Trailblazers in STEM: Celebrating Women Breaking Barriers

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Tue Apr 9 2024

Author: Guest contributor

In this blog post, Catherine Mavriplis, author of the forthcoming book, The Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering Program, writes about the trailblazing women in engineering and other STEM fields — for too long unsung — who’ve led the way for the women entering careers in science and engineering today.

As I wrap up the proofs for our upcoming book on the history of the Canadian Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering, I am reminded of the important work pioneering women did for these fields and how little we know about them. Many of them have gone almost entirely undocumented. Yet, we marvel at their stories when we do hear them.

Many of you will have seen the movie Hidden Figures, which documents a short period of the employment of Black women as “computers” at NASA Langley in the U.S. during the space race. I am currently reading the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, which is fascinating not only for the true accounts of what these women did, how they got there and the conditions they endured, but also for the history of NASA Langley itself, the construction and destruction of wind tunnels and other experimental facilities, and the social movements of the time, the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the community of Hampton, Virginia and the professional Black community there.

While the movie glamorizes the sledgehammer-wielding boss of Katherine Johnson knocking down the sign for the segregated bathroom, it turns out the real story was that Mary Jackson was the one upset by having to go to another building to go to the bathroom. On her way back to her office she let loose on Kaz Czarnecki, an engineer who happened to be in the same hallway. He immediately offered her a position working in the 4’ x 4’ supersonic wind tunnel. A little later she was able to enroll in engineering classes and become NASA’s first Black woman engineer. Today, NASA’s headquarter building in Washington DC proudly bears her name. These days, we talk of allyship as a vehicle for supporting underrepresented groups. I think Mr. Czarnecki had a most human rection and instantly became an ally in that hallway.

Similarly, my colleague Shohini Ghose, current NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering and professor of quantum physics at Laurier University, just published a book on little-known women physicists and astronomers, their discoveries and how they helped revolutionize our understanding of the universe. Many of them also had allies and supporters and at times were the ones funding the work for lack of other support. Their work was meticulous and thorough, but they often struggled to find positions or resources. Until now, many of their stories remain mostly unknown. Can you name a woman physicist other than Marie Curie or Lise Meitner?

The same goes for two pioneering women in computing. Surprisingly, they’re both Canadian: Beatrice Worsley and Charlotte Froese Fischer wrote the first theses on computers in the world! Beatrice received her Master’s studying the subject from MIT in 1947 and her PhD from Cambridge in 1952. In the meantime, she worked on the earliest computers in the world. Charlotte received her PhD from Cambridge in 1957. And she is still active today! Both women were pioneers in the field of computers, yet, perhaps due to allyship, followed very different paths. Charlotte had a successful academic career, publishing over 300 journal articles, while Beatrice remained trapped in university computing centres, first at University of Toronto and then at Queen’s University.

It’s still important to encourage anyone to pursue their interests whether they’re from a minority group in that field or not, and to support them and provide opportunities where they might need an extra step up to not only reach their goals but simply get a foot in the door to start their career. The amazing stories of these women in science and engineering remind us of how difficult it was in the past and I hope they will inspire you to support talent when you see it.

About the author

Catherine Mavriplis is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Ottawa, where she works on advanced numerical methods for aerodynamics. From 2011 to 2021, Dr. Mavriplis held the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, a program that aims to recruit, retain and advance women to leadership. She has been the President of the Computational Fluid Dynamics Society of Canada and sat on the Council of the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute. She is a Fellow of Engineers Canada and the Canadian Academy of Engineering. Her upcoming book, The Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering Program, on the NSERC Chairs for Women will be published by Springer.


Author: Guest contributor

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