Zoe Lord, Sara Nabil and Kristine Spekkens

Passion, mentorship, and research excellence

The United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science recognizes the significant gender gap that has persisted throughout the years at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines all over the world. Three Faculty of Arts and Science researchers are working to ensure women are not excluded from the STEM disciplines.

Masters student Zoe Lord (Chemistry) is currently researching how students learn chemistry in virtual reality (VR) environments. She is particularly interested in cognitive load, which is the amount of working memory a person uses while performing a task.

“My goal is to use machine learning algorithms to predict cognitive load by using Functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) wearables to determine one’s oxygen levels in the brain as well as eye-tracking technologies (fNIRS is a portable, non-invasive, brain imaging technology),” Lord says. “From there, I aspire to propose guidelines to further prevent cognitive overload (i.e., being overwhelmed) as students use VR devices to learn difficult chemistry concepts.”

She says being able to understand how students learn in chemistry is an inspiring venture to pursue. She also has the pleasure of developing new skills throughout the process, where achieving this research study requires coding and video game development. As a unique chemistry graduate student using computer science practices in daily tasks, she was excited in taking the initiative to self-learn coding for VR environments.

Outside of school, Lord is a Scientist-Astronaut candidate for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), where she is concurrently studying Bioastronautics with a concentration in EVA Suit Evaluation.

“Throughout my academic career, many friends and family questioned my choices for studying various STEM fields. Having an interdisciplinary background was not encouraged as it portrayed indecisiveness,” Lord says. “Thankfully, my parents were incredibly supportive of my academic pursuits and strongly encouraged me to continue achieving my goals. I’m extremely grateful for my parents being there for me through the ups and downs of my career. Without them, I wouldn’t be the same woman I am today or possess the strength to accomplish all the things I dared to dream.”

Kristine Spekkens’ (Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy) research focusses on understanding how star-forming galaxies like our own Milky Way form and evolve in the Universe. Members of her research group are experts at using the world’s largest radio telescopes to map the distributions and motions of that gas in nearby galaxies to measure their structure.

“I have always been captivated by the way in which the laws of physics on Earth also apply to the Universe as a whole,” says Dr. Spekkens. “For example, gravity explains both how a ball rises and falls when it is thrown into the air, as well as how gas and stars orbit within galaxies. This means we can understand how vast parts of the Universe work from our vantage point within a tiny corner of it. As an undergraduate student at Queen’s, I was able to build a foundation of knowledge in astrophysics, and I also had the opportunity to carry out research in that field for the first time.”

She says she has benefitted from mentorship across different aspects of STEM at just about every stage of her career, and she is grateful for the support and inspiration that she received from colleagues around the world. “I am passionate about mentoring students at all levels to pursue their own STEM goals.”

Her message to women and girls interested in a career in the sciences? “Find something in STEM that fascinates you and follow that passion wherever it takes you. There are many interesting careers to build in STEM, and following your passion will lead you to the one that’s right for you.”

Dr. Sara Nabil (School of Computing) talks about her inspiration behind her career and her research which integrates interior, fashion, and product design with interaction design, using seamless soft sensing, e-textiles, and smart materials and fabrics that respond to people’s input based on their needs.

“We design interactive spaces and physical objects, but they are not devices or gadgets, they are things people like to craft, wear, or have in their homes, from shape-changing furniture and colour-changing stained glass to multitouch clothes” Dr. Nabil explains. With her work there is a lot of room for personalization and customization.

“I got interested in computing since that looked like where the future was heading. Although being good at programming and coding, I kind of felt an empty heart and I didn’t feel fulfilled. I had a lot of artistic design skills that I wanted to do, that I loved more than anything, so there was always a disconnection between what I wanted to do and what I was good at. What inspired me was bringing those two things together.”

Dr. Nabil also talked about her mentors and how they are some of the research leaders in Human-Computer Interaction, her current area of expertise. She said she was grateful for her mentors while earning her PhD in the United Kingdom, Prof. David Kirk and Prof. Thomas Ploetz where they understood her journey as a single mother of two while earning her PhD (her husband was initially unable to join her in England).

She also points to Carleton University Professor Audrey Girouard, who is a mentor and friend. “She was the supervisor that I worked with that made me think, wow I can do this as a woman. She was the professor I was so fortunate to work with as a post doc. She was a fantastic mentor; she was even very supportive of all the creative ideas I had. You can be a mother, partner or wife, and you can still be a successful and well-known professor in the field. She taught me that. She shaped a lot of what I’m doing now, she made me believe I could do this as a woman in STEM.”

Dr. Nabil says the onus is on her and other researchers in STEM to reach out to undergrads and high school students and show them what’s possible.

Learn more on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science website.