SFU PhD Student Dedicated to Equitable Access to Education for all in the Running for YWCA Women of Distinction Award

September 25, 2023

Dr. Poh Tan, currently working on her second PhD (this time in Education) at SFU, was nominated for the 2023 YWCA Women of Distinction Award in the Education, Training and Development category. She is an immigrant from Malaysia and is of Nyonya descent. Her PhD supervisor, mentor, and guide is Dr. David Zandvliet, a professor in Education and UNESCO chair in biocultural diversity and education.

An advocate for women and people of colour in careers within the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Tan has worked to not only make the concepts within the fields of STEM more accessible to all learners, but to break down stereotypes of people working in those fields as well.

“Because I've always been behind advocacy and changing policy for girls in STEM and having more women of color, I'm a huge supporter of representation in different spheres, especially heavily male dominated STEM sectors. For example, just because I look Asian, it doesn't mean that I'm an accountant, or that I represent the stereotypical bits of being an Asian woman, which I still get to this day. I’ve been told that I'm not as intelligent as men and that I have to prove my expertise. This just happened to me 2 weeks ago.”

In addition to delivering presentations in classrooms, Tan works collaboratively to help museums such as Science World and Vancouver Botanical Gardens Association (VBGA) work on exhibits and educational resources, and build free, outdoor ecological trail markers from a decolonizing and place-based standpoint.  Tan is also president-elect of the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST), a non-profit organization dedicated to collaborating with STEM leaders to engage, inspire and advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion for women and girls, especially within STEM. Tan is also a founder of STEMedge Inc, that helps organizations design the best approaches for STEM educational outreach.

With her first PhD in stem cell biology, Tan spent time before starting her family in a lab in the biotech sector. As her family was growing, she reflected on what her life in the world meant to her. And while she loved working in the lab, it wasn’t the type of work she wanted to continue in, nor was it helpful to spend time with her children.

“When I say, that my children are my inspiration, they truly are so. I felt like I think my place wasn't in the lab like that is not the place where I could contribute the most. I needed my contributions to be more meaningful,” says Tan. “And that’s why I realized that education was the place I could make a difference.”

Tan’s sphere’s of influence go beyond traditional classroom models. Her belief and push for equitable educational access for all has also brought her influence to the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) where she was invited to speak at their inaugural Bringing CSW Home Conference and she recently attended the United Nations’ 67th Commission on the Status of Women as a NCWC and SCWIST delegate representing Canadian NGOs.

Tan’s current research and community practices are grounded in teaching science that includes, invites, and give space to other ways of knowing where she integrates an Indigenous Hawaiian perspective to counter traditional science education that comes from a Western paradigm of education. Through a research fellowship, Tan created Bloedel Conservatory’s first curriculum-aligned virtual school field trip, providing remote access to the gardens for students who live outside the lower mainland as well as provide a low-barrier, online experience for schools to deepen their students’ relationship with plants.

“Both experiences are available to the public and schools. And now the research comes in as I try to understand how teachers are using it in their classroom. What questions are they and students asking as they engage with it?”

For Tan, getting nominated for the 2023 YWCA Women of Distinction Award is an honour as well as confirmation that the work she has been doing is making a difference.

“The key thing is that I want other girls who look like me to know that it’s not impossible to have a similar career journey and a family at the same time. But, it’s not because they are simply a girl or a girl of colour. It may seem impossible because of systemic and institutional barriers that have been historically ingrained in the blood and in the artery and veins of our institutions, that imply that those girls and women need to be a certain way in order to be an aeronautical engineer, or any other profession they choose. It’s definitely possible to be yourself and be a scientist as the differences that set us apart initially, not only makes us unique, but becomes out strengths” says Tan.

Winners for the YWCA Women of Distinction Award will be announced on May 9 at the YWCA Women of Distinction Award Gala. Tan will attend with the other nominees as well as her family and community members she works with to be celebrated for her incredible work.

Poh Tan with Science World and Vancouver Botanical Garden Association Colleagues
Poh Tan at the United Nations 2023