b The Jade Project :: Newsletter
kids in technology
  Fall 2006

Upcoming Events:

January 2007: Salary Seminar for Engineering Students

January 13, February 3, March 3, April 14: TechTrek Workshops

January 27, Feb 10, 2007: Girlsmart Workshops

March 6, 2007: SCWIST XX Evening at Science World

Spring 2007: Bridging Transition Workshops

January to May 2007: SCWIST Brown Bag Series

Welcome to our second newsletter! We hope you enjoy the following articles. We would like to feature other Jade projects in future newsletters, and have a forum for people to share their stories. Let us know how you are doing, what inspires you about science or engineering, and if we can profile you or your project in our Spring 2007 newsletter. What else would you like to see in the newsletter? Get in touch with Anne (condon@cs.ubc.ca) and Michele (mng@cs.ubc.ca).

From Geek to Chic: Changing the Image of Women in Technology
Full Article

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun... With Computers?
Full Article

Accidentally in Love
Full Article

Rebecca Tyson: Using Mathematical Biology to Solve Real World Problems
Full Article

Women and Negotiation: Getting What You Want Starting With Knowing What You Want
Full Article



From Geek to Chic: Changing the Image of Women in Technology
at work

Dr. Janice Regan knows all about flexibility. She is the walking embodiment of transferable job skills. During her career, she has eased seamlessly between industry and academia, each time learning skills on the job that she brings with her to the next one.

When I talked to her in her office in the Technology and Science Complex at Simon Fraser University, she fascinated me with the interesting path that has led her there. For example, from theoretical seismology, in which she created numerical models of earthquake waves, she learned a lot about supercomputing and special purpose computers. She used this in her next job – in the communications industry, where she wrote software for cell phones and pagers. Today, Janice is a faculty member of the SFU Computing Science Program and takes an active role in helping young women get enthusiastic about computing. She is certainly a woman of many talents, ready to rise to many different challenges!

It seems fitting then that she would use this same flexibility and energy to help develop the ChicTech Competition for young women at Simon Fraser University. She is involved with SFU’s Women In Computing Science (WICS) group, which provides support and networking to women in Computing Science at the university and strives to help dispel negative stereotypes about computing as a career path. As an active member of the WICS outreach committee, Janice was thrilled when three of her colleagues returned from the Grace Hopper Conference in Chicago, Illinois with a brilliant idea.

According to Janice, “eighty percent of the websites were strong enough to do well in a first year computer science course”. When the final surveys came back in, the success of the competition was clear: most that came in with a little interest in computing science left with a stronger interest.

There, they had seen a competition designed by the University of Illinois to encourage young women to develop high tech computer skills and take an interest in the subject. This inspired the committee to create their own version of the competition, entitled ChicTech. It is aimed at grade 9 and 10 girls just starting to make career decisions. The committee hoped that the event would challenge some of the myths about computing science, but would also give great networking opportunities for the participants.

Since the idea was proposed to the committee in October, they had only until Spring to design – and organize – the competition. Undaunted and enthused, the committee planned a manageable sized competition, based on the University of Illinois model, but adapted for the special time and financial constraints. Here’s where the flexibility came in. Getting the brand new project off the ground within a limited budget and timeline required many creative solutions.

It was worth it. In its first year, ChicTech was a great success. This year, the competition was even bigger. Each year, the organizers send announcements to various schools in the greater Vancouver area. Grade 9 and grade 10 girls are invited to form teams of three of four and enter the competition. They are paired with two female computing science undergraduate mentors. Teams are then given a challenge to complete; this year it was to create a new or updated version of a website for a non-profit organization of their choice. This way, the girls would learn valuable technical skills, interact with role models, and also benefit the community as a whole.

This year, one of the projects attracted particular attention from the judges. The winning team built a page for Valley Therapeutic Equestrian Association (VTEA). VTEA is “an organization that aims to improve the quality of life for children and adults with special needs with the use of horses”, says one of their mentors, Jen Fernquist. The girls wrote most of the code themselves, going beyond using a website-making program such as DreamWeaver. Their website was judged to be visually pleasing, but also conveyed excellent usability and functionality.

The rest of the teams did great work as well. According to Janice, “eighty percent of the websites were strong enough to do well in a first year computer science course”. When the final surveys came back in, the success of the competition was clear: most that came in with a little interest in computing science left with a stronger interest. Janice hopes the girls will make choices that will leave the doors open for a high tech career, should they choose to pursue one.

So far, the project has been supported mostly by the SFU Computing Science Program and the Jade Project. Next year, ChicTech is working on securing more funding from industry to expand the project and reach even more girls. Another initiative that the WICS Outreach Committee is looking into is designing workshops for ChicTech participants and others, to take place in local school districts a couple times a year. Potential workshop topics include programming with robotics, building computers, and design tips for user interfaces.

To conclude our interview, I asked Janice what was becoming my final question for all the successful women I have been talking to thus far: “what’s one piece of advice you would give to someone hoping to achieve your success?” I told her that “working hard” was not the answer I was looking to hear.

“I think that’s the magic of it,” she said. “Find something you’re interested in. If you like it, it won’t seem like work!”

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun... With Computers?

at workThe building is futuristic, made of unfinished cement and glass. Its corridors are dark and its floors are accessible only by key card. If you listen closely, though, you can hear the unmistakable sound of giggling. It seems like an unusual place for dozens of Grade 6 and 7 girls to be spending their Saturday afternoon, but by the sounds of it, they’d disagree.

These girls are attending the GIRLSmarts workshop, an annual event that is affiliated with the UBC Department of Computer Science. It is tailored for Grade 6 and Grade 7 girls and attempts to spark their interest in computing, to raise awareness about careers in the field, and to provide female role models for girls interested in computers. It aims to provide its participants with experiences that use computing technology to go deeper than just “surfing the net”. This year, it is being held in the new Institute of Computing Information and Cognitive Systems (ICICS) building at the UBC campus in Vancouver.

Organizer Viann Chan, a graduate student within the Department believes that giving girls an opportunity to have fun with computers while they are young is very important. She attributes her own decision to study computer science to early influences in her life.

Organizer Viann Chan, a graduate student within the Department believes that giving girls an opportunity to have fun with computers while they are young is very important. She attributes her own decision to study computer science to early influences in her life. Her parents played a key role in sparking her interest in computing; her mom worked as a database system administrator, and her dad always looked for educational toys like computer games (in the days of early home computers like the Commodore 64) and circuit kits to make different sounds, etc. She also attended a computer summer camp when she was in Grade 6 and a math summer school in Grade 7, during which she was challenged with fun puzzles and learned how to program with LOGO. She hopes to provide the girls at the workshop with a similar positive experience with computing while they are young.

As I peek into labs and classroom, I see she is well on her way to achieving that goal. In one workshop, the girls become high tech sleuths embroiled in a murder mystery. Using tools such as Google’s digitized maps of the world and the well-known Google search engine, they solve a series of “secret questions” which bring them closer to the culprit. The girls work in pairs and brainstorm ideas with their partners in excited whispers. Each team receives their clues from “Google Headquarters”, which is manned by a volunteer. As each team sends her an answer via a secure chat window, the Headquarters provides them with the next clue. The girls impress me with their resourcefulness and quickly learn how to extract exactly the information they need to use these powerful tools.

In another workshop, the girls get to disassemble – and, of course, then reassemble – a desktop computer, always in pairs. I am afraid to touch anything, let alone try to take it apart. But the girls roll up their sleeves without fear and dive right in, curiously wrestling with the chips and cables. Computer hardware does not seem foreign to them. It just seems a natural extension of their hands.

When asked which workshop was her favourite, Robyn, Grade 6, said she liked the hardware workshop because it was so “hands-on” and because she “got a chance to see inside”. But the most popular answer I heard was the cryptography workshop, which required only a pen, a piece of paper, and some clever thinking. The girls learned different cyphers and ways of encrypting and decrypting messages.

The study of cryptography, perhaps most famous in the 20th century for its usage in breaking Nazi codes, is growing ubiquitous in the 21st for maintaining financial and personal privacy interests. Electronic services requiring secure transmission of sensitive information, most notably electronic banking, are a rapidly growing industry. It is a continuous challenge to stay one step ahead of high tech criminals. The girls are learning the basic concepts behind cryptography and are preparing to perhaps one day take part in this interesting area of computer research. But is this really why the session is so popular? I was curious, so I decided to ask one of the girls.

“Why was cryptography your favourite workshop?” Nathalie, Grade 6, stared at me for a second, obviously puzzled at my ignorance.

”It’s very convenient for passing notes in class.” Duh!

 Accidentally in Love

Gail Murphy“Did I mention that I became a mathematician by accident?” said Dr. Rebecca Tyson, a tenure track professor at UBC Okanagan. It was that comment of hers that immediately put me at ease given that I’m about to enter my last year of undergraduate studies in science at UBC, and still without a concrete goal. It was comforting to hear a successful researcher (someone on the other side of the dark tunnel of mystery) admit that it took a little exploration to navigate into the career she loves.

“I actually wanted to study biology when I started my undergraduate degree,” she said, “but my father is an engineering physicist and made it clear to me that he thought I should study a more quantitative science”. To keep both herself and her father happy she took a double major in physics and physiology at McGill University. She quickly found the math portion of the degree to be more fun than the physics part and that propelled her to do doctorate work at the University of Washington with Jim Murray, a mathematical biologist from Oxford. It was there she discovered that she was “turning into a mathematician!” Since then, she has taken on a number of positions exploring applications of mathematics at schools in the US and Canada. She has now settled in Kelowna and started her tenure track at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in 2003.

The focus was to dispel stereotypes and show that careers in Science are consistent with a “well-rounded, feminine lifestyle”.

One of her goals at UBCO is to encourage young women to follow in her footsteps and go on to interesting careers in science or engineering. This January she led a one-day workshop entitled, A Career In Science: Workshop for Female Undergraduates, meant to interest female students in a career in Science past the undergraduate level. The focus was to dispel stereotypes and show that careers in Science are consistent with a “well-rounded, feminine lifestyle”. The workshop consisted of speakers from academia and industry, group discussions, and networking sessions. Rebecca explained that the most successful part of the workshop was the small group sessions, in which groups of 5 or 6 undergrads were partnered with a faculty member or grad student.

Conference participant Jennifer Hawrylo felt the conference was valuable. She really enjoyed the panel discussion and hearing the personal stories of how successful women got to where they are today. In the small group session, her mentor was Sylvia Esterby, Head of the Mathematics department. Jennifer says, it was “an amazing opportunity for me, especially as a Math major, to get to speak in a relaxed setting with a role model that I might have been too shy to approach on my own.”

Next year, Rebecca hopes to find even more mentors for the small group sessions, including representatives of the community and industry. She also wants to provide an opportunity for more informal discussions in a social setting where students can approach a mentor regardless of the field that interests them.

Another UBCO Jade Project event on the horizon is a half-day "Women and Ambition" workshop facilitated by Lil Blume, who spoke last year at Jade Project workshops at UBC Vancouver. Through that workshop, she wants to reach those women “who are just plain frightened at the idea of trying to survive a career in the sciences”.

One of the things she hopes the young women take away from the January conference, and the other Jade Project initiatives, is an understanding that pursuing a career in the sciences is harmonious with raising a family, etc. For Rebecca, loving math and having a successful personal life are not at odds. Her website boasts a section called, “Math in My Life” in which she relates amusing stories (and of course diagrams) that describe how she has used math to solve real life problems (if you’re interested in reading some of her real life stories, visit http://people.ok.ubc.ca/rtyson/Teaching/index.html). She has successful amalgamated a career with marriage, her children, and her hobbies (such as sail boating). When she talks about her career in math she talks enthusiastically about the flexibility that it affords her. “I don't need to run into a lab at midnight to take care of some bacteria or other animals, and my computer programs can work away while I'm sleeping or doing other things. I can work from home very easily, and juggle my schedule around my children's schedule.”

“So what was it like working at UBC Okanagan”, I asked, curious about our new sister campus. The fact that Kelowna is not a big city, she says, means that her home was not expensive! She has mixed feelings about being the “only fish in the pond”, as she puts it. Because UBCO is a smaller institution, she is the only one at the university working in her particular field of research. “The hard part is if you get stuck”, she chuckles, alluding to the fact that physically, there’s nobody right around the corner. Sometimes that makes it harder for her because she doesn’t have a lot of colleagues to consult with and bounce ideas off. But the pros include getting her pick of the projects! She notes, too, that she is part of a wider community of scientists, including colleagues with various specializations at UBCO, Thompson Rivers University, and the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, BC.

As the interview began to wind down, I still had a few questions I wanted to ask. Just how should one go about pursuing a career like hers, I wondered. “Don’t slam any doors,” she said. When deciding where to study and what kind of undergraduate and graduate work to look into, it’s important to pick a location, and a supervisor, which will give you the right amount of nurturing. Some people flourish within competitive research groups, which tend to be found at bigger universities. Others excel in a smaller place, like UBC Okanagan, where they are more likely to be nurtured in a much more personal way.

Once you’ve chosen the right supervisor and environment for you, she describes enthusiasm as another important ingredient. “The quality of a project and your dedication to it can be more important than the reputation of your university.” For example, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) provides grants to both students and professors and is an important source of funding for research in Canada. In Tyson’s experience, NSERC awards go to all types of institutions, not just the most prestigious ones.

Rebecca Tyson: Using Mathematical Biology to Solve Real World Problems

Elana BriefRebecca Tyson is a dynamic woman. About a month ago, I interviewed her about her involvement with A Career In Science: Workshop for Female Undergraduates, a workshop she led at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, where she is a tenure track professor and researcher in mathematical biology. In the process, I became fascinated by her research and the exciting prospect of using mathematical biology to solve real world problems. As a result, I wanted to know more.

One of her research projects is in collaboration with scientists at the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre (PARC) in Summerland, BC. PARC is one of several research stations run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the federal government’s agricultural program. The stations use science to solve real problems faced by the Canadian agricultural industry.

"How are women able to make successful transitions into a satisfying career if they're wary of voicing their own dreams to themselves, letting alone speaking them out loud or writing them down?"

One of the largest problems facing farmers in BC is pests, which destroy crops and transmit viruses. Farmers’ fields are typically sprayed with multiple chemical treatments, the environmental and health impacts of which are only beginning to be assessed. Moreover, within a few seasons, pests develop resistance to chemical treatments which makes their efficacy questionable. Developing safer, more responsible and potentially more effective alternatives to chemical pesticides is one of the primary goals of the federal agricultural research program and PARC Summerland. Introducing natural predators is one of the most promising alternative techniques and is already used in industry.

So how does Tyson, with her expertise in mathematical biology, fit in? The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) is one such alternative for killing pests. It is designed to combat the codling moth, a common fruit orchard pest. SIT involves the release of large numbers of codling moths which are bred in a laboratory and sterilized. The sterile moths then mate with the pests, who lay unfertilized eggs. Tyson uses mathematical modeling to investigate how moths disperse in nature. She creates two kinds of simulations, one models the population trends of moths over a large landscape, and the other models the local behaviour of individual moths. Her models take into account complex factors such as wind direction and are helping scientists and farmers understand how to make the SIT treatment more effective.

Learning of her involvement with PARC was a lucky coincidence, because for the past four summers, I worked at another of the research stations, located in my home town of Agassiz, BC. There, I also investigated alternative treatments to pesticides on fruit. Our approach was to find plants which conveyed natural genetic resistance to pests and then breed those with commercial varieties, but the goals were the same. She uses mathematical principles, and her tools are, as she says, a “good computer, a good library, and pencil and paper”. My research group uses recently developed in vivo biology techniques to replicate potentially resistant plants quickly for testing.

But it was obvious that the complex and commercially significant problem of developing pest management techniques was being tackled from many different angles. The best solutions”, Rebecca notes, “are obtained when mathematicians and biologists work together, with the mathematical model informing experiments and vice versa.”

Women and Negotiation: Getting What You Want Starts With Knowing What You Want

“Most women are under the mistaken impression that if they do good work at their job, they’ll automatically be rewarded with a salary increase”, says Julie Stitt who facilitated a JADE-funded negotiation workshop for women. “The consequence is that women don’t ask for what they deserve”, explains Stitt. During her thirteen years in career development and human resources development, Stitt has observed that many women don’t do the background research to find out what their work is worth, and what compensation they actually need to make them happy in their employment.

On July 15th, forty UBC and SFU women graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in science and applied science participated in Stitt’s JADE-supported workshop entitled “Negotiation and Alternative Careers in Science”. This was one in a series of workshops called “Bridging Transitions: Soft Skills for Hard Scientists” run by Elana Brief (postdoctoral fellow, Physics, SFU), Erin Young (PhD candidate, Physics, UBC) and Donna Dykeman (PhD candidate, engineering, UBC). The workshops seek to help women develop skills that they would not have acquired elsewhere, yet are essential for finding good employment, communicating well, and managing their own imminent life transitions.

“The women attending the workshops are passionate about working in science, but face barriers in imagining their futures. During the workshop we learn from each other’s experiences, recognize that everyone is facing similar challenges, and become proactive in designing how we want to live our lives.”

Miryam Elouneg-Jamroz, a MSc Candidate in physics at UBC, summarized some of the lessons she learned from the Negotiation workshop. “It’s essential to know what you want first, before negotiating. If you don’t know what you want, you won’t know whether the offer meets your needs”. Based on the workshop, she’s advised friends who were seeking jobs. Many of her friends were convinced that the advertised salary was non-negotiable. Elouneg-Jamroz encouraged her friends to determine what their experience and knowledge were “worth”. In one case, after considering what Elouneg-Jamroz said, the friend made a quick phone call to a potential employer and received 15% more than the advertised salary. In all cases, the friends took the time to think about their own value and approached their negotiations with more confidence.

“We’re not taught these skills in our graduate courses”, says Vidya Kotamraju, a MASc Candidate in engineering at SFU. Kotamraju was surprised to learn that in some fields in engineering, women are paid significantly less than their male colleagues who are doing the same work. The workshop gave her guidelines for how to enter into negotiation. “I’m not looking for a job now”, continues Kotamraju, “but I’ll be reading through the handouts carefully in the future”.

Michelle La Haye, another MASc Candidate from engineering at SFU, came away from the workshop with strategies for ensuring that she receives what she negotiates. “One of the strongest lessons I learned was that anything that is negotiated needs to be written down, because you never know if the person who hired you will still be there when you start a job,” says La Haye. Since the workshop, La Haye became aware of friends who received verbal promises in negotiation that weren’t honoured when the job started. She advises: “If something is worth negotiating about then it is worth getting it in writing.”

Compensation goes beyond salary. “Do you need flexible hours because you have a young child? Do you want more vacation time? Would you like to work from home for some of your hours? Are there conferences you want to attend?”, Stitt asked the workshop participants. “The hard work is discovering what you need for your career and career development. Once you’ve figured it out, negotiation is straight-forward.” Ultimately the employer wants the employee to feel adequately compensated: a happy employee is an effective one.

The Bridging Transitions workshop series is meeting the needs of women graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from science and applied science. As evidence, at the end of the Negotiation workshop, all participants indicated that they would recommend the workshop to a friend, and they all agreed that what they learned in the workshop would be helpful in their professional and personal lives.

Elouneg-Jamroz sums it up: “The women attending the workshops are passionate about working in science, but face barriers in imagining their futures. During the workshop we learn from each other’s experiences, recognize that everyone is facing similar challenges, and become proactive in designing how we want to live our lives.”

Bridging Transitions is funded by JADE and the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST). “Negotiation and Alternative Careers in Science” was also sponsored Vancity and Networking Engineering Women at UBC (new@ubc). Computer and website support is provided by SFU.