women at the forefront of our education lends confidence to all of us,” she said.

“When you consider the push towards bringing in women into engineering, hiring initiatives and programs like Women in Science and Engineering, there’s a lot of support. I’ve never had to feel like I didn’t belong in my program of study. It makes me think of how hard these women must have worked to overcome the bias to achieve a PhD in engineering, particularly at a time when these sort of supports and initiatives weren’t in place. It’s pretty inspiring.”

In addition to scholarships and initiatives aimed at the undergraduate level in support of female students, the faculty is developing a peer networking program to connect first-year female students to its Engineering Student Society.

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