Quantum Leaps: How STEM and Feminism are Catalysts for the Future

Maia Poon, Chair, 2020 Quantum Leaps Burnaby STEM Conference for Girls

Hello, SCWIST! My name is Maia Poon. I am the Chair of the 2020 Quantum Leaps Burnaby STEM Conference for Girls, and I previously served as the Marketing Director. My experience with Quantum Leaps and SCWIST has largely shaped who I am, in terms of my values of diversity and empowering others, as well as who I hope to be, someone who continues to give back to my community while creating change through science and words.

Being sixteen-going-on-seventeen, a Grade 12 student, is, to be blunt, scary. These days, many of my conversations and even thoughts are geared towards my future — graduation, university, potentially moving out and living on my own — and the future, as for everyone else, is uncertain. So for myself and my fellow students, it is important to know what is certain in our lives and what is unique to us, because this will allow us to carve our own paths.

For instance, I am a feminist who is proud to be interested and involved in STEM. Ever since Grade 5, when I discovered the stories of Nellie McClung, one of the Famous Five suffragists who fought for Canadian women’s right to vote, and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for girls’ education who was a victim of terrorism, I wanted to speak up for gender equity and diversity as well. This led me to give speeches on the importance of education for boys and girls alike to break the cycle of poverty in developing countries, and to write feminist articles for my school newspaper about female empowerment around the world.

Most significantly, I participated in the 2016 We For She Conference on Gender Diversity, where I attended a SCWIST panel about mentoring. Upon learning about SCWIST and its mission to create “an environment where women and girls in Canada can pursue their interest, education, and careers in STEM without barriers,” I knew that I wanted to become involved in this community.

I participated in my first SCWIST event in 2018: the Quantum Leaps Burnaby Conference at Simon Fraser University. Quantum Leaps is an event created and sponsored by SCWIST, which has been run by high-school students across the country since 1990. At Quantum Leaps, I met like-minded girls with similar aspirations and interests, role models including university students and professors, and I discovered new STEM fields and careers. The genetics workshop was particularly eye-opening; I was drawn to medical genetics and its application to oncology, an area I hope to explore further in my post-secondary studies.

Because of the significant impact Quantum Leaps had on me, I applied to the Quantum Leaps Burnaby Executive Team. I wanted to make the opportunities in STEM more known and accessible to a wider audience, because I have witnessed my fellow female classmates become discouraged in STEM classes, believing that they are simply not good enough to pursue these areas, when just like any other skill, STEM requires practice and perseverance to learn. I was delighted to be selected as the new Marketing Director because I could connect young women to role models and new opportunities.

L-R: The 2019 Executive Team had myself as Marketing Director, Michelle Mai as Graphic Designer, Vaishnavi Ravikularam as Chair, Sharon Ho as Social Media Director, Hannah Garampil as Secretary, and Emily Leong as Treasurer.

Our team first met in October 2018 to start preparing for the fifth annual conference in April 2019. The six of us worked hard to obtain sponsorships from various organizations to keep participation accessible, communicate with many inspiring women in STEM to recruit mentors to lead workshops and give keynote speeches, and organize logistics with our host, SFU. We had our challenges, including not one, but two speaker cancellations just a few months before the big day, but we motivated each other to continue working toward our goal of more female representation in STEM.

My role taught me the importance of breaking a large goal like gender diversity in STEM up into feasible steps that can be accomplished with close collaboration. My first action item was to update our conference mission: “We strive to empower female high school students to pursue their dreams in the STEM fields.” Using my strengths of writing and communication, I initiated ways to promote and raise awareness of our cause. The Social Media Director, Shannon, and I connected with other youth organizations to cross-promote each other’s events. The Graphic Designer, Shannon, created beautiful posters that we posted at high schools and community centres across Metro Vancouver.

Through this outreach and writing posts on our website, we reached our goal of increasing participation to 50 conference attendees. We had nine workshops led by SFU and UBC professors and graduate students, as well as women working in STEM companies and organizations. Another highlight was our two inspiring keynote speakers: Dr. Jenny McQueen, a previous SCWIST Director of Outreach and the manager and main instructor of the Future Science Leaders program at Science World, which I was part of, and Sint Moe, a Computer Scientist and Product Manager who offered to mentor any students interested in her field. Myself and a team member were emcees, and we expressed our gratitude to the huge community behind us supporting the girls, including SCWIST for their support and generous sponsorship.

I am now proud to be serving as Chair for the 2020 Quantum Leaps Burnaby Conference. I initiated the theme “Change Making,” and the new executive team (each year, with girls moving on to university and new paths, we recruit new leaders) and I are developing a conference that will explore answers to the question: How can STEM be used as a catalyst for change? With workshops and speeches on environmentalism, diversity, how STEM shapes global policy and more, this conference will inspire the future generation of leaders and change-makers. I am very excited to have SCWIST member and Science and Technology Advisor at 10X Genomics, Adriana Suarez, and Sumreen Rattan, an SFU Mechatronic Systems Engineering Student, and founder of Moment, a new tech startup to help people with anxiety as our keynote speakers. We are still seeking sponsorship (in-kind and monetary), recruiting workshop leaders and happy to have booths for organizations during lunchtime, so if you or someone you know are interested in supporting our conference, please contact me by email at [email protected] And of course, if you know a high-school girl who would like to participate in the conference, tell her to follow us on Facebook and Instagram, or check our website for details on how to register! With each successive conference, more girls like me will be empowered to forge their own paths in STEM and commit to more inclusivity of minority groups in these fields.

Girls exploring cell slides online in the workshop facilitated by Natasha Orr, UBC Reproductive and Developmental Sciences PhD student.

In October 2019, I presented my work with Quantum Leaps and my journey in STEM thus far at the inaugural Fall SCWIST Social, hosted by past President Maria Issa, where present and founding members, President Kelly Marciniw, Board Directors, and high-school girls gathered to celebrate achievements in STEM gender equity. I was astounded by how my friend Alexa Bailey has been inspiring girls to explore and persevere in math through her organization Girls to the Power of Math, and Angela Zhou’s robotic arm that could sort recycling was an amazing innovation to witness in action. It was also privileged to meet Directors Vienna Lam, Khristine Carino, and Heidi Hui, who were integral parts of my connection to SCWIST, through Quantum Leaps and the opportunities to attend the social and write this article.

Listening to Founder Hilda Ching speak about the progress made in inclusivity and opportunity for women in STEM since SCWIST was founded in 1981 resonated strongly with me. I feel so fortunate to live in a time in Canada where I can enter any field with very little judgement and prejudice based on my gender. As well, hearing about (and benefitting from) the extensive network that Maria has developed, in part through SCWIST, was very touching, with Maria calling Hilda her “SCWIST mother.” Generations of women in STEM helping one another grow and learn is exactly the community I hope to continue to be a part of throughout my career. It surprised and honoured me when the women in the room concurred that the younger generation’s work was equally inspiring, as an insight to the continuing progress towards diversity in STEM.

So what’s next? The future, once again. But I am more excited than nervous to become more involved in SCWIST and its mission, as a university student in Health Sciences or Life Sciences, potentially Medicine, and then eventually, as a working woman (I keep it vague on purpose because who knows where I will end up?). I would like to continue my volunteer roles with the West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation programs for pediatric oncology patients and their families, and the A.S.K. Friendship centre for seniors with chronic health challenges, which combine healthcare and creative arts through reading, performing music, and leading arts and crafts. I love writing, both creatively and academically, and I believe that communication is essential for any field of change one wants to enact. One of my goals is to write at least one novel!

With the support of kind mentors, I am currently continuing on from my Work Placement at the BC Cancer Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre with a personal research project combining bioinformatics and laboratory work, on the roles of genes in hepatocellular carcinoma (a type of liver cancer). Like I mentioned above, Maria has so many connections, and she happens to have been a researcher at the site of my other Work Placement, the UBC Centre for Blood Research. Through these two placements, I know that careers in STEM are opportunities for anyone who has the passion to work hard to create change, with many people having successful and rewarding careers and family lives simultaneously. And I have gotten to work with blood and polyps!