Fierce, Strong, Brilliant and WISE

Edited by: Vlada Taits

From Rosalind Franklin to Katherine Johnson, Mae Jemison to Marie Curie, women have been the minds behind some of history's greatest scientific discoveries.

Yet, they haven’t always been recognized for their scientific contributions. In fact, to this day, women are still being passed over, cast out of STEM-centric opportunities, unable to demonstrate their brilliance and prowess... simply due to their gender identity.

University of Toronto's Women in Science and Engineering chapter — commonly abbreviated to “WISE” — wants to do something about that.

This week, I had the privilege to chat with Casey, the President of WISE at UofT, who shared some of her boundless enthusiasm, leadership knowledge, and experiences as a young woman in STEM.

Tell me a little bit about yourself! What are you currently studying? What motivated you to join WISE?

"I’m currently in my 4th year, doing a Global Health specialist and Physiology major. In my 2nd year, I was looking for ways to get more involved on campus, and stumbled upon WISE!

I remember being pretty surprised by what a large group WISE UofT was and how there are so many different initiatives — from the Conferences to Professional Development events, to high school and community outreach — so I decided to join WISE to get the chance to try a bit of everything!

WISE UofT has introduced me to an incredible community of ambitious and driven individuals, all championing gender equality in STEM, which I feel very grateful to be a part of."

The WISE Facebook Page states that your mission statement is to “promote the education of women in the fields of science and engineering, [and] develop women’s leadership skills, confidence, and involvement in research and technology.” Can you expand upon this a little? Why is this important? How does WISE work toward achieving this goal?

"Many STEM fields are still dominated by cis men. And even once women get past that initial barrier to just enter the field, it is difficult to still receive the same recognition for our achievements and abilities that men do. 

It’s something I’ve observed: even in high school, some boys in my class made snide remarks that 'some girls only got into certain university programs because of affirmative action programs to promote women in STEM,' disregarding all of their hard work. Or, in school group projects, if a guy in the group takes the lead then he’s 'reliable and smart,' whereas if a girl takes the lead, she can be seen as 'bossy' or 'controlling.'

These experiences and stereotypes can easily dissuade women from pursuing careers in STEM and aiming for leadership roles -- not to mention, it can hinder their confidence to speak out and advocate for themselves. 

By putting the spotlight on women in STEM, WISE UofT hopes to present role models for other women, acknowledge the barriers women face in STEM, and provide as many opportunities and experiences as possible for students to pursue their personal and professional development goals.

Of course, with that, comes the need for men to be allies, to also be championing gender equality. As such, all of our events are open to all students, no matter their gender identity -- because we all need to be in this conversation together." 

Your standout event of the year is your Annual National Conference, which attracts remarkable women from around the world — student researchers, professors, Fortune 500 executives, even rocket scientists from the CSA! Can you share a little bit about the importance (and appeal) of this event?

"I think being able to provide any kind of space, big or small, to celebrate and recognize women in STEM can be empowering — which is something WISE UofT strives to do in all our programming, it’s just amplified to a much larger scale through our Conference. The WISE UofT National Conference only does this for a weekend, but we hope that the experiences and opportunities we offer will have long-lasting effects, especially by building meaningful connections -- not just in a professional sense. But, between a student and recruiter, but also via personal relationships between like-minded individuals, who are fiercely ambitious and advocates for gender equality in STEM.

Some of the things students have to look forward to [at this year's Conference] include a fantastic range of keynote speakers, panelists, hands-on workshops, case competitions, and an extensive career fair. Our Conference Team has been very busy putting this together, and we’re excited to slowly release more details as we approach the date of the event (January 23-24, 2020)."

We’ve run into some pretty unprecedented circumstances this year, due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. How has COVID-19 affected WISE’s 2020-2021 programming? How do you intend to keep engaging and educating young women from a purely-digital platform?

"Adjusting to a virtual environment definitely took some getting-used-to for our team, but I’d say we’ve done a decent job so far! 

Some events, like our recent Personal Branding seminar, became a little easier to do online once we got the hang of smoothly navigating breakout rooms. 

But for other events with a more hands-on component, we’ve had to get a little more creative. For example, this past August, we held our first-ever Summer Camp workshop series, targeting students ages 13-15, entirely over Zoom. A big focus for us was to find ways to keep students engaged (even when we weren’t in-person), so we did our best to offer other interactive activities: working with WiCS UofT to do a coding workshop, leading a Kitchen Counter Genetics experiment with household items, and the like. 

A small silver lining with going virtual is that it reduces any geographic barriers folks may have had, preventing them from attending our events. 

Not to mention, we can accommodate a larger number of attendees — especially in terms of our National Conference, whose theme this year is “Connections: Together from Afar.” We usually hold it in a venue in Downtown Toronto and need to restrict tickets available due to the capacity of the space, but this year we’re using a virtual platform, HopIn, and are hoping to allow for a record 800+ attendees!" 

What is the most important, impactful, or intriguing lesson you’ve learned in your time on the WISE executive team?

"The most important thing I learned as a member of WISE UofT is to always remember the big picture — remember your “why” for everything you do.

Being on such a large club can get stressful — and, at times, overwhelming — even when you're just trying to keep things running and fulfill the basic responsibilities of your role. To be frank, there are parts of my role that I’m not a big fan of. I still get anxious on phone calls with sponsors, and I hate writing emails!

But then I remember the importance of the existence of a group like WISE UofT, and the impact we can have -- like having a student tell us that a certain speaker inspired them, or that they feel a confidence boost seeing themselves represented in a certain field.

Taking a step back to acknowledge (and appreciate!) how fortunate I am to be able to take part in this... it makes me very grateful to be a member of the WISE UofT community."