SFU celebrates International Day of Women and Girls in Science

ALISSA ANTLE - FACULTY OF COMMUNICATIONS ART & TECHNOLOGY

Parmit Chilana – Faculty of Applied Sciences

Nadine Provençal – Faculty of Health Sciences

RUTH JOY - FACULTY OF ENVIRONMENT

ESTHER VERHEYEN - FACULTY OF SCIENCE

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February 11, 2020

To celebrate women in science, SFU showcases some of our researchers and their reasons for choosing a career in science and technology.

Alissa Antle – Faculty of Communications Art and Technology

A professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Alissa Antle is an innovator and scholar whose research pushes the boundaries of computation to augment the ways we think and learn.

A designer and builder of interactive technologies, she explores how these innovations can improve, augment and support children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Many of her projects involve tangible technology. For example, Phonoblocks is a set of 3D letters and a tablet interface that work together to help dyslexic children learn to read. Youtopia helps children learn about sustainability as they work together using a digital tabletop to design their own land-use plan. And with Mind-Full, a tablet app, children learn to self-regulate anxiety.

Her interactive systems have been used for collaborative learning about Aboriginal heritage, sustainability and social justice; for improving learning outcomes for dyslexic children; and for teaching self-regulation to disadvantaged children.

In 2015, Alissa was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, acknowledging her as one of Canada’s intellectual leaders.

Antle didn’t start out to become a university professor.

“Growing up, I was always interested in how things work, understanding people and creatively solving problems,” she says. “I didn’t know I would be an engineer, and later a scientist and a professor. I just kept making choices that aligned with my curiosity and values. I never had a vision of my end-game; it emerged as a result of choices I made over time.”

Antle’s unique perspective gives her an advantage in her field, but her accomplishments haven’t always come easily.

“In research and technology development I think as a woman, a parent, and a gay person, I may focus on different problems and have a different perspective on solutions than normative societal views. I think this is my superpower, but it hasn’t always been easy.”

Ruth Joy – Faculty of Environment

After three summers camping in torrential rain in Clayoquot Sound, B.C., Ruth Joy wondered if there was a better way to conduct her research.

Recently named one of The Tyee’s big thinkers of 2019, Joy, a statistical ecologist and lecturer in SFU’s new School of Environmental Science, studies seabirds and marine mammals. She started her career as a biologist, camping in a rusty van in the Chilcotin grasslands to collect data that could help conserve species and their habitats. After braving the elements for years, she decided to get out of the rain, follow the data and build evidence-based models. She returned to school, earning a PhD in statistics so that she could  provide numerical arguments for protecting marine and terrestrial species.

Numbers don’t lie, says Joy.“Statistics is a really useful tool, especially when working with oceanographic systems. In order to gain a deeper understanding, we need quantitative skills.”

Last summer, Joy and her research team received $1 million to support a marine-science initiative in coastal waters.

She credits great SFU mentors, a little good fortune, and flexibility for her success. She recommends taking the time to explore different careers, because environmental science is more than you think. Like Joy, whose jobs ranged from surveying birds by snowmobile to drug testing, to studying porpoises, pinnipeds, and pelagic cormorants, you never know where your path may lead.

Parmit Chilana – Faculty of Applied Sciences

SFU computing science professor Parmit Chilana, a founding member of Women in Computing Science (WiCS) at SFU during her undergraduate degree, now serves as a faculty mentor to the group.

WiCS continues to run outreach events that encourage female students to join computer science. The group also gives students support and an enhanced sense of belonging.

Chilana, who says she always planned to become a professor, researches human-computer interaction (HCI), which puts the end-user in the spotlight to ensure new technologies are human-centered and useful.

“As an HCI researcher, I’m excited about how we can build new tools that help people learn or improve their work in some way,” says Chilana. “And, more importantly, how we can get these tools in the hands of end-users, and have real-world impact.”

Chilana’s work has attracted several international awards and honors, and she has recently seen one of her research projects become the basis for a start-up.

“I think this is the best time to pursue a career in computer science, perhaps more than ever before. The field can really benefit from different perspectives, especially those of women and minorities who have been underrepresented in computer science for a very long time.”

Esther Verheyen – Faculty of Science

As a child, Esther Verheyen was interested in insects and other aspects of the natural world. Today, as a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Verheyen spends much of her day in the lab studying the fruit fly, Drosophila.

Fruit flies share many common genes with humans and provide an excellent example of how cells grow to form organs and tissues. Verheyen is particularly intrigued by mutations that hijack the developmental process and result in diseases like cancer.

She credits her academic parents for supporting her interest in science and encouraging her to dream big. And now, as a parent, she gives her son and daughter the same advice: “Find something you feel passionate about, no matter how long it takes.”

She also tells them they may have several different careers in the course of their lives, which is an exciting prospect for those with diverse interests.

Verheyen, who had strong role models throughout her career, now mentors female trainees in her lab.

“A career as a professor can be stressful, but we are fortunate to be able to pursue our passions and have flexibility in our work schedules, which can allow us to accommodate family needs.”

Verheyen is active on social media, eager to disseminate science to a lay audience and to add to the voice of female scientists.

“I think it is critical that scientists communicate their research to a wide audience,” she says. “I enjoy giving public talks that give a broad group of people insight into what we can learn from research and how it might affect them.”

You can follow Verheyen on Twitter at @EstherVerheyen.

Nadine Provençal – Faculty of Health Sciences

Nadine Provençal, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, is interested in understanding the biological foundations of stress-related disorders.

Stress exposure early in life is an important risk factor for behavioural and psychiatric diseases, but little is known about how an individual’s health can be affected years after the initial exposure. Provençal’s research examines how social stress “gets under the skin” and can change children's brain and behaviour development.

In her latest study, she found that prenatal stress not only impacted a mother’s health, but also her developing fetus. Excessive stress experienced by a mother during pregnancy can be passed on to her child via marks on their genes, which could explain why some children are more vulnerable to stress later in their development.

“Understanding how our cells are capable of doing so many different things with only one set of genes fascinated me,” she says, crediting her passion for science to an undergraduate course in molecular biology.

“I was also interested in human behavior and child psychology,” she recalls. “So I decided to merge my interests to study how our environment could alter our genes and be responsible for changes in children’s behaviour and mental health.”

For young women interested in science and research, Provençal emphasizes the importance of perseverance and having a great mentor.

“Never give up. Push your ideas even if they might, at first, not be well-received by your peers,” she advises. “It is with dedication that most great discoveries emerge.”