Petra Menz has been a math lecturer at SFU since 2004.

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Love for mathematics trounces adversity

June 06, 2016
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By Allen Tung

Petra Menz has always loved mathematics—something she credits her father for instilling in her. Yet she abandoned her dream of earning a PhD in the early ’90s when she discovered the academic culture and environment at that time didn’t encourage women in this field.

That’s why, 21 years later, crossing the convocation dais this month to receive her joint education and mathematics doctorate will be so meaningful for Menz.

Menz, who earned her B.Ed. and M.Sc. at other universities, recalls one professor in the ’90s telling her that math was for men and the kitchen was for women. Another said, “Oh, Petra is a female name. Well, I’ll see you again if and when you graduate.”

Today all that has changed, and universities actively recruit women for programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM programs.

That change came too late for Menz, however, who gave up on earning a PhD despite receiving a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Instead, she pursued her other love, teaching. After six years of teaching high school and a further two at the University of New Brunswick, she joined SFU’s mathematics department as a lecturer in 2004.

But something was missing. She had an old bone to pick.

“It was nagging me that I never got my PhD,” says Menz, who finally registered for a joint SFU mathematics and education PhD program in 2011.

Once again, however, she encountered adversity, this time suffering a debilitating foot injury early in the program that resulted in permanent nerve damage and chronic pain.

“I took a nosedive into darkness, and was diagnosed with depression,” she says. “I had to re-learn how to manage my life. The doctoral work helped me see a window of light and break through my pain.”

Fast forward to 2016 and Menz can now manage her pain. She credits the PhD program for helping her function again.

“I learned through this process that we all carry baggage—big or small—and in order to appreciate the sunshine, we sometimes have to walk through rain first.”

She is pleased that at SFU, STEM outreach initiatives are working. For example, the total percentage of female students in computing science, engineering science and mechatronic systems engineering programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level was up in the 2014/15 school year from 2010/11.

 “Men and women are not alike—we have different viewpoints and approaches,” says Menz. “That’s why we need to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM—so the world can be seen in a more balanced way.”