Defence is a Place for STEM Women: A Panel Discussion

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A Place for STEM Women

SCWIST and the Department of National Defence recently partnered for an exciting panel presentation and discussion about STEM careers within the organization.

During the event, Captain Kalina Yurick, Lieutenant-Colonel Melissa Reyes and Lieutenant Commander Calley Gray spoke about their experiences as women working in male-dominated fields, their career paths and the people who inspired them to become some of the top talents in their respective professions.

The event was moderated by Dr. Poh Tan, SCWIST President and Avneet Sandhu, communications officer at the Department for National Defence.

Working in a male-dominated field, how did you get yourself to a place where you felt, ‘I can do this’?

Captain Kalina Yurick: I don’t feel that I’ve faced female-related barriers. It’s been skill-based. 

Lieutenant Commander Calley Gray: I have definitely experienced barriers as a systems engineer. I was first able to talk about it because of an incident in an elevator. I found myself in the elevator with a high-ranking female officer, and I was stunned. I was staring at her and finally said, “I don’t see a lot of women at your rank level.”

“There’s not many of us,” she said, and walked out of the elevator. 

I went to my director and told him I shouldn’t be so unused to seeing a woman in a high-ranking position. 

“We just need more time,” he said.

But I didn’t think that was the case and started listing reasons why. After listening, he asked me to make a presentation, which I then delivered to him and other high-ranking officers, who were all men. 

Within the year – and some right on the spot – barriers were removed. These men had never even known about the majority of the obstacles I was talking about. 

I believe when you notice a barrier, you have a responsibility to address them. 

If I am the only female, it can be intimidating to present to a crowd of men. I feel like I have to put on a front. Do you feel that way?

Lieutenant Commander Calley Gray: The challenge for me was that I needed to find a way to connect with them, so they cared about the cause as much as I do. 

I asked them, ‘who here has a daughter?’ and then they could easily relate, which helped them exercise positive change for the organization.

Lieutenant-Colonel Melissa Reyes: We have equal pay and equal rank. But there are barriers. We don’t get promoted as fast. I’m also a visible minority. So when I first joined, there were a lot of white men and very few women of colour. Now here are a lot more men and women who are visible minorities, but not at the higher levels.

Who are some of the people around you who inspired you to believe you could achieve what you have today?

Lieutenant-Colonel Melissa Reyes: My mother. She came over by herself in the 50s from the Philippines after deciding she wanted to study in the United States. Which was unheard of at the time! And I think that is pretty gutsy. I really respect her for that. She had to go through a lot, and she didn’t have the same kind of support she would have had back home. 

But really I think any woman who is strong and leads and does things to encourage other women is amazing and worth looking up to. 

Lieutenant Commander Calley Gray: I also find my mom an inspiration! To me growing up she was a superwoman. But what inspires me the most is when I see people using their education, skills and background to help others. And when you’re looking for this, you find it everywhere. It really keeps me motivated. 

Captain Kalina Yurick: I didn’t realize who inspired me until I looked back. During my time in cadets and when I was fencing, there were women I looked up to and who I became friends with. And having that network goes such a long way when you’re in a male-dominated industry. 

What does your average day look like?

Captain Kalina Yurick: When I am training the schedule is stable, and I’m home every night. And when I’m not, I’m going all over the world. Which is what I wanted in the first place. So I love it. 

Lieutenant Commander Calley Gray: At the beginning of my career I spent a lot of time on a ship and sailing. Then I went to Ottawa and used that experience to work on ship design. I became the head of the marine systems engineering department. As the leader of this department, you have to make sure the ship can float and move – meaning that the engines work, that you have running water and flushing toilets. Really everything you need to keep the ship functioning. So my day was split between training and maintenance. 

Later on in my career, I became a project manager. This is more stable with less travel. This is really cool too because you get to see your projects come to life. 

Lieutenant-Colonel Melissa Reyes: I’m a space nerd. When I started out, I travelled all over. But now what I’m doing now is helping expand our space capabilities, such as satellite communications. But my specialty area is surveillance from space – looking down and up. Because there is a lot of debris up there that we have to watch out for. A piece of debris the size of a pebble can cause a lot of damage, and we need to know when that kind of stuff is coming our way. 

And space is so infinite and broad that we’re realizing there are so many things we can do. We’re implementing some cutting-edge technology out there. There are a lot of little niches to fill out in space.

SCWIST would like to extend its deepest thanks to Captain Kalina Yurick, Lieutenant-Colonel Melissa Reyes and Lieutenant Commander Calley Gray for speaking at this event.

There are a lot of niches to fill in the Department of National Defence too. Learn more about the career, education and travel opportunities at

SCWIST sets up workshops, panel discussions and networking events for the STEM community. If you are a STEM speaker, coach or organization looking to collaborate, please reach out to us. We look forward to connecting with you soon.

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