University of Saskatchewan

April 24, 2014   

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Kelly Paton (photo courtesy of Liam Richards)
October 16, 2006

Women in Engineering: U of S student goes to MIT
Monday, October 16, 2006

>Tenth in a Series

By Angela Hill

For the StarPhoenix

 

When Kelly Paton began her engineering physics program at the University of Saskatchewan three years ago, she was acutely aware of how few women there were in many of her classes.

 

“I walked in and the class was filled with these huge guys [sitting] shoulder to shoulder,” she recalls. “I walked in wearing a pink shirt and skirt and I thought, ‘Oh geez, what am I doing here?’”

 

That worry is now a distant memory. She now not only feels that she belongs and is an active member of the engineering college community, but she has proven she can excel at research in her demanding field.

 

Paton, 21, studies engineering physics, which combines the theoretical side of physics and the practical side of engineering. She is also earning a bachelor’s degree in math from the College of Arts and Science.

 

She still manages to find time to volunteer for Engineers Without Borders and the planning committee for Spectrum, the college’s triennial exhibition to promote science and technology to the community. 

 

For the past two summers, Paton has been awarded an undergraduate student research award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Canada’s leading science granting agency. The awards are designed to help aspiring scientists find summer employment in their chosen fields.

 

With the help of the NSERC award and some faculty connections of her supervisor Chary Rangacharyulu, Paton was able to spend the past summer doing research at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.

 

Though initially intimidated by the MIT group, Paton quickly found she was working with a friendly group of brilliant people.  It was her first introduction to particle physics and she found the ability to “see” sub-atomic particles fascinating.

 

“It’s like magic – when you went to Disney world as a kid and you saw Tinkerbell – it’s just completely out of this world,” she says.

 

She spent the summer assembling a prototype particle detector called a gas electron multiplying detector which provides a picture of what happens to various particles, such as electrons or muons, when they collide or decay.  These devices are used to track and identify high-energy particles such as those from cosmic radiation in outer space.  

 

Paton’s job was to test detector parts before they were added to the prototype. The highlight came when the prototype was finally assembled and she saw the first signs of particles being detected.

 

“It is just completely amazing,” she recalls.

           

According to U of S computer science professor Julita Vassileva who holds the Cameco/NSERC Prairie Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, Paton is fortunate because female students often experience difficulty fitting into male-dominated fields such as engineering and physical sciences.  

 

Vassileva says there are numerous impediments for women including lower self-confidence, the feeling of always needing to prove themselves, and traditional expectations of a women’s role in society.

 

“Women try to do everything and be perfect in everything, and this wears them down,” Vassileva said.  “The arising feelings are a heavy burden to carry in a demanding career, which requires full mental and emotional energy.”

           

The percentage of women in engineering and science has increased significantly since the 1950s so that now about one in five engineering program graduates is female, she says.  But while some disciplines such as chemical engineering are almost at gender parity, others women are strongly underrepresented.

Recent trends show stagnation or even a decline in women’s enrolment to these programs.  Canadian statistics show a drop in female enrolment in engineering from 20.6 per cent in 2001 to 18.5 per cent in 2004.  By comparison, women comprise close to 60 per cent of overall undergraduate enrolment.

In Saskatchewan, female enrolment in engineering programs has declined by 3.3 per cent from 1998 to 2002.

 “We need more women, especially successful women like Paton,” says Vassileva.

In the workforce, only 10 per cent of the 160,000 licensed engineers across Canada are women, she says.

Vassileva says every woman who enters science or engineering is setting an example and making a difference.  As more women enter these fields, practices change and there are more role models for the newcomers.

“For the development of new technologies, cures, environmental protection methods, we need all the help we can get,” she said. “We can’t afford to lose the talents of half of this country’s population.”

Paton graduates in 2008 and wants to continue her education.  A possibility is doing a PhD in particle physics at MIT or working in industry. 

 

“I want to be able to help people and that’s really my only criteria.”

 

 

-30-

 

Angela Hill is a student intern in the U of S Office of Research Communications.

(This article is part of a partnership initiative between The StarPhoenix and University of Saskatchewan Research Communications Office to highlight the work of student researchers and showcase the efforts of student writers and photographers.)

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