Posts Tagged: women in STEM

‘My dream job’: How a PEY Co-op student is helping develop a new generation of autonomous space robots

Erin Richardson at MDA

PEY Co-op student Erin Richardson (Year 3 EngSci) is spending 16 months at Canadian space engineering firm MDA, where she is working on a new generation of autonomous robots for the forthcoming Lunar Gateway space station. (Photo: MDA)

 

By Tyler Irving

Erin Richardson (Year 3 EngSci) was in Grade 9 when she decided she wanted to be an astronaut.

“We had a science unit on outer space, and I remember being completely fascinated by the vast scale of it all,” she says. “Thinking about how big the universe is, and how we’re just a tiny speck on a tiny planet, I knew I wanted to be part of exploring it.”

Richardson started following Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on social media and watching videos of his daily life on the International Space Station. She also started reading about aerospace and doing everything she could to break into the industry, including getting her Student Pilot Permit.

It was in a Forbes article about women in STEM that she first read the name of Kristen Facciol (EngSci 0T9).

A U of T Engineering alumna, Facciol had worked as a systems engineer at Canadian space engineering firm MDA before moving on to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). When Richardson first learned about her, Facciol was an Engineering Support Lead, providing real-time flight support during on-orbit operations and teaching courses to introduce astronauts and flight controllers to the ISS robotic systems. Today, Facciol is a Flight Controller for CSA/NASA.

“I found her contact information and reached out to her,” says Richardson. “She’s been an amazing mentor to me over the last five years. We’re still close friends, and she’s really helped influence my career path.”

With Facciol’s encouragement, Richardson applied to U of T’s Engineering Science program, eventually choosing the aerospace major. After her first year, she landed a summer research position in the lab of Professor Jonathan Kelly (UTIAS), working on simulation tools for a robotic mobile manipulator platform.

“Working in Kelly’s lab piqued my interest in robotics as they could be applied in space,” she says. “Researching collaborative manipulation in dynamic environments will push the boundaries of human spaceflight – during spacewalks, astronauts work right alongside  robots all the time.”

After her second year, Richardson travelled to Tasmania for a research placement facilitated by EngSci’s ESROP Global program. Working with researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency, she created tools to analyze data collected during scientific mooring deployments, which help us learn more about our oceans over long periods of time. This work informs the design of next-generation mooring systems which, like space systems, must survive harsh and constrained environments.

Richardson was sitting in a second-year lecture when she heard the news that Canada had committed to NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, a brand-new international space station set to be constructed between 2023 and 2026. Unlike the ISS, which currently orbits Earth, the Lunar Gateway will orbit the moon and will serve both as a waypoint for future crewed missions to the lunar surface and as preparation for missions to even more distant worlds, such as Mars.

Energized, Richardson searched for a way to get involved. Her opportunity came in the fall of 2019, when she saw a posting on MDA’s job board. She immediately applied through U of T Engineering’s Professional Experience Year Co-op program, which enables undergraduate students to spend up to 16 months working for leading firms worldwide before returning to finish their degree programs.

Richardson started her placement in May 2020, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. She and her employer quickly adapted.

“I was working from home through the summer, but for my latest project I was able to go onsite to operate this robotic arm,” she says.

The robotic arm in question is a model of Dextre, a versatile robot that maintains the International Space Station. Richardson used it as a prototype part for the Canadarm3, which will be installed on Lunar Gateway.

Because the Lunar Gateway will be so far from Earth, Canadarm3 will be designed to be autonomous, able to execute certain tasks without supervision from a remote control station. Part of Richardson’s job is to create the dataset that will eventually be used to train the artificial intelligence algorithms that will make this possible.

In MDA’s DREAMR lab, Richardson guided the robotic arm through a series of movements and scenarios, with a suite of video cameras tracking its every move. She then tagged each series of images with metadata that will teach the robot whether the movements it saw were desirable ones to emulate, or dangerous ones to avoid.

“We had to capture different lighting conditions and obstacles of various sizes and colours,” she says. “My colleagues pointed out to me that because it’s me deciding which scenarios count as collisions and which ones don’t, the AI that we eventually create will be a reflection of my own brain.”

Apart from the opportunity to contribute to the next generation of space robots, Richardson says she’s enjoyed the chance to apply what she’s learned in her classes, as well as the professional connections she’s made.

“It’s my dream job,” she says. “I use what I learned in engineering design courses every day. I’m treated as a full engineer and a member of the team. The people I work with are extremely supportive and they talk to me about my dreams and goals. I love being surrounded by a team of talented and motivated people, all so passionate about what they do and about advancing space exploration. It’s an awesome opportunity for any student.”

This article was originally published in the U of T Engineering News.


EngSci student has a message for women and girls considering STEM fields: ‘You can’

Adriana Patino

Adriana Diaz Lozano Patino, a third-year engineering science student at U of T, is focused on finding innovative solutions to global water and energy needs (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

 

By Rahul Kalvapalle

As a young girl growing up in Mexico, Adriana Diaz Lozano Patino (Year 3 EngSci) was always very clear on what she wanted to do when she grew up.

“Since I was very young, I loved the idea of becoming a scientist – even though when you’re 10 years old, you don’t really know what that actually means,” says Patino, who is majoring in biomedical engineering.

Last summer, Patino completed an internship in MIE’s Water and Energy Research Laboratory, which researches innovative engineering solutions for global water and energy needs. There, she worked on research pertaining to sustainable sanitation and water desalination in Mexico and Bangladesh, respectively.

The lab is directed by Associate Professor Amy Bilton (MIE), whom Patino describes as “a phenomenal role model.”

Bilton and Patino are among a growing number of women scholars, students and researchers whose work is pushing the boundaries of traditionally male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields while helping to spread a message of inclusivity – a message that underpins the International Day of Women and Girls in Science that was adopted by the United Nations in 2015.

Patino, a Pearson Scholar, says her summer stint in Bilton’s lab – funded by the Engineering Science Research Opportunities Program – made her doubly determined to pursue a career in engineering.

Her first project saw her assist with PhD research focused on designing sustainable sanitation systems for the periphery of major cities in Mexico.

“Around 11 million Mexicans don’t have access to safe sanitation technologies, particularly those who live in the periphery of cities,” Patino says. “Mexico, just like many countries that are deemed the global south, has this really interesting interface at the periphery of major cities where you see urban and rural characteristics merging together. These communities usually lack access to general infrastructure and services.”

Her contribution to the project focused on figuring out why households were being deprived of reliable sanitation systems, particularly in Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara and the State of Mexico.

Using data gleaned from Mexican government and non-profit sources along with information on geographic conditions in those regions, Patino was able to zero in on some of the key variables. They included: the distance of households from downtown, the legal status of the land on which people live and access to health institutions.

“I’m from Mexico, so I grew up around this and have a vague idea of it, so it’s very important for me to be able to work on something that can eventually help people back home. Of course, it would’ve been better to be able to go there and talk to them but alas, COVID,” Patino says.

“In general, I think it’s something that’s at the heart of what the Water and Energy Research Lab does, and what Professor Bilton really wants to get her students to look at, which is understanding the community you’re going to work in and the context around the problem you’re trying to solve – so that you don’t end up doing engineering out of context and end up with solutions that may sound really cool in theory, but in practice just don’t adapt to the cultural and social context.”

Patino’s second project saw her contribute to a PhD student’s research focused on combining UV LED and reverse osmosis technologies to create a sustainable water filtration system.

“Reverse osmosis uses pressurized membranes to filter water and UV LED is usually used to kill micro-organisms. These technologies have never been coupled before, at least from what we found in the literature,” Patino explains. “We wanted to be able to build a system that would be powered by solar panels, so it can be used in remote communities. Particularly, we’re designing around a case study of a school community in Bangladesh, taking into account the geography of the area and the amount of people the system would be serving.

“What we were trying to do was to set the stage for future master’s students to come and build on the system and hopefully, one day, test it in the field.”

Patino says she hopes to go on to pursue graduate studies and research – ideally at the intersection of bio-engineering and global development.

Her passion for using engineering to solve pressing global challenges is a trait that’s increasingly prevalent among engineering students, according to her professor.

“With a lot of younger students in general, there’s a lot of interest in thinking about how they can use some of their skills to think about overall betterment of quality of life for people around the world,” says Bilton, who earned her bachelor of applied science in engineering science at U of T before going on to complete her master’s and PhD at MIT.

Bilton describes Patino as a “very positive and energetic person” who went “above and beyond” in all of her projects. She also said Patino’s work ethic and perspective as a young woman and international student from Mexico are a testament to the benefits of embracing diversity in STEM fields.

“It’s a push I make within my own group – to try and make sure we have a diverse group of students from cultural, gender and across all the spectra. I think there’s a general recognition now – that probably wasn’t there back when I was a student – that having that diversity brings a different kind of strength in terms of being able to think more broadly about problems,” says Bilton, who is also director of U of T’s Centre for Global Engineering. “Especially when the work itself is focused on inclusion, global development and making sure everyone has access to services that improve quality of life.”

Bilton notes that efforts to welcome more women and girls into STEM research and study at U of T is a key part of the university’s wider push to advance the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals – one of which is gender equality.

“I do feel like there’s a shift happening in this area and we’ve come a long way,” Bilton says. “[But] we still have a ways to go.”

As for Patino, she’s also using her time as a student to encourage young girls to pursue an education in STEM fields through her work at Hi Skule, U of T Engineering Society’s outreach club.

“We want to make sure that other girls see that you can go into STEM,” she says. “It’s not scary, you’re going to be loved, you’re going to have friends and you’re going to have faculty who support you. We’re trying to bring across the message that it’s a pretty awesome field. There’s lots to learn and women sometimes feel like they’re not going to live up to it because they’ve been taught that, but it’s completely not true.

“Particularly in the engineering community at U of T, I’ve found that the students are very supportive of each other. I’ve always felt like I’m heard and I get access to things. I never felt there’s been any challenge in my way because I’m a woman.”

Patino concedes that pursuing a career in a STEM field isn’t easy – for anyone – but stresses that women and girls are more than equipped to excel.

“Like anything in life, there are always challenges. But never think that because you’re a girl or you identify as a girl, that you can’t do it,” she says. “You can.”

This story was originally published in the U of T Engineering News.


Black History Month: Celebrating Black women in STEM

Black History Month Women in STEM

 

Story by Liz Do & Tristan McGuirk

In celebration of Black History Month, U of T Engineering invited students and alumni who identify as Black (including African, African-Canadian, African-Caribbean ancestry) and women to reflect on their experiences in STEM, the barriers they’ve faced in their career journeys, their inspirations, and the advice that they have for young Black women students.

The perspectives of these six women exemplify the diversity of their lived experiences — and illustrate the ongoing need for Black inclusion and systemic change in STEM fields.

Read the full story in the U of T Engineering News.


‘Reflect, remember, respond’: U of T commemorates National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

From left, clockwise: U of T Engineering Dean Chris Yip; Alana Bailey, president of NSBE U of T Chapter; Jennifer Blackbird, Centre for Indigenous Studies; Micah Stickel, Acting Vice Provost, Students; and Marisa Sterling, Assistant Dean & Director, Diversity, Inclusion and Professionalism for U of T Engineering.

By Liz Do

Members from across U of T’s three campuses gathered virtually to mark the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

On Dec. 6, 1989, a gunman entered an engineering classroom at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and murdered 14 female students, injuring another 10 women and four men. The victims were targeted because of their gender. The date of the massacre has become a day of remembrance and action against gender-based violence and discrimination.

Each year, the university community marks the day with an event at Hart House. On the 30th anniversary of the massacre in 2019, U of T Engineering was among 14 engineering schools from across the country to shine one of 14 beams of light — one for each of the women killed — into the sky from coast to coast.

National Day of Remembrance

(Photo: Roberta Baker)

This year’s tri-campus virtual memorial was led by U of T Engineering and the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, in partnership with Hart House.

“Today we are here to remember the past, the 14 women who died from violence,” said Marisa Sterling, Assistant Dean & Director, Diversity, Inclusion and Professionalism at U of T Engineering. “We are here to acknowledge how far we have come in the present, and we are here to take actions, reimaging a future without violence or aggression towards women within the intersections of many identities.”

“This a song for all of our sisters, my Indigenous sisters, my kin, and extending out to all the sisters, including transwomen and non-binary. We have a lot of violence pushed up against us,” says Jenny Blackbird — coordinator, Ciimaan/Kahuwe’ya/Qajaq Indigenous Language Initiative Program, Centre for Indigenous Studies, and outreach communications and programming coordinator for Hart House — who gave a performance at the start of the event. “I love you all, this is for you.”

Students from across the university then led in reading the names of the 14 women before a moment of silence.

Professor Micah Stickel (ECE), Acting Vice Provost, Students, also announced this year’s three recipients of the Award for Scholarly Achievement in Gender-Based Violence, in recognition of U of T students who have shown commitment on issues around gender-based violence and discrimination through research and prevention.

The recipients are:

  • Ferdinand Lopez (Women & Gender Studies Institute)
  • Rajpreet Sidhu (Department of Human Geography, UTSC)
  • Kanishka Sikri (Centre for Critical Development Studies)

The event culminated in a fireside chat, facilitated by Jennifer Flood and Bristy Chakrabarty of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, and featuring panelists Dean Chris Yip, U of T Engineering; Alana Bailey, president of the National Society of Black Engineers U of T Chapter; Tee Duke, assistant director, Indigenous initiatives, at UTM’s Indigenous Centre; and, Andi Alhakim, intercultural programs assistant, UTM International Education Centre.

The conversation highlighted concrete actions individuals can take to question, call out and take action to end violence against women — the discussions emphasized the need to centre the narrative around protecting and preventing violence against racialized and 2SLGBTQ+ communities.

“It’s crazy how [violence is] happening to us, Black women, Indigenous women, the most — and yet less focus is on us,” says Bailey. “People need to wake up and not be desensitized. This energy is what makes society look away. To centre the narrative, I think we need to create spaces where we have a voice, spaces where we won’t be shamed, ignored and looked over.”

The group also discussed how non-Black, Indigenous and people of color (Non-BIPOC) U of T students, staff and faculty can commit to taking actions, informed by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

“I encourage folks to actually read the report,” says Duke. “It’s going to take some time, it is 1,200 pages with 231 recommendations, but it’s not that we don’t have a roadmap. It comes down to everyone having a responsibility in ending violence.”

Angela Treglia, director of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, closed the event with a call to action: “Today we reflect, we remember, but we need to respond. May we all find the courage and strength to take action and speak out against violence against women and may we continue to work for change.”

This article was originally published in the U of T Engineering News.


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