The Importance of Encouraging Women and Girls in Science

Feb. 11 is observed as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science! To celebrate, Covergalls chatted with Science Director of Science North, Julie Moskalyk. Picture courtesy of Julie Moskalyk.

Julie Moskalyk, current Director of Science North, still remembers the moment she became a scientist. She was nine years old and her family had made a new, exciting move: to Australia. 

The move itself was not unfamiliar. Her father, who was in the army, had the family travel from military base to military base all the time. But at the age of nine, her lifestyle changed in a very exciting way: she got free reign to explore the hot, natural landscapes of Australia. 

“For three years it was just me, bare feet running in the bush. And that was…I can still remember it like it was yesterday. That's when I became a scientist. That's when I discovered my passion for natural sciences.” 

The move would not be Julie’s last. From the moment she was born – in Rivers, Manitoba – to when she was sixteen, Julie traveled everywhere due to her father’s work. It was a nomadic life, and one that she considers was important to shaping who she is today. 

“When you live a lifestyle like that growing up, it really forms your personality, to adapt to new situations and get to know people quickly and be ready for change.” 

Fast forward to 15 years old and Julie and her family found their way back to Canada. This time, however, it was more permanent. Her parents decided to retire and picked Northern Ontario, specifically Sudbury, due to its non-urban environment. 

The year after their move, Canada's second largest science centre opened in Sudbury: Science North. 

After that, it was like puzzle pieces fell into place. Julie started out as a volunteer at the centre but soon it evolved into her summer job, her weekend job. Then she became a science demonstrator. Then a BlueCoat, a unique style of communication created by Science North where scientists help deliver science topics daily. 

Even after Julie went to Ottawa for university and became an entomologist she found herself coming back to Sudbury to spend time working with Science North - as a staff scientist, then senior scientist. 

“I've been here now for 37 years,” she says with a laugh. 

Science North Science Director Julie Moskalyk was among three Canadians selected for the fifth Homeward Bound cohort (HB5) in 2019. Photo courtesy of Julie Moskalyk. 

Science engagement starts young 

The power formative experiences can have in attracting women and girls to explore science topics, especially when you're young, is amazing. It’s an idea that is often brought up as a method to tackle the issue of underrepresentation of women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science, and medicine). 

Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s science minister from 2015-2019, suggested science programs were one way to address the fact that Canada lags behind other nations when it comes to women in science

“You have to hit it on a number of levels. You have to attract young women and girls. Science opens up a wonderful world. I just had two incredible young women leave my office from McMaster; they’ve started this wonderful science program. I want to get young girls excited in science, tech, engineering mathematics, art, design—and how they come together. We’ve got this Choose Science campaign. Once women are there, though, we have to retain them. When I look at universities, it’s not enough to have role models, we need to have champions. We need to have more women in senior leadership positions. There are issues about work-life balance. Women go to have children and then who keeps the lab running? There are many challenges.” 

For Julie Moskalyk, her curiosity in science sparked when she explored Australia’s bush as a child. For Anna Stacy, Bouchra Benghomari and Shubhi Sinha, three young scientists featured in a recent Forbes article on young women scientists speaking out on gender equity in STEM, it was sparked by similar formative experiences: Bouchra experimented with materials like Play-Doh in kindergarten, Anna learned about everyday motion in a high school physics class, and Shubhi researched cancer cells for an 8th grade science class.

Each of their experiences was unique, but there was a similar thread: curiosity, as well as finding a space where they could explore their interests in an encouraging way. 

Julie says it can be key for parents to find any and all opportunities to diversify kids' experiences across Canada and within our own communities.

Science North is OPEN every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in February! All visitors aged 12 and older must show proof of vaccination. Photo courtesy of Julie Moskalyk.

“I think that's one of the silver linings to the pandemic, you know? The rebirth of the staycation has really become ingrained. And I think for the next year or so people in the bottom third of Ontario, which is our most populated, urbanized area, have really focused on getting to see Northern Ontario. They are discovering the most beautiful part of the province, in communities that they never knew about. So it all matters, whether it’s local or beyond,” says Julie. 

“We must open the doors and we must see to it they remain open, so that others can pass through.” Rosemary Brown, politician, activist, and Canada’s first black female member of a provincial legislature. Read about Rosemary here.

What are opportunities that support and encourage women in STEMM / STEAMM? 

Education is one area where we continue to see work to attract a diverse array of students. 

Within schools, one trend has been to integrate the arts into STEMM, creating STEAMM programs. These programs leverage both hard and soft skills, the aim being to foster more creative, flexible thinking. 

It’s this kind of inclusion and diversity that can make typical STEMM programs more attractive. 

Eric Klopfer, director of MIT's Scheller Teacher Education Program, noted in a 2017 The Journal interview how integrating the arts, as well as the humanities, "certainly broadened the appeal" and "makes STEM feel more playful, more creative and expressive and opens the domain in terms of appeal to a much broader range of people."

Julie Moskalyk mentioned opportunities she was excited about for women and girls interested in science: 

  1. Homeward Bound, a global project that was launched five years ago with the intent of empowering 10,000 women from across the world to be leaders in STEMM by 2036. 
  2. Science North’s own summer camps. Since 1987 Science North has offered science camps across Ontario for children to participate in. This year Julie says they have 32 different locations planned throughout Northern Ontario, with some camps or streams focused on getting young girls interested in science, gadgets, engineering and, recently, climate change.
  3. The many different associations that now exist for women and girls. 

“Take the time to think about what science or what STEMM field you're interested in, then do a bit of looking around online and find the national associations, then look for your local group. They will have local groups! There's so many there's too many to name, but I would really encourage taking a look at those and joining up and seeing what experiences they offer.” 

A few examples you can check out include: The Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology, Canadian Association for Girls in ScienceWomen in Mining Canada and many more associations with local chapters.

Science North and Dynamic Earth are situated on the traditional and ancestral lands of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek and Wahnapitae First Nation in Robinson-Huron Treaty territory, and their Thunder Bay operations are situated on the traditional and ancestral lands of Fort William First Nation in Robinson-Superior Treaty territory. 

Learn more about the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek , Wahnapitae First Nation and Fort William First Nation lands, governance, and history by visiting their websites. 

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