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Women Fuelling the Future of Science

Look around! Apollo 11, the smallpox vaccine, the first direct evidence of dark matter in space. These are just a few of the outstanding scientific breakthroughs made possible by women working hard behind the scenes. In this episode we look at how women have helped make science, and our world, what it is today. Do you want to be an arctic explorer, a fossil hunter or a green energy guru? Then stay tuned!

Transcript

Joel Houle

What would we do without women in this world? I know I don‘t want to sound like Captain Obvious here but, really, just look around: Apollo 11, the smallpox vaccine, the first direct evidence that dark matter exists in space. These are just a few of the scientific breakthroughs first made possible by women working hard behind the scenes and at times even working together and supporting each other. Today, we look at how women have helped make science and our world what it is today.

Joel Houle

We’ll also talk about some of the exciting changes on the way and how women and men can continue to help shape our future. Do you want to be an Arctic explorer, fossil hunter, green energy guru? Do you want to know what it takes to get there? Stay tuned.

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Joel Houle

Welcome to a new episode of Simply Science, the podcast, that talks about the amazing scientific work that our experts here at Natural Resources Canada are doing. My name is Joel Houle. And joining me is my co-host, Barb Ustina. Barb, how are you doing?

Barb Ustina

I’m doing just fine. How are you doing?

Joel Houle

Great. I love the energy you’re bringing. Thank you.

Barb Ustina

I am so excited about today’s podcast. I’m really looking forward to celebrating the contribution of women to the world of science. And there are so many unsung heroes.

Joel Houle

It’s hard to believe. But 120 years ago, women were simply not welcome in many classrooms or labs across the country. We like to think that we’ve come a long way, and we have. But the fact is that we still have a way to go.

Barb Ustina

Oh, for sure. For example, Canada’s first female surgeon, she graduated from med school in 1909. And at the time, not one single hospital in Toronto would accept a female intern. And more recently, I was talking with Petra Moody, now retired from the Geological Survey of Canada. She said when she first started, she was one of four women out of 100 scientists in the regional office. And she was asked to do some of the dirty work, like clean off the ship’s decks and clean the ship’s masthead. But by the time she retired in 2001, things had changed drastically and women made up about 40 percent of the staff.

Joel Houle

Well, that’s great. It’s interesting, though — I have one of my good friends. She’s in her mid 30s right now. When she did her co-op term in the mid 2000s, she had this really interesting experience on her first day at work. She just decided — well, you know, she needed to go to the washroom. So she went to the washroom. She opens the door. And there’s a guy inside the women’s washroom. And she’s a little shocked, and he’s shocked as well. He’s like, “Oh, like, sorry, we don’t have any women on the team, so we just use both bathrooms.” And that wasn’t a long time ago: we’re talking about like 12, 13 years ago. We still have a little bit to go as well, though, even though we’ve come so far.

Barb Ustina

Oh yeah, no doubt. It’s hard not to laugh, but that’s not really funny. And it’s, you know — the woman who discovered the first direct evidence of dark matter in space. She had a similar story to tell. She went to an observatory in Hawaii, and there were no female, no women washrooms in the building. So she cut out a picture of a skirt and taped it onto a door. And she called that the women’s washroom. So that’s how she did it.

Joel Houle

That’s crazy. I’m glad that she was able to, you know, do something about it.

Barb Ustina

Yeah. And even today, only about 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. And, globally, attracting more girls and young women to science is a priority. And it’s true: more and more girls are interested in STEM subjects — that’s science, technology, engineering and math. But just how big a difference that represents depends entirely on what report you’re reading. So no wonder governments, educators and other organizations are working to tilt the balance, and even toy companies are getting in on it. There’s the Mighty Girl line. There are pink construction tools for girls who want to become carpenters or, you know, building engineers. And heck, there’s even an astrophysicist Barbie and a marine biologist Barbie. So it’s not for not trying.

Joel Houle

Well, that’s great. I have a young daughter, and I think it’s amazing that these are out there for her, that she understands the world of STEM is not just for boys. It’s an option for her as well. So I think that’s absolutely wonderful.

Barb Ustina

It’s hard to know what your goal is when there are so few role models and mentors. In the early stages of a career, or when a girl is in school, they can have a huge impact and they can really open a person’s eyes to the cool career opportunities that are out there that you don’t hear about unless you go looking for them.

Joel Houle

That’s true. Well, it looks like we have a lot of ground to cover on this.

Barb Ustina

Oh, yeah.

Joel Houle

Should we get going?

Barb Ustina

You bet.

Joel Houle

Let’s go.

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Barb Ustina

Joining us today are NRCan research scientist Holly Dole and research engineer Julia Purdy. Welcome to Simply Science. It’s so nice to see you here in person. This is really great, because normally a lot of times we talk to people on the phone so you don’t really get that contact, that eye contact. So this is really great. Thanks for coming in today. Let’s start by having you tell me a bit about the kind of research you’re involved in. I’ll start with you, Holly.

Holly Dole

Okay. I’m a research scientist at the Clean Fossil Fuels Group at Canmet in  Bells Corners [in Ottawa, Ontario]. And one of my main projects I work on is CO2 [carbon dioxide] conversion. We’re trying to take carbon dioxide from combustion processes and turn it into some sort of useful fuel. So instead of putting it back into the ground, we’re trying to make it into a useful product.

Barb Ustina

Interesting. Julia, tell me a bit about your research.

Julia Purdy

I work at NRCan Canmet Energy Ottawa as well in Bells Corners in the buildings and renewables group. And so we focus our research on energy efficiency in construction of houses and buildings. Recently, for the past five years or so, I’ve been working in northern housing — so, trying to help our northern housing partners in the Arctic improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock to reduce the amount of diesel that they would require, but also to make the houses more resilient and last longer. We’ve all heard about the issues of mold in northern housing, and so we work to try to make them more efficient, more affordable to live in and more resilient.

Barb Ustina

You’re both from relatively untraditional streams of science even. I’m wondering if we can talk about role models a bit, some of the fearless pioneers in the history of women in science. And I’m wondering, who are some of the most amazing women in science that you’re familiar with, and who are who are some of these women scientists that everyone should be aware of?

Julia Purdy

I went to university in the ‘90s, and the Internet was just in its very early stages. I don’t want this to be “Come around the fire young people, Grandma is going to tell you a story.” But if we didn’t — if it wasn’t someone that we were introduced to in class or through our colleagues at school — it was not as if information about extraordinary women in science was not as available: I found in university we knew of some engineering icons. But mostly the women that were my colleagues and my classmates were the women from who we derived our inspiration and our..... The capacity to complete what we were doing, so there were — what I know now a lot about — some incredible women. But back when I was a younger person, I just didn’t know about them.

Barb Ustina

Holly, how about you?

Holly Dole

I almost think the same thing as you. I went to engineering in the 2000s and I — even in high school or elementary school — I wasn’t told about other female scientists. So that’s — yeah, I’m almost on the same page as what you’re in. I did learn about them once I got into engineering, but it wasn’t something that I grew up knowing about or aspiring to — some person, some scientists.

Julia Purdy

I think I think it’s really amazing now that we have stories in movies about women. We hear stories about women from history that I think were probably not very well known before recently. Like “Hidden Figures,” that movie. My children — their school went on a field trip to go and watch that movie. And it’s a pretty incredible story. But I didn’t know that those women existed before the movie, which is kind of a very sad statement.

Barb Ustina

Absolutely. It’s sort of the hidden figures, for sure, in the background of so much science over the last centuries, the last hundred years, and just sort of — they’re almost background characters in a way.

Julia Purdy

Agreed, yes.

Barb Ustina

Now, just take me back to the moment that you knew that you wanted to pursue a career in science or knew that science was your passion. Holly, you can take me back there.

Holly Dole

I think it started in Grade eight. I was at a parent–teacher interview, and it was me and my mom sitting there. My teacher told my mom that I excelled in math and sciences and that I should consider a job in engineering. And my mom sort of looked at me and didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t want to say anything in the end, the parent–teacher interview. So we went home, and we kind of just kept that in the back of her head. But it wasn’t until probably Grade 11 or 12 that it was my chemistry teacher that then sort of noticed how I enjoyed chemistry and excelled at it. So he was the one that put the chemical engineering into my head. To be honest, I thought I was going to be a fashion designer all through. I started sewing my own clothes at the age of nine. And that was sort of something that I was really passionate about. I still do that; it’s just more of a hobby. And I think engineering has the creative side to it. So sewing sort of went into that as well.

Barb Ustina

Absolutely — engineering has that creative side. And I think that’s part of the challenge in kind of selling engineering and science to young girls and young women is that it’s not often seen as a creative pursuit. And yet it is.

Holly Dole

Yeah, for sure.

Julia Purdy

Yeah. You know, just on the creativity — when I was in university, I went through mechanical engineering because I was interested in energy. But the only jobs or the only careers that were you ever heard of were plant managers in automotive factories. And that was not something that held any appeal to me. But there are so many varieties of careers that engineering can lead you into or science can lead you into. For sure.

Barb Ustina

And mentors are so important to your career as well. And what I’m wondering — Julia, you’re shaking your head. Are there any mentors who really propelled you through?

Julia Purdy

When I was in engineering, when I was in university, there was — 10 percent of the population was females. There were a couple of engineering professors that were females. But the mentor.... I shook my head because I wouldn’t say a mentor. But my mother is, was a mathematician. She was a high school teacher. And when we were younger, she went back to university when we were little. She went back to university and graduated from computer science in the first class of computer science at Carleton University. So she did not — she was not an engineer. But at that time, that was the first class of computer science, and she worked her whole career after, you know, we were a little bit older, at Nortel in a very engineering type of job. So she was not necessarily a mentor, but she was someone who I saw working in a field that I had no interest in because computer science — it’s not in any capacity or capabilities but through her conversations about her colleagues who were women. It definitely was someone that I saw as doing something in this realm. Yeah, I hadn’t really before.

Barb Ustina

Yeah, she was an amazing role model for you.

Julia Purdy

She was a role model. Yes. Don’t tell her I said that.

Barb Ustina

Holly, how about you?

Holly Dole

I would actually say... the first time I came across, like, female engineers was in second year university. I had a professor. She was actually a pretty new professor. But to this day, I still sort of stay in contact with her. And also for my PhD, I chose to do my thesis with a female professor at Ottawa U. So that was sort of — I don’t know, it was like a comfort thing for me that I chose that I didn’t realize. I chose that when I did. But yeah, it was now.

Barb Ustina

Now, at this point in your careers, do you sort of give back at this point? Do you mentor any young scientists or engineers?

Holly Dole

I’m still quite a young scientist myself, but I do I have had the opportunity to teach at Ottawa U and at Algonquin College. And if I can help, well, anyone in the class kind of get it, like “Stay in the field.” That’s fun to do.

Julia Purdy

In my group at work, there is one engineer that is a female, which is me. But I do. I have two daughters that are 15 and 13. And I do talk to their friends a lot about science and the possibilities that science opens for you and encouraging them to think about math and science.

Barb Ustina

Why are we still having this conversation? To me, it seems like the awareness is high. Everybody knows it’s good all around. Globally, it’s a priority to attract more girls and young women into science. And yet we still have to have this conversation.

Julia Purdy

I was talking with somebody yesterday about this podcast, and that was the exact conversation we had: that we shouldn’t need to have a Women and Science podcast. We shouldn’t. Why? I don’t actually know. I know that there is still in high schools. My children come back and still have that. Math is hard. Science is hard. That’s coming from my children.

Barb Ustina

What do you say to them?

Julia Purdy

I say that it’s possible that you don’t understand this concept. But let’s not paint math as hard. Right? And I remember just an anecdote. We were in — both my daughters play very competitive hockey — and we were in the dressing room. I’m the trainer on one of the teams. And we were in the dressing room, and the coach was trying to explain a play. And he said, “Calculus is hard; this isn’t hard,” and I might go do it. I stood up and said, “I apologize for interrupting, but do not say that to a locker room full of young girls. Do not say that calculus is hard.” I understand. You know, the point was not “Math is hard” — his heart was trying to make a point, that this play was not hard. But we have to think about the words that we use when we’re talking to young girls, and I think that’s an important step.

Holly Dole

I definitely agree with that. I honestly don’t know why it’s still a conversation, either. But I know like growing up, I wasn’t, my parents didn’t. I have two older brothers, and they didn’t ever tell me, “Oh, you can’t do that,” because your brother, like, because you’re brothers are doing that. My dad used to sit down with me and do fun math problems, as he called it. So I never had the idea in my head that math was hard or science was hard or anything like that, or that I was different from my brothers in a sense. I honestly didn’t know I was going into a … like a field where I was going to be the sort of, well, not the only woman, but very few. So I think that helped in my case. But it’s because it’s so well known now, too, that engineering is not the typical female career path. Maybe it’s almost emphasized too much that, oh, you’re going into that field of all guys, like. So I just know myself. I didn’t choose it because someone told me that, oh, you should go into this because there’s not many females or anything. I just, I had the encouragement of my parents to do whatever I thought I would do. And then the two teachers that sort of noticed how I excelled in those subjects. So I’m not sure if that’s a different angle to look at it now.

Barb Ustina

Do you think, overall, that women approach science differently or bring something different to the table in the world of science?

Julia Purdy

I absolutely think so. I think that in the world where we’re making decisions based on knowledge and perspective, especially with the growth of artificial intelligence, machine-based learning. The machine only knows what to learn based on the people that are involved in the creation of the machine or the algorithms — that the more perspectives that you have that are different only grow the capacity. And I know this is a podcast about women, but it’s — I think that in every conversation about science or quite frankly, the bigger world. But science is particular. The more perspectives from different viewpoints, the better the science is, for sure.

Barb Ustina

And Holly, do you have any thoughts on the perspective that women can bring?

Holly Dole

I think yeah, I well, I mentioned the creativity. I think you just know our brains do function maybe differently and we can bring a different angle to.

Barb Ustina

I’m just want to close things off with talking a bit about the different kinds of careers that people might not know about — men and women, when they’re in college and high school — that science leads to, like that’s a whole … there’s creativity, there’s like cutting-edge … it’s amazing.

Holly Dole

I definitely saw when I chose to go into engineering, I thought I was going to end up in manufacturing. I really wanted to make Kraft Dinner. To be honest, I wanted to end up at Kraft, Canada. East Coast. Ottawa. But that was it. So the only sort of angle that I saw …. And then as I started going through undergrad, I did co-op at Ottawa U and got to see the side of research and creating new things. And that made me super excited. And that’s sort of how I ended up doing a master’s and PhD, because of that excitement to make new technologies or new ideas.

Julia Purdy

You know, science. And I’ll speak of engineering, in particular — engineering through four years of university and post-grad, if you choose to do it — that it helps you answer questions. And that’s what I want. And whenever anybody asks me about engineering, what did you learn? I mean, you learn about fundamentals of a lot of things, whatever you focus on. But the goal of engineering is to help you solve a problem. Help you answer a question. And so whether that question is how, having to do with the Kraft Dinner machine, you know, or about energy efficiency or converting carbon dioxide into a usable fuel. That is, the number of career options is enormous, because every day the evolution of society, the evolution of our lives, means that there are new questions that need to be answered and fundamentals, and engineering can help answer those questions.

Barb Ustina

Okay, cool. Well, is there anything else that you’d like to add while you’re here this morning?

Julia Purdy

I would add that there are many careers available in science and the federal government because there is science-based policy decisions being made every day, that there are opportunities for science in the federal government. And it’s something I think that young engineers, young scientists, should consider.

Holly Dole

I guess I would just say to all the upcoming scientists or engineers to not give up ever — because there’s going be times that you’re going want to — and just keep going, just keep going. It’s like it can be challenging, but that’s the whole point. And the reward at the end of it is definitely a lot greater than the effort that you put in in the first place.

Julia Purdy

When I first started here, and it was my first day of work after grad school, and I was very nervous as anybody starting a first job would be…. And my colleague and I were sitting at a table, and he said to me, “Every day, you come to work, and the only decision that you have to make is, ‘Does this make life better for Canadians?’ And if it does, then we do it. And if it doesn’t, then we don’t do it.” And every day, even though it’s hard, even though there’s — you know, you’re getting pulled in lots of directions, and budgets are getting smaller. The goal at the end of our day is to make life better for Canadians. And so I think it’s very rewarding in that context.

Barb Ustina

Well, I’ll say that we are very fortunate to have both of you at NRCan as scientists so that Canada will be a better place. Thank you so much for joining us this morning. That was NRCan research scientist Holly Dole and research engineer Julia Purdy. Thank you very much.

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Joel Houle

Well, it sounds like there’s a lot of really cool careers in science and, definitely, I like the idea of being a scientist for Kraft Dinner.

Barb Ustina

Oh, me too. Did you ever consider a career in science?

Joel Houle

Well, I was always pretty good at math, so I always thought that maybe I could be an engineer. I guess it’s not too late. But, you know, when you think about it, I wouldn’t be able to do this podcast.

Barb Ustina

Oh, no.

Joel Houle

And then you would have the privilege of working with me.

Barb Ustina

No, don’t do it. 

Joel Houle

I know. Right.

Barb Ustina

So, I mean, that would be a tragedy. Just don’t do it.

Joel Houle

It would be. You know what you’ve convinced me. Thank you, Barb.

Joel Houle

But if you, our listeners, want to learn more about careers in science, check out the links in the episode description. If you like the episode, please consider subscribing. You can also leave a review or share this episode. And if you share over Twitter, make sure to tag me. My handle is @JoelScience, and you can follow me as well. Barb, you’re on Twitter as well, right?

Barb Ustina

You bet. I’m @SimplyscienceB. That’s the letter B. And I have to admit, I haven’t been as active on Twitter as I want to be, so…. Well, you know, see what I did there? “SimplyscienceB” and “I want to be”? Anyhow....

Joel Houle

We’re all about the puns today.

Barb Ustina

Simply Science also has a website and a YouTube channel which you should check out. We have in-depth articles and interesting videos that showcase the fascinating scientific work that we do at Natural Resources Canada. You can find those links in the episode description as well.

Joel Houle

Thank you, everyone, for listening. We’ll see you in the next episode

Barb Ustina

Bye.

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