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Alberta program helps build young women into science leaders

Click to play video 'First women in STEM program launched in Lethbridge' First women in STEM program launched in Lethbridge
Sept. 5: Economic Development Lethbridge -- through funding from Western Economic Diversification Canada -- is launching Southern Alberta's first ever Women in STEM program curriculum at Tecconnect this month. As Emily Olsen reports, the program is looking to increase the number of women running businesses and leading the charge in Alberta's economy.

University student Hannah Bayne is juggling a full course load this year, which means a total of 10 classes. But, out of all of those courses, she only has two female professors.

“I chose those two professors on purpose.

“If I didn’t actively seek out female mentors, I wouldn’t have them.”

Studying at the University of Alberta, Bayne is currently in her first year of an undergraduate degree in Science, a field that typically draws in more men than women.

“Where I notice [a lack of women] the most, is in higher-up positions within the university. This semester I’m lucky to have a female professor in my astronomy course. But every other course I’ve looked at or signed up for, every professor is male,” Bayne said.
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READ MORE: Lethbridge launches first Women in STEM program in southern Alberta

She noticed her science-focused studies were a fairly even ratio of students, but as the courses skew away from people-based courses, things change.

“[For example] in Psychology, it’s a pretty even split of women and men. But, right now I’m taking Calculus for the Physical Sciences.

“There are women in the class, but that one is overwhelmingly filled with men.”

Bayne is a past summer research participant for Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST), a program dedicated to empowering women and other underrepresented groups to pursue typically unconventional fields.

Hannah Bayne participating in a WISEST program
Hannah Bayne participating in a WISEST program. Courtesy: Hannah Bayne

“As they are making decisions about what they want to do with their future, they have these programs available to them so they can make an informed decision about what that means,” explained Dr. Lisa White, industry co-chair for WISEST

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Those province and city-wide programs include conferences for girls in Grade 6 and Grades 10-12, as well as Canada-wide summer research programs for Grade 11 students.

Bayne applied to the research program in her Grade 11 year because she wanted to see what a career in science could look like.

“My dad is a biology professor at the University of Alberta. He’s been an advocate for WISEST since he started at the University when I was a baby. He’s always encouraged me,” Bayne said.

“I was so ready to discover what science is in a very practical application.”

Milan Cuthbert is also a WISEST summer research student alumni and now spends time volunteering with the program.

READ MORE: Female engineering technologists in Alberta report disrespect, discrimination in the workplace: survey

“In 2017 I was placed by WISEST in a research lab for six weeks,” Cuthbert said. “They also did lots of professional development seminars. We got to meet with very experienced women and got to see a bunch of labs around campus.”

She noted the program also helps men get into programs where they are underrepresented, like nursing or nutrition.

“It’s super important [to offer this]. Diversity is what drives change and innovation, getting people in to areas to bring a different perspective,” Cuthbert said.

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The non-profit has now been in operation for 38 years, opening doors that young people may have never considered.

READ MORE: ‘Grow my understanding’: Grade 9 girls explore STEM career options in Calgary

“I was inspired by WISEST to pursue my degree,” Bayne said. “It’s really given me the confidence in my own choices. I know I’m ready to pursue wherever my ambitions take me. I’m not nervous about what field I’m going to be in. I know I love research. I know I love hands-on work. I know I like to communicate with people.

“I’m going to pursue my passions regardless of what other people tell me. I’m going to be confident in those choices. That’s where WISEST has pushed me.”

Watch below (Sept. 25): The New Brunswick government is funding Brilliant Labs to support Children’s STEM projects. Megan Yamoah has more.

Click to play video 'Program giving kids hands-on experience in STEM receives funding from province' Program giving kids hands-on experience in STEM receives funding from province
Program giving kids hands-on experience in STEM receives funding from province

White said there have been numerous success stories to emerge out of the program.

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“One Grade 11 student did a summer research program about two years ago. She was working in one of our engineering labs. She came into the lab, worked with one of our investigators. He encouraged her to read up and present any new ideas of thoughts she may have for the research work.”

The young lady delivered in a big way. She ended up being published in a leading engineering journal.

“Grade 11 students have very little idea of being constrained. The ideas she had, no one had ever thought of them at the university. They were so creative and innovative.

“She proposed a research idea no one had ever thought of,” White said.

READ MORE: Women in STEM disproportionately placed in non-professional jobs: TD report

The organization is also proudly based in Alberta.

“It’s very rewarding to hear about these success stories of these young women. Interestingly enough, most of the students that go through the Summer Research Program end up coming back to the University of Alberta for their studies. It’s a really good way to keep our talent in the province,” White said.

“We’re proud of our programs and we’re proud we are encouraging them to stay in Alberta and be successful. That’s only going to be better for us.”

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As the program grows ever popular, White said expansion is next on the list.

“I would love to see WISEST expand all of its programs. There are always many people on waiting lists.

“We have lots of ideas for new ideas and new offerings to attract more women into the STEM field in the future. We rely entirely on funding from donors and government programs,” White explained.

“At the moment we don’t have the ability to offer our existing programs to more people or to develop additional programming at this time. Hopefully more funds in the future will allow us to have a greater reach and get more women into STEM.”

Part of that fundraising initiative will culminate in the second annual Friends of WISEST Fundraising Breakfast on Oct. 3.

LISTEN BELOW: Alberta program helps build young women into science leaders

Bayne said WISEST had a big impact on her, and hopes she will inspire a younger generation through her work as a children’s group leader.

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“I’m really looking forward to empowering and bringing passion into the lives of young girls,” Bayne said.

“Girls tell me, ‘I love math.’ I’m going to continue to push them to pursue that. You don’t have to go into an arts program just because you’re a woman. You should go into those things because that’s what you love.

“You don’t have to do anything because you think it’s what you should do.”

You can find tickets to the breakfast here.