By Linda Scales
Women made up the majority of this spring’s uOttawa graduates, but not in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. And the fact that for several decades, women have been underrepresented among STEM degree graduates in Canada has been getting lots of attention.
There are several reasons for this disparity and it is a significant problem: Canada needs people with scientific backgrounds in its labour force to help the country stay competitive and prosperous. This disparity also means that women are missing out on some of Canada’s highest-paying and fastest-growing occupations, including those in engineering and computer science that require STEM degrees.
The University of Ottawa continues to encourage women to pursue programs in the STEM fields. In keeping with this goal, uOttawa celebrated the major contributions of two women who have carved out stellar careers in STEM at its June 2019 convocation: telecommunications leader and engineer Veena Rawat and molecular microbiologist Dianne Newman were awarded honorary doctorates.
Veena Rawat shattering expectations
Veena Rawat is all too familiar with breaking new ground and shattering society’s expectations about women. After all, she was the only woman in her engineering classes in Rajasthan, India, and she was the first woman to receive a doctorate in electrical engineering from Queen’s University.
In 1974, she was the first woman to work in the federal department now known as Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, starting as an engineer and working her way up to executive leadership positions. She spent 28 years managing programs related to radio frequency spectrum wireless and satellite communication services, culminating in her appointment as president of the Communications Research Centre (CRC), the only federal laboratory to perform research and development in communications technologies.
Sexism and discrimination
It was uncommon for women to study engineering and science in the 1960s and ’70s, and those who did experienced sexism and discrimination. Rawat, who immigrated to Canada from India in 1968 before enrolling in the doctoral program at Queen’s, was no exception.
Her PhD research focused on communications in remote areas. When she needed to test specific cable types in an underground nickel mine in Northern Ontario to see how radio signals could be transmitted, she had to have her male PhD supervisor and a male research assistant conduct the tests and collect data because women weren’t allowed to enter the mines.
In 2003, Rawat became the first woman ever to chair the World Radiocommunication Conference. In 2014, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her “contributions to telecommunications engineering and for leadership in establishing the global regulatory framework for radio spectrum management.”
After retiring from the federal public service, Rawat worked for Research in Motion (RIM) as Vice-President, Advanced Technology Team and as its ambassador to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency responsible for information and communication technology issues.
Known around the world and in Canada as a telecommunications leader, Veena Rawat is a committed trailblazer for the advancement of women, especially in engineering, and for gender equality in STEM. Today, she consults for Canadian and international organizations and corporations.
Dianne Newman’s genius discovery
Scientist Dianne Newman uses an interdisciplinary approach to explore her unexpected and fresh insights into some of the most challenging medical problems.
Professor Newman is a molecular microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, who connects geology to genetics. Her research is part of the emerging field of microbial ecology, which focuses on how bacteria interact with one another and with their environment.
Newman is interested in the early evolution of life on Earth and microorganisms that existed before oxygen was present in the atmosphere, preserved in the fossil record of billion-year-old rocks. Her discovery of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a type of soil bacteria that survives in low-oxygen conditions and also lives in the mucus-filled lungs of cystic fibrosis patients, bridges the considerable gap between Earth science and medicine.
P. aeruginosa is an opportunistic pathogen that causes persistent infections that eventually destroy the lungs, so understanding these bacteria could be key to finding treatments for cystic fibrosis, along with other chronic respiratory diseases and chronic wound infections.
Newman’s undergraduate degree reflects her intellectual fluidity. Although she majored in German studies at Stanford University, she also spent time conducting research in materials science and fluid dynamics in preparation for graduate school. She went on to earn a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and afterwards, worked in bacterial genetics as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School.
In 2016, Newman was named a MacArthur Fellow. Unofficially known as the “genius grant”, this annual award is described as an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” In April 2019, her original research prompted her election to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) by her peers. As an NAS member, Newman is now one of an influential group that provides advice on science and technology to the US federal government and other organizations.
Newman is in good company: some 500 NAS members are Nobel Prize winners.