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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 6 | Jun. 2, 2005

Looking for a Few Good Women

Engineering program aims to meet a need for female role models

By Brian Lin

Spending a year with Naoko Ellis has helped UBC mechanical engineering PhD candidate Dana Kulic solidify her conviction to pursue a career in academia. The same journey, however, has led second-year undergraduate student Carmen Lau in the opposite direction.

Ellis, an assistant professor in chemical and biological engineering, met Kulic and Lau through a unique program in the Faculty of Applied Science that provides female engineering students with female role models in a predominantly male industry.

Through the tri-mentorship program, which matches a faculty member or industry leader with a senior student and a junior student, both Kulic and Lau have been able to explore the various aspects of an academic career in engineering and landed on their own path.

Kulic, who worked for several years as a mechanical engineer before returning to UBC to complete her doctoral degree, says she’s now more aware of the challenges -- and benefits -- involved with an academic career.

“I was surprised to find out that Naoko thought her first year as a prof was way harder than doing her PhD,” says Kulic. “There will be a lot more deadlines and various teaching and research expectations.

“I don’t know if I’m prepared, but I’ve been warned,” laughs Kulic.

Lau, on the other hand, doesn’t see herself spending years focusing on one specialized area. “Academia is no longer my first choice. And I’m really glad I found out early on,” she says.

“One of the biggest challenges for women in engineering is the lack of female role models through their formative years,” says Ellis, who has also attended Minerva Foundation conference for B.C. women to help foster greater leadership roles for women.

“And the number of women dwindles as you progress up the academic or corporate ladder. But the benefit is far-reaching so it’s worth the effort.”

“Female engineers will always stand out,” says Kulic. “You’ll walk into a meeting and be the only woman in the room. Then there’s the pressure of balancing your family life.

“I’ve noticed a lot of young female engineers, who do as well as the guys in the first few years, then they get married and take the ‘mommy track,’” says Kulic. “While the guys keep going up, the women get stuck in middle-level positions and can’t seem to advance beyond that. Naoko’s personal experience has given me more confidence in making it work.”

Lau’s concerns were more immediate. Part of the first group of students in the newly redesigned second-year mechanical engineering program, Lau found a steep learning curve that at times seemed insurmountable.

“I had trouble adjusting to the new learning environment,” says Lau. “But Naoko and Dana encouraged me to keep working at it, and reminded me that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.

“And they were right,” she adds.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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