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U of T Engineering Dean Cristina Amon delivers opening remarks at the 2017 Women in Science and Engineering Conference, hosted at U of T Engineering. (Photo: Kevin Jen)

More than 300 leading academics, industry professionals and students from across Canada convened at U of T Engineering last weekend for the fifth annual Women in Science and Engineering National Conference.

“It’s hard for students to meet women in leadership positions,” said Syeda Anjum (Year 3 ChemE), the conference chair. “We are helping them build a strong network. Our speakers include software developers, neurosurgeons, physicists, biologists and engineers. There is something for everybody.”

Learn more about the WISE National Conference 2017 and meet the organizing team.

The theme for the two-day event — Ignite Your Passion — spoke to the many opportunities for inspiration and mentorship. The schedule also included a Three-Minute Thesis competition, career fair and business consulting case competition. Opening remarks were delivered by Cristina Amon, Dean of U of T Engineering. Here is her message:

Good morning, everyone.

It is my great privilege to join you and welcome you to the fifth annual Women in Science and Engineering National Conference.

I would like to offer my deep gratitude to the Conference Chair, Syeda Anjum, and the entire organizing committee. Your hard work and your dedication are evident in every aspect of this outstanding event.

Looking at the conference schedule, and the many wonderful and accomplished guest speakers, I am certain it will be a remarkable weekend of learning, networking and inspiration.

I also wish to thank the WISE University of Toronto chapter, including President Belinda Zhang, for hosting this terrific conference, as well as the primary sponsors, including:

  • TD
  • Schneider Electric
  • Deloitte
  • And the many universities that have made it possible for you to attend.

They have shown incredible support for the dialogue and learning that can happen here.

When I reflect on this year’s conference theme — Ignite Your Passion — it reminds me of when I was a young girl in Uruguay.

Growing up, I was very fortunate to have several people who helped me along the way. First, there was a primary school teacher who encouraged me to “tinker” and take things apart. Then it was my parents, who let me continue to explore the world around me.

I remember my parents owned a radio. It was quite big, about the size of a television box. And I was fascinated by it. So one day when my parents were out, I took the radio apart to see how it worked.

To my disappointment, there were no little people inside it singing or talking — only tubes, resistors, capacitors and wiring. It was my first great research failure. And then my parents came home. It was not a good day in the lab.

But I learned that I like taking things apart and discovering what makes them tick. I am sure that many of you feel the same way.

Understanding why something happens is the first step toward creating something new. And the day that I took the radio apart was the day that I think my engineering career began.

Later, it was my high school physics teacher who inspired me to pursue engineering — first at Simón Bolívar University in Venezuela, and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

Every step of the way I had champions and mentors who helped me discover new possibilities.

Likewise, we have the responsibility to create a welcoming and inclusive profession where people of all backgrounds who have strengths in science, technology, engineering and math can create, innovate and thrive.

As we face increasingly complex global challenges, it is more critical than ever that the STEM fields reflect the rich diversity of our society. There are robust studies that clearly show that different perspectives and backgrounds deepen the creative process, spark new collaborations and areas of inquiry, and accelerate innovations that improve people’s lives.

And the leaders in these fields — in academia, professional organizations, industry, and government — recognize this imperative and are making progress in actively promoting and advancing all forms of diversity.

I believe that few professions foster the spirit of innovation as ours does. After all, scientists and engineers are making some of the most important contributions to our society, from health care and biomedical innovation, to infrastructure and smart cities, to artificial intelligence and robotics.

For example, here at U of T Engineering, our researchers are growing human heart, liver and muscle tissue outside the body to repair damaged organs. They are creating low-cost water and energy systems for remote communities, and developing new ways to collect, store and transport clean energy.

You, too, will join these exceptional people, as you develop new technologies or work across disciplines to creatively combine and apply existing technologies or launch first-of-its-kind business ventures to improve the world, and our future.

Science, technology, engineering and math also open doors to many other careers, including entrepreneurship, finance, law, government and medicine. The opportunities for all of us are simply boundless.

However as women, we may face societal and cultural pressures to move away from science and engineering. The challenges you may have overcome to reach this point in your studies are not so different than the ones that my generation encountered. But we can influence the experience of the young women who follow us.

That is why it is so important that today’s aspiring scientists and engineers, both women and men, become strong mentors and champions, and find strong role models to look up to.

I invite you to take a moment to consider where you find inspiration, perhaps in your parents or other family members, in teachers, professors or friends, in scientists or engineers, in leaders in your chosen profession — and in life.

As scientists and engineers, we are global citizens and collaborators. But let’s not forget that we are also role models, and it is up to each one of us to set an example and to enable young women and girls to imagine themselves as scientists and engineers with the potential to change the world.

At U of T Engineering, we make it a priority to show young women the incredible contributions they can make to addressing the most pressing global challenges of the 21st century. We are making significant progress in increasing gender diversity both within our Faculty and the profession.

I am very proud to say that we are now home to a more diverse student body than ever before. This year, women made up more than 40 per cent of our incoming first-year engineering class, a record for our Faculty, and for Canada. The proportion of women across all U of T Engineering undergraduate programs is over 30 per cent.

We continue to actively recruit and empower positive role models and mentors. I am pleased to say that the proportion of women professors in our Faculty has more than doubled over the past decade to 21 per cent, expanding our research strengths and the range of exceptional opportunities that are available to all of our students.

But there is more work to be done.

Only 12 per cent of practicing engineers in Canada are women. Engineers Canada has set a goal that women will comprise 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers by the year 2030. Our Faculty is a leading partner in this initiative and will continue our relentless efforts to diversify our profession.

At U of T Engineering, we are working to engage young people through a range of strategic outreach programs designed to spark a love of science, technology and engineering in girls as young as grade 3, and you, the WISE community, have been key to our efforts. Let me mention a few examples:

  • Our Girls Leadership in Engineering Experience (GLEE) event brings together talented young women who have offers of admission to meet current students and professors, and learn more about our programs.
  • The Young Women in Engineering Symposium encourages women students in their final year of high school to consider STEM careers.
  • Go Eng Girl offers events for girls in Grades 7 to 10 and their parents to visit U of T and other universities in Ontario to discover exciting careers in engineering.
  • Our Go CODE Girl enables girls in middle school to explore engineering and computer coding.
  • Girls Jr. DEEP offers summer and weekend camps that allow students in grades 3 to 8 to explore engineering.
  • Surrounded by their female peers, these girls are encouraged to explore STEM fields in fun, confidence-building environments.

I believe all of these efforts have had a strong, positive impact by showing girls and young women the immense possibilities and rewards of a career in engineering, which is why I am so delighted to see such a large group participating in this year’s WISE National Conference.

WISE is an organization that enriches and inspires women from all backgrounds. In addition to this terrific conference, I am so impressed by the array of outreach initiatives WISE undertakes. For instance:

  • The mentorship program for high school students, including presentations at over 20 schools in the GTA;
  • The workshops with Girl Guides of Canada and Covenant House;
  • Community outreach, such the screening of the documentary She Started It with Johnson & Johnson Labs in the MaRS Discovery District;
  • Organizing your own annual International Women’s Day panel discussion, and;
  • Partnering with us in the Young Women in Engineering Symposium we mentioned earlier.

For these activities and so much more, I am extremely grateful and I congratulate the WISE U of T chapter.

Throughout your full agenda this weekend, I encourage you to consider your boundless potential not only in science and engineering, but also in your ability to inspire others.

All of us are ambassadors and role models. Your decisions, achievements and guidance have the ability to influence the next generation of scientists and engineers.

So ignite your passion, and ignite passion in others. I promise you, the reward and the impact will be transformational.

My warmest wishes to you for an inspiring weekend.

See more highlights from the WISE National Conference 2017 in the above video

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