Encouraging Indigenous women to choose science

Posted on Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Students in lab coats in a biochemistry lab with test tubes.

(From left) Zach Comeau with Grace Salomonie, Kelsee Arthurson and Tyra Moses as they test the polarity of various compounds — including juice, Coca-Cola and Red Bull — as a first step towards learning more about biochemistry, at the Molecular Medicine Lab.

By Mike Foster

A group of Indigenous Grade 11 students visited our campus for an in-depth look at potential academic careers working with lasers, harnessing solar panels, designing medicines or conducting environmental research.

Five uOttawa professors and their research teams mentored small groups of two or three students — all girls — as part of the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Education Program, which aims to increase the number of Indigenous students graduating from science and engineering programs in Canada.

The Ontario NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, which is held by University of Ottawa associate professor Catherine Mavriplis, is also sponsoring the lab visits.

The Indigenous girls came from communities such as Norway House Cree Nation, in Manitoba; Wemindji, lylyuu Istchee, on the east coast of James Bay in northern Quebec; the Ottawa region; Rama; Barrie; and Waswanipi.

“The girls will do everything from counting bees in Gatineau Park to measuring solar cells and learning about renewable energy,” said Mavriplis. “On the lighter side, they will learn to use technology to make jewelry in the Makerspace with Indigenous artist Kelly Marsolais. Together with the Indigenous Resource Centre, we hope to give these girls a glimpse of what science and engineering studies could be like on a university campus and inspire them to pursue postsecondary degrees. At the same time, we learn about their communities and cultures.”

Manipulating molecules to diagnose disease

Grace Salomonie, an Inuk student from Nunavut, said, “It is an unfortunate truth that Indigenous youth scarcely receive postsecondary education. Studying science is important to me and my family because not many Indigenous people enter science programs.”

Salomonie, Tyra Moses and Kelsee Arthurson, from Norway House Cree Nation, chose to learn how to manipulate molecules to diagnose disease and probe biochemistry with Adam J. Shuhendler, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences. With help from Zach Comeau, a master’s student in chemical engineering, they tested compounds on litmus paper as a precursor to possibly finding biomarkers to diagnose concussion.

“I’m leaning towards wanting to study biology,” said Salomonie. “I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed chemistry until this program.”

This is the first time uOttawa has hosted Indigenous students participating in the program, which was created in 2009 by Verna J. Kirkness, a scholar and member of the Fisher River Cree Nation.

“As our people seek to be self-sufficient, it is important that expertise in these fields is available in the community,” says Kirkness. “Elders participate in the program, providing cultural grounding in science to help the students understand how important science has always been to our people.”

You can support future cohorts of this program and similar initiatives that encourage women to pursue careers in science and engineering by making a contribution.

Students in the SUNLAB surrounded by scientific equipment.

Sandra Hart and Jesse Paypompee take a short break from learning about quantum efficiency at the SUNLAB with Mandy Lewis, a master’s student in electrical and computer engineering.

Group of 10 Indigenous women students from high schools.

(Back row, from left) Sandra Hart, Lauren Roote, Kelsee Arthurson, Kendra Simpson, Kiana Meekis and Jesse Paypompee. (Front row) Kiana Tait, Grace Salomanie, Gillian Blackned and Tyra Moses.

Here’s what four other professors explored with their groups:

The students themselves chose what they were most interested in learning among the topics the uOttawa professor volunteers were offering.

How to harness the power of the sun

Jesse Paypompee, originally from North West Angle 37 in Ontario, and Sandra Hart, from Norway House Cree Nation, learned how to integrate solar panels in smart grids and use them for renewable energy production. Under the mentorship of Karin Hinzer, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Mandy Lewis, a master’s student in electrical and computer engineering, they spent time in the SUNLAB at the Advanced Research Complex.

“I’m really big on saving energy and, someday, I want to build my own house using things that help me not to waste energy,” said Paypompee. “It’s pretty cool.”

Seeing the science of light

Gillian Blackned, a Cree from Wemindji, lylyuu Istchee, on the east coast of James Bay in northern Quebec, and Kendra Simpson, from Norway House Cree Nation, spent the week working with lasers with physics professor Jeff Lundeen and his team at the Lundeen Lab, in the Advanced Research Complex. They received hands-on training on how to get light signals into hair-thin fibres. They learned how light pulses carry internet information and how quantum physics can be used to make signals unhackable and protect personal information.

Tracking the lives of bees

Amber Paupanekis, Emily Taylor and Victoria McMahon worked with Jessica Forrest, professor in the Department of Biology, in Gatineau Park, collecting field data on the timing of flowering and bee activity. They labelled and identified insect specimens and visited farm sites, observing bees and studying factors limiting bee populations.

Making new medicines

Working with Jeffrey Keillor, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences and leader of the Keillor Research Group, Kiana Meekis, Lauren Roote and Kiana Tait explored the early stages of drug discovery and learned how medicinal chemists synthesize and evaluate molecules for use in medicine.

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