We are scientists: U of T & Arts & Science researchers reach out to girls and women around the world

March 1, 2021 by U of T News

War broke out just as Sanja Fidler’s grandmother graduated from medical school — and the young doctor’s experience treating the wounded led her to become one of the first female plastic surgeons in her country.

“She was my main source of inspiration,” says Fidler, a computer vision expert from Slovenia.

“She loved science and she would always inspire me to think about science. She would play board games with me. She loved to hear about me going to math competitions, chess competitions and, later, when I was an adult, the conferences.”

When Fidler was working on her PhD, it was her grandmother who encouraged her to go abroad, “to experience something new, to see something beyond the environment I’d experienced all my life — and that’s what I did,” Fidler says.

“I guess I’m here because of her.”

For Fidler, “here” is the University of Toronto, where the award-winning researcher is an associate professor of mathematical and computational sciences at U of T Mississauga and a director of AI at NVIDIA.  

She’s also one of a number of women at U of T — all award-winning researchers in science, technology, engineering and math — featured on social media to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science as part of a campaign aimed at encouraging girls and women to pursue careers in STEM.

The outreach is important because role models and representation matter, says Professor Christine Allen, U of T’s associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives.

“We know that, globally, women in STEM face lower salaries and higher exit rates than men so it’s not surprising that fewer than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers in science, technology, engineering and math are women,” Allen says. “We’ve seen what can happen when we work for change — when we make concerted efforts to eliminate obstacles, engage and recruit girls and women. Since 2014, for example, women have enrolled in equal or greater numbers than men at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. But we have a long way to go.”

“Significant work also remains to be done to overcome the barriers faced by women in STEM with disabilities and/or women in STEM from the BIPOC and LBGTQ+ communities. Issues of racism and discrimination against women in STEM who are from diverse communities must be addressed. It is up to each of us to create an environment in STEM where all girls and women feel welcome and are able to contribute and succeed.”

Along with Fidler, the campaign highlights physiologist Patricia Brubaker, cosmologist Renée Hložek, evolutionary biologist Maydianne Andrade, computational medical expert Marzyeh Ghassemi, hepatologist Mamatha Bhat and biomedical engineer Molly Shoichet — just a few of the university’s many award-winning women researchers in STEM.

Ghassemi, an assistant professor in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Arts & Science, counts her mother among her own role models and mentors. She says her mother home-schooled her and instilled a love of science. The late Mildred Dresselhaus, a legendary professor she met while she was a graduate student at MIT, also encouraged her — as did Lila Ibrahim, who was Ghassemi’s boss at Intel when she was just beginning her career.

“She always said, you can do that — just do it, try it,” Ghassemi says. “That was really inspirational to me — that she believed that anything I chose to focus on I could accomplish, when I was very young, in this new job.”

Inspiring young women and girls is the goal of the U of T campaign, says Professor Leah Cowen, chair of the department of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and, as of March 1, U of T’s associate vice-president, research.

“This reflects the university’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusionsignalled by signing the federal government’s Dimensions Charter in 2019. We hope its message reaches young women and girls who may be just beginning to consider STEM as a rewarding career. The world needs their talent, their leadership and their innovation.”