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EPISODE # 33 Girls STEM UP! Returns March 20




Happy International Women’s Day! This year’s them is #BreaktheBias, inviting us to imagine a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world.

If you’re a regular listener of the TechTalks Podcast, you know increasing the representation of women (and other groups) is a big focus here at TechImpact. For me personally, it’s my favourite cause. So I was thrilled to be joined on episode 33 with Emma Toole, a member of the executive committee and Jharana Luitel, one of the breakout session speakers for Girls STEM UP!

This conference, which takes place on Sunday, March 20, is organized and led by UNB women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). It gives girls and young women a chance to discover paths they maybe didn’t know existed and learn that their voices matter.

Awareness, education and stories are the best way to break down stereotypes and overcome bias, and that’s exactly what my guests are doing with their timely event. Before we talked about the conference, I wanted to hear about what got them there.


The Road to STEM

For Emma, the road to UNB’s Faculty of Science, where she’s in her fourth year of bachelor’s degree with a major in psychology was not a foregone conclusion.

Born and raised in Nova Scotia, curious and outgoing as a girl, she was busy growing up with sports, her community, and her family. The kind of child who was always asking questions, she was intrigued by early exposure to science in school, but “beyond that, I didn't really know everything that science had to offer.”

When she arrived at UNB, she enrolled in science, taking a broad range of intro courses. She loves helping people and listening to others, so when her friends suggested she try a psychology course, she was game. And after that first class, she was hooked.

“I started learning more about why people do what they do, how the brain functions, the different stimuli that people have to interact with one another,” she says. “After I started learning about that, I got so intrigued.”  

Jharana Luitel, one of the breakout speakers for Girls STEM Up!, is a recent graduate of UNB’s Computer Science program. She is from Kathmandu, Nepal. Four years ago, at 19, following the massive earthquake in her country, she immigrated to Canada with her family.

At first, she was nervous about the move, struggling to understand why her parents made such a drastic change in their lives.

“But once I came here, once I started taking my courses, once I saw different academic curricula, once I saw the world from a different perspective, now I can understand why they made the decision,” she says. “Because we are here, and we're living such a good life. And I thank them for what they have done for us.”

When she arrived at UNB, Jharana hadn’t considered studying science or computer science. “As a young girl, I used to love accounting and mathematics. I was focused on that.”

She enrolled in business administration but was intrigued by UNB’s Technology Management and Entrepreneurship (TME) program, which requires a technology or engineering background. When she looked at her strengths, including math, she decided to make the switch from business to computer science.

“Technology has the ability to impact lives at a scale that has never been seen in mankind,” she says. “The idea that something I create now can make such a global impact in the future is something that drives my passion for technology.”

Being a Woman in Science

Early in her studies, Emma didn’t notice any particular gender disparity in her classes.

“But something that did stand out to me was a lot of my first-year science courses were taught by male professors,” she says. She had one female chemistry professional, “and she really became a role model for me … it was definitely more interesting to me when I could hear experiences from a female perspective because I found that I could relate to that more.”

She found herself searching for female professors or upper-year female students in fields she might be interested in.

“I wanted those role models; I wanted those leaders to look up to,” she says. “And sometimes that was challenging.”

For Jharana, her introductory computer science courses had a fairly equal split between men and women.

“But after midterms, I saw that there was a drastic change in the number of females,” she says. “A lot just dropped out of the courses.”

As she moved to higher-level courses, the lack of women in the classroom and teaching became more pronounced. Like Emma, “I was also striving to look for more female role models,” Jharana says. “But I didn’t find any.”

During co-op placements as part of her program, most of her teammates were men but she had a couple of female managers.

 “Just having one person who looks like me can make a very big impact.”

Join Girls STEM UP!

Emma and Jharana are part both a part of this year’s Girls STEM UP! The annual conference takes place March 20, from 9 am to 3 pm. Free and virtual, it features a variety of speakers, keynotes and virtual booths, all under the theme of empowering. The program follows five pillars, including community, courage, innovation, passion, and intersectionality, with two breakout sessions each. (Click here to register).

“This will give a unique spin to the different aspects of STEM,” Jharana says, “and how women have to persevere, not only being women in STEM, but being other minorities in STEM fields, and persevering along that journey.”

Now in its fourth year, Girls STEM UP! was started by a group of female students at UNB in response to the underrepresentation of women in STEM programs.

Emma, involved for the third year and this year’s co-chair has seen Girls STEM UP! grow in that time, expanding to include more diverse stories from speakers from different backgrounds.

“It's an amazing conference because there's something that almost everyone can relate to,” she says. “We have such a different variety of breakout speakers and keynote speakers and different sessions.”

 And it’s not just for die-hard coders or aspiring scientists.

 “You can walk in maybe not even interested in STEM and leave so empowered and interested and curious about what other STEM fields are out there.”

 She had that experience when she first took part as a delegate. She arrived not knowing what she wanted to do and left feeling inspired to find out more about the opportunities and network with more people in those fields.

Jharana’s first experience was also as a delegate. She attended with her sister, with no expectations of the event. She was early in her computer science studies and struggling.

 “The keynote speaker was someone who had opened organizations to help females to code, and after listening to her speech, I was so inspired,” she says. “It really motivated me to just push through, just keep on doing it and believing in myself.”

 The following year, she joined the executive committee to help plan and present the event. This year, she’s one of the speakers.

“Get Out of Your Comfort Zone”

 Jharana will share her journey in computer science but also talk about her experiences outside the classroom, how she built her confidence by getting involved.

 “I will also want to emphasize how important it is to get out of your comfort zone and also try different activities on campus,” she says.

 As Emma and Jharana show, Girls STEM Up! is the kind of event where there’s something for everyone, and everyone leaves feeling inspired.

 “Yes, it's a day where you learn more about the STEM fields,” Emma says, but it’s also a chance to challenge yourself, to learn and grow, including learning more about yourself as an individual.

 “Everyone has a unique experience; no experience is the same,” she says. “So I highly recommend you come and experience it for yourself.”

 To register for Girls STEM Up! click here.

Check out our entire conversation by clicking here to listen.

Here's a peek at some of the highlights from this episode

  • [03:51]: Emma shares her background and path to studying science.
  • [07:14]: Jharana tells us about her winding road, from her native Nepal to Fredericton, from business computer science.
  • [14:18]: We talk about what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated field, and Emma and Jharana talk about their challenges finding female mentors.
  • [20:10]: Emma gives us the background on the Girls STEM Up! conference, now in its fourth year.
  • [26:025]: Jharana shares a bit about the talk she’ll give at this year’s Girls STEM Up! event.
  • [32:01]: Emma on who the event is for, and why everyone should think of attending, even if STEM isn’t on their radar.
  • [41:55]: We talk about what the future holds for Jharana and Emma.
  • >>[41:40]: Laura on New Brunswick’s advantages, and what we need to do next.


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