Last weekend, Women in Science and Engineering held their fifth Annual National Conference at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. This two-day event offered attending delegates various opportunities for personal and professional growth, by offering various workshops, a Career Fair, a Consulting Case competition, and a Three-Minute-Thesis (3MT®) Competition.

According to Belinda Zhang, the WISE U of T Chapter’s president, and Syeda Quratulain Anjum, the WISE U of T Chapter’s conference chair, the national conference was attended by over 250 delegates, from approximately 15 different schools. While the conference is open to undergraduates and graduate students all over Canada, nine different Ontario-based universities offered subsidies (ranging from 50 percent subsidies to entire coverage) to attending delegates from their respective universities. UTM’s Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences offered four students 100 percent subsidies for registration fees.

The conference kicked off early on Saturday morning, featuring an opening ceremony with the dean of U of T’s Faculty of Engineering, Dr. Cristina Amon, and a keynote from Dr. Eve Tsai, who is an assistant professor at University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine and a neurosurgeon associate scientist at Ottawa Hospital’s Research Institute.

In the opening ceremony, Amon commented that she was fortunate to have a strong support system during her childhood—including her family, and a primary school teacher who encouraged her to “tinker” around with objects and take them apart. Amon was fascinated with her family’s radio, and one day, while her family was out, she took apart the radio and exposed the internal circuit.

“To my disappointment, there were not little people sitting and talking within the radio,” said Amon. “Instead, there were resistors, capacitators. So I guess this was my first research failure. It was not a good day in my lab for my parents either.” This prompted Amon to continue tinkering—and enter the field of engineering—and today, she is not only the dean for U of T’s Faculty of Engineering, but has also been recognized as one of Canada’s Most Influential Women.

Tsai opened her keynote by mentioning how honored she was to be a keynote speaker—especially given the fact that she was “actually a product of a similar event.” Tsai, a high school student at that point, attended the Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science & Technology program, offered through the University of Alberta, where she had the chance to work in an organic chemistry laboratory, which was the beginning of her interest in research.

Tsai’s keynote focused on overcoming obstacles (such as picking which arguments to fight), letting mentoring and networking come naturally (instead of aggressively seeking it out, and learning from both the good and bad mentors), and that there are multiple avenues possible for further education and training. She also emphasized how terminology excludes women today. For example, while a Google search for “scientist” will cause both females and males to appear in the results, typing in the term “principal investigator” (i.e. the individual who actually owns and runs a laboratory) will only reveal male individuals. Similarly, when typing in the words “engineer” or a “brain surgeon,” the results are overwhelmingly slanted towards males.

Following the keynote, the 3MT® Competition took place. This competition was open to both undergraduate and graduate students, where participants had to explain their research within a three-minute time slot to a non-specialist audience, using only one slide. Students spoke about various research fields, such as the stigma that patients suffering from dementia face (and thus the need for therapeutic art), the need for patient engagement, and investigating protein-protein interactions. The competition was judged by a diverse panel, including representatives from Schneider-Electric and NSERC. Participants had the chance to be awarded first place, a best communication award, an NSERC-funded conference travel grant to attend the 2017 Gender Summit in Montreal, and an interview to Schneider Electric’s rotational internship program.

Saturday’s events also featured a Women Creating Impact session, where there was a research panel, featuring Dr. Imogen Coe (the dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University), Usha Srinivasan (the vice president of learning and insights at the MaRS Discovery District) and Jessie MacAlpine (an undergraduate researcher, who is currently developing a bioherbicide and antimalarial drug at U of T’s McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health). The panel focused on aspects such as their entry into their respective research fields, the obstacles they faced, and offered advice to any aspiring researchers.

The Women Creating Impact session also featured a separate “technology” panel, with speakers such as Heather Payne (the founder of HackerYou and Ladies Learning Code), Pearl Chen (the head of developer relations at the Connected Lab), Julie Lévesque (CPPIB Enterprise Systems’ managing director) and Linda Nakanishi (HackerYou’s lead design instructor and Nascent Digital’s design director).

The day concluded with a fireside chat with other professionals, and followed by a wine and cheese networking session.

On Sunday, the day’s activities kicked off with the beginning of the Case Consulting Competition. This competition, sponsored by Deloitte, involved approximately 25 teams of four delegates, who worked together to provide a solution to a provided case. The case provided was that teams had to propose how the client could improve customer satisfaction using Chatbot (a chat robot which can stimulate human conversation through Artificial Intelligence) for real-time customer service. A panel of judges assessed the teams on their presentation skills, the depth of their market research, and novel ideas.

Other events on Sunday included a keynote speech from Catherine Karakatsanis, who is the chief operating officer of Morrison Hershfield Group Inc., a career fair, and various workshops, such as the Fundamentals of Storytelling, Breaking the Glass Ceiling and Insights from a Campus Recruiter.

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