By Connie Jeske Crane
Three Ryerson biomedical physics graduate students headed to Sherbrooke, Quebec to participate in the seventh-annual Women in Physics Canada (WIPC) 2018 conference, held July 17-20. Some expected outcomes followed – the students gave poster presentations, took home an award and entertained lots of interest in Ryerson’s unique biomedical physics program.
Yet for Ryerson graduate students Morgan Maher, Dana Wegierak and Charlotte Ferworn, their participation had deeper significance as well. As women in a field that is still hugely male-dominated (one 2015 Canadian study showed women account for just 30 percent of doctoral students in physics), conferences like WIPC are a sort of lifeline.
On the one hand, Ferworn says Ryerson is ahead of the pack: “We’re almost 50-50 percent at a grad level and undergrad level in male-female student representation; and at the faculty level, we’re working on it and we’re getting there.” Yet she nevertheless sees female-focused conferences as having a vital role. Most intentionally, WIPC and other conferences, like the Canadian Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CCUWiP) which Ferworn has also attended, are part of a multi-pronged effort to encourage and retain Canadian girls and young women on a physics path. Simply a chance to gather, meet other women in your field and see role models is so powerful, say Ferworn. “It was cool to see so many women in one room talking about their research.”
As for the science itself, Ryerson students made a strong showing this year in WPIC’s poster presentation competition. Maher, whose supervisor is Dr. Michael Kolios, presented her research on “Using High Frequency Ultrasound to Assess the Biophysical Properties of Blood Clots.” Wegierak, also supervised by Kolios, presented her work on “Acoustic-Based Photoacoustic Contrast Agents.” And Ferworn, supervised by Dr. Raffi Karshafian and co-supervised by Kolios, shared her work on “Ultrasound Microbubble Potentiated Therapy as a Modality to Enhance the Cytotoxicity of Pro-Apoptotic Drugs in Prostate Cancer Cells in vitro.” Ferworn says the Ryerson group was especially happy for Maher, who took home a prize for her work.
Curious to hear more about the value of a female-targeted conference, we talked to Ferworn about WIPC 2018. Here are some highlights from that conversation:
Q. What were your biggest takeaways from attending WIPC 2018?
We got to speak to people who are doing research in completely different areas of physics, people who are doing quantum physics research and astrophysics. It was also cool to see so many women in one room talking about their research. And I love networking. I got to meet lots of cool people, and potentially in the future there could be an opportunity to collaborate.
Q. What kind of feedback did you get about Ryerson’s biomedical physics research?
We got great feedback! Biomedical physics is a niche area in physics, especially because it combines so many different aspects of science – biology, chemistry medicine and physics – whereas a lot of programs are more pure physics, pure astronomy or quantum / theoretical physics. Not a lot of the other attendees get to experience what it’s like to apply physics in medicine, like using concepts in physics to develop new treatments or image the body. So we got a lot of interest from people who were doing pure physics and had never thought about applying physics to anything in the body, which is what we do here at Ryerson. Our current research with ultrasound and microbubble imaging and therapy is also having a moment in physics right now.
Q. As a young female physicist, what were your takeaways?
They had a panel where they invited people who specialize in talking about gender bias and how to succeed as a women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This also included researchers in psychology and in the social sciences, where they talked about their research which showed that what you experience as a minority in STEM is not something you’re just imagining. It was interesting to see numbers that support it (especially as I’m a numbers person). Above all, it was nice to see women who have succeeded in STEM, who are in faculty positions, who are doing amazing research. It was a week filled with learning, encouraging, and inspiring moments.
Q. Were any of the presenters particularly inspiring to you?
One really impressive speaker was Laurie Rousseau-Nepton from the University of Hawaii. Her research on “Stellar formation in galaxies as seen by SITELLE” was pretty impactful…She talked about her collaborations, how she approached all of these “big names” in astronomy as a woman in STEM, and some of the struggles she had with some of the less open-minded possible collaborators out there. A lot of people talk about mentorship and there are a lot of great male mentors out there, and they’re awesome, but it’s nice to see someone like yourself in a faculty or leadership position in physics. It was really nice to hear from Laurie about astronomy, especially since you usually hear about it from the same group of men. It was nice to hear about it from a woman.