Representation in STEM Matters: A Doctoral Student’s Journey as a Scientist, Educator and UN Delegate

February 10, 2023

Making the leap from one field to another is not an uncommon practice, but for doctoral student Poh Tan, integrating science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), in particular stem cell research, with education and obtaining a second PhD after successfully completing the first one has been a uniquely challenging and rewarding journey. She is currently completing a second PhD with guidance and tremendous support from her supervisor Dr. David Zandvliet, focusing on culturally inclusive STEM education.

Tan is of Nyonya descent from the Peninsular of Malaysia.  She graduated Class 1 with her first PhD in the field of stem cell biology where her research focused on blood stem cells and mechanisms that regulate metastasis of leukemic cells.   After completing her doctoral studies at UBC, she worked at Vancouver’s largest biotechnology company managing a product line to support embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cell research.  Tan is a two-time TEDx speaker, a published scholar, and a mother to two wonderful boys. After a few years, Tan’s entrepreneurial spirit grew, and her career priorities and outlook began to shift.     

“I loved science and being a scientist doing stem cell biology research. But after working in the industry for a while and after the birth of my first child, I started to do some deep soul searching and asked myself, ‘How do I want to further contribute to the world?’, shares Tan. “I realized that I wanted to contribute to the world in a more meaningful way, especially for my kids.” 

Following this realization, Tan began exploring different areas where she could incorporate her science background, from working in the biotech industry to business and marketing to entrepreneurship and starting her own business. It was during this period she began looking into education and through her children became inspired. “I knew nothing about formal education beyond visiting classrooms as a scientist to present and demonstrate science,” said Tan. “I did some researching and looking into the field, reading research papers and other people’s experiences, and it looked not only fun and interesting, but I saw the potential impact working in education could have. I decided to go for it, and I applied for graduate school at SFU.” 

Tan is pursuing her second PhD from the Educational Theory and Practice program, which allows her the opportunity to use her experience and credentials practicing science in the laboratory to extend scientific literacy to include different perspectives and practices on teaching science. Tan wants to explore the “heart side” of science and how diverse ways of teaching science from various perspectives decenter traditional science classroom experience to help create deeper connections and relationships with the natural world. 

Tan’s research and exploration into science education and scientific literacy has been met with some critique and pushback from the academic and professional field. “I get criticism and scrutiny questioning how I can be a scientist and pursue a Ph.D. in Education and integrating an arts-approach and that I must pick one or the other and that I can’t do both,” shares Tan, “I just respond with, ‘Yes, I can do both!’”.

As a minority woman who has worked in the male-dominated STEM field, Tan has also taken on the role of being an advocate emphasizing the need for women and girls to pursue their passion and interest with careers in the STEM field. This advocacy led her to volunteer and become President of the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST), a non-profit organization that specializes in improving the presence and influence of women and girls in STEM in Canada through education, networking, mentorship, collaborative partnerships, and advocacy. In November 2022, she was invited to represent Canada at the Global Trade and Gender Arrangement as part of a panel (“Women in STEM: ‘Fixing the leaky pipeline”), observing diverse and inclusive practices for teaching science using a bicultural lens and how this approach leads to a better understanding of resources and greater sustainable trade for local and global communities.

“It was a complete surprise to be approached to be a panel member at this event,” says Tan. “Never in a million years did I think I would have the opportunity to present my current research and represent Canada in a non-academic setting.  I was so thankful and grateful to share the global stage with other trailblazing women who also believe and advocate for the importance of women in STEM fields.” 

Tan’s advocacy commitment is going global as she will be a delegate of the National Council of Women of Canada at the upcoming United Nations 67th Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March 2023. This session will focus on innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. 

For the past 20 years, Tan has advocated for women and girls in STEM, and, more importantly, for more representation in fields that are highly male dominated.  She believes that representation plays a large role in influencing how girls view themselves in STEM and how successful they can be. Tan’s unique perspective, expertise and advocacy has been recognized with a Women of Distinction nomination for the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards that will take place in May 2023. 

“Representation really matters in STEM, whether it is in education or in a laboratory, says Tan. “When young girls and women who want to pursue STEM see someone who is in the field who looks like them and who they can relate to, that is when you break stereotypes and the stereotypical mould of what a scientist is typically supposed to be and look like. It demonstrates to them that they, too, can find success.  I want to help redefine what it means for girls to be in STEM and change the narrative from “You’re a girl BUT you’re a scientist? To “You’re a girl, AND you’re a scientist!”