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Caroline HuangHandout

Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Caroline Huang is a high school student, winner of Sanofi Biogenius Canada and International BioGENEius and Let’s Talk Science Student Intern.

“Hey, it’s the power of women in STEM,” I joked with the rest of the only girls in my physics class. We were the first to finish in a race to complete some trivial energy-related lab, and I gave a half-hearted fist pump to celebrate the occasion. But inside, I was proud because I felt an unmistakable synergy in our pursuit of science problem-solving, the feeling I love most about STEM.

If you ask me about STEM today, I’ll passionately talk your ear off about my latest projects or experiments. However, my enthusiasm for a STEM-related future was not always so apparent. I didn’t bother exploring the depths of science careers that excitingly unfold in front of me today.

Like an unfortunate cliché, a narrative told too often, I am no stranger to the gender gap in STEM. My first realization of this “not belonging” occurred as a ninth-grader first joining my school’s Engineering Club. Besides eventually realizing that I was one of the only girls, if not the only girl there, I could never completely put my finger on exactly what felt wrong. As the typical activities continued, I just thought that I didn’t fit the role of someone who would succeed in science. I now realize that girls like myself, often because we believe the best of people, dismiss or worse, internalize instances of mansplaining and condescension.

It wasn’t until the boredom of the quarantine prodded me to get participate in science fairs as a productive pastime. While I understood that completing a science fair project requires commitment, only when reflecting did I realize that the commitment had blossomed into confidence. I had a feeling of self-assurance that I would wish upon every girl doubting her belonging in STEM. My two projects, one investigating slime mold decentralized intelligence for nerve regeneration, and the other, predicting floods in Southeast Asia using percolation theory, made me enthusiastic about science for the first time.

If not for the pandemic, I would have traveled across the continent representing Canada at international fairs. Even during virtual awards ceremonies, I still cherish the ache of anticipation and the feeling when your name gets called and for just one day, you feel like a total genius.

But the true benefits of science competitions extend far beyond competition day. Participating in science fairs inevitably exposes students to role models from other driven youth to professional judges. Especially at the national and international level, it can feel like you’re a lonely small fish in a big pond. However, take a step back, and you’ll realize you’re a part of something much bigger.

At Regeneron ISEF, one of the world’s premier science fairs, the gender gap has narrowed to nearly equal over time, with 48.3 per cent of the 1,833 finalists last year identifying as female. And let me tell you, the women in STEM at science fairs are a force to be reckoned with.

At the international level, the competitiveness is akin to top-tier sports but rather a battle of the brain over brawn. You’ll spot fellow female scientists who have scaled glaciers to collect data or have coded their way to reinvent cancer diagnosis with machine learning. If you’re lucky, you’ll make friendships with women who will catalyze your knowledge, network, and confidence. For instance, an astounding friend of mine, Patricia Rea, is doing phenomenal research with antifreeze yeast and has taught me protein engineering. She introduced me to the MIT Global Bio Summit where I even gave a short talk, an experience that, unlike the Engineering Club, kept me hooked into science. I had finally found a diverse and inclusive community that empowered me to learn more. I could never have imagined how far grade 9 Caroline has come, and where I will go.

However, I would not be who I am without the mentorship and passed-down support that radiates the women in the STEM community. I am humbled that women like Giannoula Klement, who guide cutting-edge research, women like Bonnie Schmidt, who drive paradigm-changing organizations, and women like Marissa Poole, who lead billion-dollar industries, are the influential yet compassionate leaders that precede my generation. I’m grateful that they were not only willing to have a coffee and chat with an ambitious 16-year-old but be invested in her journey. These inspiring leaders do more than pave the way for girls to come; they look back and use their power to change the narrative. This is true empowerment.

And true empowerment is cyclical. The power of women in STEM is stoked by our achievements but fueled by this community’s influence on one another. As an ambassador for Plan International Canada, I’ve witnessed the impact of a supportive community, even for girls an ocean away. Through my work at Let’s Talk Science, I’ve realized the importance of inclusive STEM education and there is no age too young or old to make a girl believe in herself.

I now recognize that when I have the power, it is my responsibility to foster an inclusive environment welcoming diversity. I take pride in celebrating the accomplishments of my female peers, standing up against microaggressions, sharing opportunities and dropping names, because only by looking after each other do women and girls shift the dial. By reciprocating my gratitude, I realize that I can have an equally profound impact opening doors for others.

On February 11th we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To younger girls, I say find your “science fair”. To my heroes, all the women and allies who look back and uplift the next generation, I say thank you. And to everyone else who should be marveling at what this community has achieved, I say “Hey, this is the power of women in STEM”.