Women in STEM: Abhilasha Bhatia

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What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

I have found myself at the center of "Women in STEM" topic for over a decade now. I started observing the disparity in gender while I was pursuing my Bachelor's in Technology degree. It was annoying to get attention for being a woman in tech rather than being a student willing to gain knowledge and grow. This only became more stark when I pursued higher studies and worked alongside, mostly male, colleagues. I wonder why gender difference is even a thing when everyone is working towards the same goal. But unfortunately it is at the workplaces. I want to participate in the panel to discuss and throw light on some of the challenges that I have faced, measures I have taken to overcome them, and the few that I am still fighting off. I also want to participate on this platform to send out a message to young girls to not be afraid of technology careers, and to the dominant forces in tech to step out of the way.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

I am a science geek. I like reading science and technology articles, mainly around astronomical sciences and, in this past year, analytics and data science. For centering my chi, I resort to ways to let my artistic expression flow in the form painting and dancing. It is very important for me to see life through different perspectives, and therefore enjoy listening to panel discussions and podcasts.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

I think working with startups has been biggest learning curve for me thus far. One hustles, develops, learns on a daily basis. You join the dots together piece by piece, block by block. There is an open environment of ideas flowing, there is a culture you are contributing to strongly. Another point I would like to add is, experiencing different ethnic cultures and work environments has also contributed significantly to my growth.

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

I believe in not quitting. And you can only be confident about it if you are open to learning and open to changes. All this while, even today, I keep my mind open to learning new things, be it more efficient ways of approaching a problem, to improving ways I can be more efficient ways, to optimizing my contributions.

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Do not give up. It is a fact that the number of women who actually pick STEM as their careers, do not continue thereon for long, for a variety of reasons. I would like to ask them to remind themselves of the reasons they chose to be in a scientific field and what's holding them off now.   

Who do you look up to, and why?

There have been many people part of my journey that I look up to. My family has all along been a guiding light for the path I have chosen. My friends to challenge me to a competition. My colleagues and mentors at workplace, some of whom have challenged my beliefs and some of whom have helped me with ways to let my voice heard in a crowd.

Some public figures whose biographies, writings, and speeches I have thoroughly enjoyed are Dr. Kalpana Chawla (an astronaut), Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam (a scientist, and former President of India), Jocelyn Goldfein, and Steve Jobs.

Abhilasha Bhatia is a software engineer at Finaeo Inc. Her forte is backend development. From time to time she delves into frontend and dev-op projects that give control of the full development stack. She is a self-proclaimed science geek and loves to read articles on scientific innovation, especially about astronomical sciences.

Abhilasha’s encounters with technology started of as a kid in India playing with handheld game consoles. The very first building blocks were learning the “turtle graphics” in 3rd grade, using the Logo programming language. Followed by the widely discussed Y2K bug which gave her a realization of how technology is converging the world. Ever so pumped up with it, she took off to pursue an undergraduate in Computer Science from a state university in India and then decided to move on to pursuing higher studies in the United States. These were the years she faced the stark truth about the number of women opting for technology as their major. The female:male ratios in classes were astonishing. Fighting off the complex of “being the only girl” or “one of the two” to raise hands or participate in hackathons, she continued to tread her way past it to enter the workforce where the story wasn’t very different. As one goes up the ladder, the ratio bends further towards one side.

Those experiences made her question the causes behind such disparity among female students picking up STEM majors to actually pursuing and staying in these fields as a career. This is the major reason Abhilasha want her voice to make a difference by reaching to a greater audience.

Women in Stem: Dr. Ilana MacDonald

With our Women in STEM event just a month away, we introduce our YWiB community to our second panelist: Dr. Ilana MacDonald. Dr. MacDonald is an Instructional Support and Observatory/Planetarium Administrator for the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and will be representing the Science field of our panel discussion. We are pleased to have her contribute to this important discussion on women working in STEM and to learn how she has managed to forge ahead at a time when most women are leaving their respective fields. 

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What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

I'm always interested in any opportunity to meet other women working in STEM fields and to share my story. I started along an academic path and realized that it wasn't for me, and I would like to help others realize that sometimes your career can take unexpected twists and turns.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

I mostly try to keep my work and personal life separate, but I do tend to gravitate towards all things astronomy. That means that I like to go to and help out with public astronomy events and to keep up with astronomy news on my own time. 

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

The biggest learning curve for me has been to realize my own worth and what I'm good at. When I started my post-secondary education, I was so sure that I wanted to be a scientific researcher, and to follow the traditional academic path (get a PhD, get a post-doc, become a professor). I discovered part-way through my PhD that I really disliked doing research itself, even though I loved the ideas behind it. It took a lot of soul-searching to admit to myself that I was much better at doing public outreach and working in education, and that I enjoyed it a lot more than research. Now I feel like I know what I'm really good at, and I feel like I can take pride in the things I really excel at.

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

I think the main thing that ultimately helped me the most in getting to where I am now was my willingness to try a bunch of things until I ultimately found something that I loved enough to make a career out of. After finishing my PhD, I floated around and picked up every part-time job that seemed interesting, including science consultation for a documentary, private math tutoring, and a bit of graphic design. At one point I had 7 part-time jobs! Eventually, I was able to cut out the things that I didn't enjoy as much and focus on the things I could see myself doing for a while. It also allowed me to try out a whole bunch of things that I wouldn't necessarily have been able to do had I just taken on one full-time job after graduation.

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Always maintain your network. I actually applied for relatively few jobs during my career journey, and most of the work I was hired for was through the connections I had made and maintained in Astronomy and elsewhere. The first job I got after graduation was the result of a conversation with my local coffee shop owner. My most recent job at the Astronomy Department at UofT was the result of my involvement with the UofT planetarium after graduation. You never know if your next job is a random conversation away!

Who do you look up to and why?

I look up to people in my field who devote their time to promoting science outreach and education. I would love someday to be a science communicator like Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrass Tyson, and so look up to role models who are striving for the same goals. I also look up to women in STEM fields who have stuck it out after receiving their doctorate and are now established in academia. It's tough to stick to that career path as a woman, and I admire those who are now accomplished research scientists.

Dr. Ilana MacDonald grew up in a small town in rural Quebec where she was inspired by the clear night skies and her father's "midlife crisis telescope" to study Astronomy. She completed her Bachelors of Science in Physics at Bishop's University, and her Doctorate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, studying under Prof. Harald Pfeiffer. Her doctoral research topic was to test the accuracy of models of ripples in spacetime, that is, gravitational waves, from binary black holes for detectors such as LIGO. Since graduating with her PhD in 2013, Dr. MacDonald has decided to pursue a career in STEM outreach and education, and has tried everything from working in a Math tutoring centre to being a science consultant for a documentary. She currently works in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics managing some of the largest courses at the University of Toronto, as well as creating and presenting planetarium shows. In her free time, Dr. MacDonald enjoys reading science fiction, knitting, playing the ukulele, and riding around Toronto on her bicycle.

 

Women in STEM: Ruth Fernandez, MAPC

Meet our panel moderator: Ruth Fernandez. Ruth is a Managing Consultant for IBM Global, and has worked in both journalism and technology implementation. Her passion for diversity and gender equality makes her the perfect moderator our Women in STEM panel discussion. We can't wait to hear what what questions she has for our panelists and how she continues to forge ahead!   

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What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

I have always been interested in gender equality issues. The topic of women in STEM was the subject of my Communications Master’s degree research project. I examined how technology companies today are trying to attract girls, and women, to STEM education and careers respectively, and what implicit biases can be found in the language and images used in their ads. Research on the lack of women in STEM consistently highlights the need for women to SEE the women working in STEM and to identify potential mentors. This panel, where the audience can interact with female STEM professionals is, therefore, invaluable.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

I have a variety of interests outside work including photography, viewing movies and watching my favourite TV sitcoms, and the space program (I follow the Mars Rover @MarsCuriosity on Twitter!). I am also a voracious reader gobbling up every type of fiction from romance to science fiction.

I am energized by interacting with others, so I love spending time with friends and family including being a referee during some raucous game nights!

As a management consultant at IBM, I help clients adopt new technologies, and I use a variety of tools to keep my skills current; namely, following thought leaders, reading up on new technology or latest innovations, and asking subject matter experts a lot questions. I try to lead by example -  willing to work in new ways, with new tools that we are advocating.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

Be forever changing. I cannot think of one occupation that is untouched by innovation of some kind. To succeed I had to accept change and ambiguity in my work. Going from the typewriter to the computer to the tablet or smart-phone has meant giving up the feeling of comfort with the way things are. I remember when I had to get up to change the station dial on the TV.. tomorrow something new will be launched and we’ll need to adjust. 

I started my career in journalism at a time when newspapers started their decline, and reporting jobs were dwindling. To make a living writing, I needed to quickly broaden my horizons to write for a variety of industries and objectives – research, marketing, healthcare and technical writing. For the last 20 years I’ve worked in technology implementations helping clients cope with changing technology and ways of doing things. I still see my job as informing and educating people, but about technology and processes rather than the nightly news.       

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

Adaptability. I quickly learned that I needed to be adaptable and not box myself in as one thing or another. It’s not something we are taught when we choose our area of study, or think about when we decide what we want to be when we grow up. The world is changing rapidly, and one must be open to the possibilities. Being open to how I could apply my skills and constantly learning new things has been the key to my career success.

I left university in my 20s thinking I might break a Watergate-like story, but now I work on digital transformation projects and explain cognitive computing!

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Some colleagues recently asked me how I got such plum assignments.  My answer: I applied for them, then worked hard to learn while in the role and live up to my commitments. Raising your hand to take on a new challenge is the first step. Do not put limits on your skills or your ability to learn.  It took me a long time to take bigger risks (ok sometimes they are calculated risks!). As one of my rock heroes, David Coverdale, of Deep Purple, said, “Be safe, be happy, and don’t let anyone make you afraid.”

Who do you look up to, and why?

I’ll start with the obvious: my parents for immigrating to Canada more than half a century ago. Their sacrifices including leaving behind everything they knew so their kids were born and raised in such a wonderful country where we can be whatever we want to be. Beyond that, a colleague once told me that you should have at least five mentors. So, there are teachers, colleagues and loved ones who I go to for their various expertise or traits. And these days I often crowd-source advice from them all! Finally, I look up to Jennifer Yetman who became my Little Sister through Big Brothers and Big Sisters 20 years ago. She is now an incredible woman, a family counselor and educator. I’ve witnessed her struggles and admire her positive attitude and love of life.

Ruth Fernandez, MAPC, is a Change Management leader and scholar known for her ability to inspire and motivate multigenerational, ethnically diverse, and geographically dispersed teams. She completed a Bachelors of Arts in Journalism at Ryerson University, and her Masters Degree in Professional Communications at Royal Roads University. Her research project examined how technology firms leverage advertising to attract teen girls to STEM careers. Her study uncovered the counterproductive patriarchal discourses hidden in the ads and its potential damaging consequences. As an IBM consultant, Ruth focuses on creating and implementing strategies to enable and empower employees to adopt new behaviours and new technologies. Dedicated to the mentoring of girls, Ruth is an active member of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization in Montreal where she serves as a local chapter board member and was responsible for the chapter’s first social media engagement strategy. In her free time, Ruth Fernandez enjoys travelling, spending time with family, attending hockey games, and being a role model for her nieces.
 

Women in STEM: Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang

We are so excited to announce that we will be holding a Women in STEM panel discussion on September 13! With that said, we are proud to introduce our first panelist: Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang, a Mathematician and Professor at the University of Toronto. Given her knowledge and documentation of the experiences of women teachers and students in math classrooms, we are very excited to hear her take on how women in STEM can continue to forge ahead! But until then, here is a little about Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang.  

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What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

Hearing the stories of other women and being able to share my own in an understanding environment have been a huge source of support as I have progressed in my career.  Even if we “know” about unique challenges that women face in fields where they are underrepresented, there is something special that happens when we share and talk about our experiences.  I am also excited for the opportunity to connect with other local women in STEM.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

Reading. I try to read widely, but am not afraid to put down any book that I don’t enjoy, even if I think it would be beneficial. Physical activity. My exercise routine looks a lot different than it did a few years ago, but ensuring that my body functions well is important in ensuring that I am able to do my best work. Restoration. I am understanding the importance of rest and relaxation in developing a successful career more and more each year.  Some of my favourite ways to unplug include baking, playing piano, and exploring new places with my husband.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

The biggest learning curve in my career was at the beginning of my first continuing faculty job.  Up until that point, my success had always seemed to be based largely on the quality of my work; if I worked hard I would find a way forward.  Suddenly, I found myself in a position where good work wasn’t enough, students seemed to be comparing me to their vision of what a mathematician “should” look like or be, and it felt as though I had hit an impenetrable wall.  Eventually, things got better as some students began to trust me and word spread that I was a good teacher. I became successful in my position.  Through this experience, however, I learned that we don’t always have control over how others perceive women in STEM and that it is important to surround yourself with a supportive community.

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

My strong drive to learn has been instrumental throughout my journey.  Loving learning and discovering new things is key to making it through graduate school, but plays an even bigger role in being a faculty member.  I see this as an essential part of my job as a professor;  whenever I get away from learning new things my work becomes stagnant.  Although I am a mathematician, I prioritize learning about a variety of subjects (education, history, medicine, computer science, leadership, sociology, etc.).  I am constantly surprised about where I stumble upon connections to, and inspiration for my work! 

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Find people with whom you can talk openly and honestly about the struggles that you face in your career.  Having friends or colleagues who will be reliable cheerleaders when things get tough can be a tremendous support.  They do not need to be in STEM themselves - some of my greatest professional supports are not - but you should be able to rely on them to accept the barriers that you face.

Who do you look up to, and why?

I think that I could write a book about all of the people that I look up to! Here are three, in brief.  A friend, Bianca Brigidi, is one of the wisest and most eloquent women I know - she always seems to know exactly what to say in difficult situations. My mom, Ann Mayes, has built communities and a family with grace and is a pillar of strength in my life.  My PhD supervisor (aka my “academic mom”), Karen Smith, is a tremendously accomplished mathematician but she spends a great deal of time and effort supporting young mathematicians, particularly those from underrepresented groups.

Sarah Mayes-Tang received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Queen’s University, and her Master’s and PhD degrees in pure mathematics from the University of Michigan.   Her dissertation was in computational algebra and algebraic geometry, and investigated questions about infinite collections of polynomials. After receiving her PhD, Dr. Mayes-Tang joined the faculty of Quest University Canada, a liberal arts institution in British Columbia dedicated to undergraduate education.  While there, she developed and taught innovative courses in both traditional and non-traditional areas including calculus, abstract algebra, cryptology, creativity in mathematics, and knowledge.  She also initiated and led several University-level projects. Following four years at Quest, Dr. Mayes-Tang moved to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Toronto.  She currently leads a team of instructors and TAs as coordinator for the University’s largest-enrollment calculus sequence.  Her current projects include documenting the experiences of women teachers and students in math classrooms, developing programs to support TAs, and helping students to develop positive attitudes towards mathematics.