Four women scientists, speaking from their labs, offices, and homes, shared their experiences with high school and university students around the world for Perimeter’s annual Inspiring Future Women in Science event.
On February 11, in celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Perimeter hosted a question and answer session with four women whose research spans the depths of the oceans to the farthest reaches of the universe.
On the panel: Jessica Schaub, a first-generation university student completing a master’s degree in oceanography; Tiera Fletcher, an aerospace engineer, writer, and motivational speaker; Roopali Chaudhury, a cell biologist and entrepreneur with a passion for increasing diversity in STEMM fields; and Asimina Arvanitaki, an award-winning particle physicist from Perimeter’s own faculty.
For the first time, the event was held entirely online, enabling a global reach. Among the registrants for the event were more than 450 students and teachers from 25 countries, including 39 school boards across Canada.
The scientists answered questions from students on topics including productivity tips, which extracurricular activities to pursue, work-life balance, choosing the right career path, and how to stand out from the competition. Here are a few highlights.
On what it’s like to complete a PhD:
Roopali Chaudhury: It’s exhausting. Don’t do it if you heart isn’t in it . . . You don’t have to do a PhD – it’s not the only way to be successful.
Asimina Arvanitaki: It will bring up every little fear you have. But it can be very rewarding. If you do it because you really like something – and that should be your driving force – don’t let those little fears stop you.
On work-life balance:
Tiera Fletcher: You have to find your rhythm. For me, it was by having a very structured schedule down to the minute.
Jessica Schaub: Schedule in rest time. You’re not taking a break because you’re procrastinating – you’re taking a break because it’s scheduled, and you deserve to have a break.
On so-called “soft skills” such as creativity and communication:
Asimina Arvanitaki: Theoretical physics is a quite collaborative field and having good communication skills or creativity is very important. You’re trying to come up with ideas of how nature works. Creativity is ingrained in my field.
Tiera Fletcher: If you can’t communicate the creative ideas you have in your mind, you can’t contribute.
On gender balance in science:
Asimina Arvanitaki: Oh boy, can it be improved. You don’t know how many meetings I’ve been in where I’ve been the only woman in the room. . . You shouldn’t let it stop you. It didn’t stop us.
Jessica Schaub: It’s important to surround yourself with a good community that will support you as you face those challenges, rather than pretending that everything’s always going to be okay.
Roopali Chaudhury: Be authentic to yourself. Don’t forget who you are as a person.
Tiera Fletcher: You would be very surprised how your passions could spiral into a career that can make you very happy. . . Follow your dreams unapologetically.
Asimina Arvanitaki: Do not let lack of confidence, do not let fear, distract you from trying something.
The event was sponsored by Linamar, a Canadian advanced manufacturing company. In her closing remarks, Linamar CEO Linda Hasenfratz highlighted the variety of STEM careers available, and the high demand for people in those careers, which often come with great earning potential.
“Science and technology are great choices for anyone who is naturally curious about the world around them,” she said. She also urged young women to research these fields and keep their options open. “You don’t have to complete your life plan at 16 or 17 years old.”
Adithi Iyer, a Grade 12 student at Donald A. Wilson Secondary School in Whitby, said Chaudhary’s remarks resonated deeply.
“Like Dr. Chaudhary, I am also an immigrant, and I’ve been shy and introverted for most of my life,” Iyer said. “I however don’t let these things weigh me down, hence I found it extremely inspiring when Dr. Chaudhary said you shouldn’t let your background or gender stop you from entering a field of your interest. Why should I let the fact that I don’t have many role models who look like me deter me from following my passions in STEM when I can get out there and become that role model for someone else?”
Jasleen Jain, also a Grade 12 student from Whitby, said the event made her more confident about her own aspirations. “The daunting task of obtaining my master’s and PhD is more reachable than I thought,” she said. “They instilled in me a feeling of excitement for the future.”
Remarks have been edited and condensed.
PERIMETER INSTITUTE RECORDED SEMINAR ARCHIVE