Mentorship, representation and more: Two women in science talk about finding a sense of belonging

Research and innovation
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Faculty of Science
Faculty of Medicine

By University of Ottawa

Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OVPRI

Portraits of Alicia Sit and Ewurabena Simpson
Alicia Sit, left, and Ewurabena Simpson, right.
When Professor Ewurabena Simpson was in medical school, two supervisors commented on the fact that she was quiet. “Do you think it’s because you’re the only woman in the group?” asked one, a man. “Perhaps you should go into a field that’s less stressful,” said the other, a woman. And she remembers thinking, “Why is being quiet a bad thing?”

“I’m an introvert by nature and I’ll speak up when I have to. But most of the time, I’m quiet because I’m taking in the information,” says Simpson, who teaches in the Department of Pediatrics at uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine. “Staying quiet helps me to connect with people or pick up on things that others might miss. It was puzzling that they equated quietness with being less capable or that they thought being a woman was somehow a barrier.”

Overcoming stereotypes and preconceptions is one of the unfair challenges that women in STEM face, says Simpson. “It can be very difficult when you’re the only woman or if you don’t have allies. I was lucky to have mentors all around me. My parents are both food scientists and they’re my biggest cheerleaders. I’ve also learned so much from my friends, my classmates and my colleagues. Mentors really make a huge difference.”

Ewurabena Simpson as a toddler using a stethoscope on her teddy bear and her baby sister.
Ewurabena Simpson received a stethoscope from her uncle in Ghana when she was three years old. “The seed was planted early,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to pursue medicine because I loved science and I loved people. And that hasn’t changed.”

Today, Simpson is a pediatric hematologist-oncologist specializing in non-malignant hematology and hemoglobinopathies. She’s been the lead physician for the sickle cell disease program at CHEO since 2018, a board member for the Black Physicians Association of Ontario since 2017 and a mentor for Black youth interested in careers in medicine since she herself started medical school in 2001. She’s also the assistant dean for equity, diversity and inclusion for the Faculty of Medicine at uOttawa.

“When I was studying to be a doctor, and even before that, most of my professors were men, and none of them were Black. That made it difficult for me to see where I could belong, because it’s hard to be what you cannot see. Representation matters, and it’s one of the ways we can improve the position of women and racialized people in STEM.”

That lack of representation Simpson experienced in school is one of the reasons she became a mentor. “I encourage young women and Black youth to find mentors as a first step. If someone is doing something that looks interesting to you, approach them! You’d be surprised how many people are open to that. The worst that can happen is they don’t have time to chat, but they might be able to connect you with someone else. I’ve gotten cold emails that have turned into summer studentships, so you never know.”

Alicia Sit and her supervisor, Ebrahim Karimi, in front of a photonics workstation.
“Optics is like Lego for adults,” says Alicia. “I get to work with lasers, crystals and other cool equipment. I assemble my own setup and make something work from scratch. I really like creating new things. Photonics and physics satisfy that curiosity."

Fourth-year PhD student Alicia Sit also credits much of her success in physics to her mentors. She is part of Professor Ebrahim Karimi’s structured quantum optics group at uOttawa, creating a quantum communication network across the city of Ottawa, among other projects. She was first exposed to a career in research in 2012, right after high school, thanks to the Faculty of Science’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship. And she’s never looked back.

“One of the PhD students I was working with during my scholarship, Brandi West, was an inspiring mentor to me,” says Sit. “She showed me what research was all about, what it was like to go to conferences, gave me advice on how to interact. Her way of doing things was always very present in my mind when I was starting out. She’s the one who kick-started my choice to stay in research.”

Sit says she’s lucky to have received so much support throughout her academic journey, but this hasn’t stopped her from noticing “the little things” that make being a woman in science more challenging.

“That feeling of not being heard, for example, and needing to share your ideas more than once. Or that feeling of being the only woman in the room. At conferences, people would often pass me over to talk to the person standing next to me,” she explains. “I used to be in a research group with only guys, and it was very much a ‘for the boys’ atmosphere, with a lot of crude inside jokes and drinking after work. And I wanted to fit in, so I tried to emulate those behaviours to some degree.”

Sit says it took her a while to build up her self-confidence and get to a place in her career where she’s not afraid to ask questions, ask for help and voice her opinions. She hopes to pay it forward and offer a helping hand to other women and girls interested in physics.

“My advice to young women looking to pursue a career in STEM is just to persevere,” she says. “There will be challenging times. You will have doubts about yourself and wonder whether you belong. But if it’s something you love to do, find those people who will support you and keep saying yes to those opportunities.”

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