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Trainees' corner

Earlier in 2018, we spoke with Stephanie Cheung, PhD candidate, Holland Bloorview, about the importance and value of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Read the full story below!

Q1. Tell us about yourself. What motivates you?

I became interested in engineering while I was in high school, when I joined my school’s robotics team. At one of our competitions, Dr. Tom Chau was invited to talk about the engineering research he was doing at Holland Bloorview, and that sparked my interest to find out more about the field of biomedical engineering. I completed my undergraduate degree in electrical and biomedical engineering at McMaster University, and then spent a couple of summers in research labs, including PEARL lab at Holland Bloorview.

Throughout my studies and research experience, I realized that there are some really interesting research questions that can be answered with a background in engineering and a lot of curiosity. For myself that curiosity was about human communication – what happens that allows us to speak, hear, and understand each other? I decided to do a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering at McMaster University, working on computational models of the brainstem to explore how it responds to sounds through hearing aids. Now, I am working on a PhD in biomedical engineering in CONNECT lab at Holland Bloorview; studying speech development.

Research often operates on the boundaries of what we know. I find myself motivated to push that boundary, and work on making this new knowledge meaningful and accessible.

Q2. What is your research about and why is it important?

My research is about understanding how the ability to speak develops in children. Speech is very complex, and there is still a lot we don’t know about how we learn to make correct speech sounds. Research in this area is important because it helps us understand what influences the development of speech, and what might be happening for those with speech differences.

Q3. You were recently highlighted by hErVOLUTION during their campaign to promote Canadian women in STEM. How did it feel to participate?

Getting to participate in this campaign was awesome. I was really happy to share my work with hErVOLUTION and learn about the other amazing women in STEM who were highlighted. Women are underrepresented in STEM fields. What I loved most about this campaign was that it wasn’t about choosing a list of top or best women, because that doesn’t really mean anything. Instead, it was about sharing stories of women who already work in this space and welcoming girls and young women to join in. The campaign was a great reminder that so many women of different backgrounds and occupations are making important contributions to STEM.

Q4. What do you want women and girls to know about STEM?

I truly believe that an interest in STEM can be for anyone and everyone. However, it’s important to openly acknowledge the systemic barriers that keep women and girls from pursuing or staying in STEM fields. An alarming number of my female friends have either left, or considered leaving STEM because they felt excluded or actively pushed out. Addressing these barriers is just as important as nurturing STEM interest in girls. The good news is that there are many of us within STEM who are working very hard to change things for the better. I want girls and young women to know that they have every ability to pursue their interest in STEM, and that there is a large community of us here to support them.

We should also remember that when it comes to gender, it’s important to discuss the challenges faced by people with non-binary identities in the same conversation. Initiatives to promote gender diversity in STEM don’t work unless they are truly reflective of the gender spectrum and open to discussing systemic barriers. Other factors, such as race and dis/ability, also intersect with gender; introducing new challenges that may be faced by some but not others.

I also want to make sure that we don’t insist that STEM fields are more valuable than others, or that people with marginalized identities who do pursue STEM are stronger than those who don't. This sentiment is really a product of the exclusionary pathways into STEM. We should push back against this hard and recognize that there is value in every discipline, and that similar challenges exist in every field.

Ultimately, I want to do my part to ensure that everyone has access and opportunity to not only pursue, but remain in STEM. This should not be in spite of any piece of their identity, but because they are exactly who they are.