It is 8 AM on the 26th of January; a cold Saturday morning in downtown Toronto. As I walk upstairs from the beautiful front lobby of The Westin Harbour Castle, I find that several of my colleagues are already setting up in the conference area, and have been doing so since 7 AM. Indeed, this dedicated team has been hard at work for the past several months to make this event a success. The group is Women in Science and Engineering UofT (WISE), currently preparing for its 7th Annual National Conference to begin. Since 1999, WISE has been developing various programs of outreach, professional development, and mentorship in order to support students at various points of their journey with advice and guidance. Its annual two-day conference brings together hundreds of delegates, speakers, and sponsors for a weekend of recognition and collaboration amongst peers.
This year, the conference’s theme was Catalysts for Change, promoting the motto “be the change you wish to see in the world”. The healthcare and engineering case competitions were challenging, the workshops and panel sessions highlighted cutting-edge research and technology, and the continuous stream of networking sessions allowed vital connections to be built between students and industry professionals, all making the idea of a successful and fulfilling career seem both tangible and achievable.
As a volunteer at this year’s conference, it was easy to see the value of such an event. There was an undeniable energy in the venue as attendees worked together to instantiate their shared goal of helping women share equal success in STEM fields. This was perhaps best exemplified by the joy felt across the auditorium at Sunday’s closing ceremonies, which saw the first prize for the engineering case competition being awarded to a group of first-year Engineering students: Taylor Faiczak, Catherine Guo, Smile Peng, and Donna Gao.
Many of the conference’s speakers highlighted why proper representation is important. For Dr. Shawna Pandya, a keynote speaker (and a physician-surgeon and citizen-scientist astronaut candidate), women in STEM serve as a reminder that the exploring and fulfilling of potential lead to an individual realising just how much they are capable of. Another keynote speaker, Aheri Stanford-Asiyo (a software engineer at Microsoft) believes that it is important to have role models that you can identify with and relate to in the field(s) that you are hoping to pursue. Finally, for Aashni Shah (another software engineer passionate about philanthropy), women can bring their own flavour of interpersonal skills to the workplace, and help build supportive communities that encourage and mentor the next generation of female scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs as well.
My commute back home on the evening of Sunday the 27th takes me up University Avenue, past the hospitals of Mt Sinai and Princess Margaret, across from the MaRS Discovery District building, and along the beautiful university campus. For perhaps the umpteenth time since beginning my undergraduate degree, I remind myself how lucky I am to be a student here.