Minerva Mentoring Award 2008
With national statistics showing a decline in students enrolling in engineering and the number of women in the field slowly dwindling, it’s up to engineers to cast a positive light on their profession, says Dr. Josephine Hill.
Hill, an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary and recipient of the Alberta Women’s Science Network’s 2008 Minerva Mentoring Award, says engineers can help spread the word by emphasizing the many ways engineering impacts society.
“We need to talk more about engineering because people don’t realize what it is that we do,” she says. “Unfortunately, there are no TV dramas that feature engineers in the way they do doctors or lawyers or police forensics. So, it’s up to us to get engineering out there.”
The Zandmer/Canada Research Chair in Hydrogen and Catalysis, Hill is involved in researching catalysts with applications to fuel cells and heavy oil upgrading, including ways to cleanly convert heavy oil resources into hydrogen and other useful products. Although chemical engineering is Hill’s discipline, she is keen on promoting “the big picture” so that people realize how their lives are touched by engineering.
She likens the public’s perception to the commercials by the chemical company BASF, which touts its products as the ingredients that contribute to the finished products consumers use daily.
“You’ve heard their ads that say – we don’t make the cell phone, we make the cell phone better? Well, I think that’s a lot like engineering. It’s an enigma and people don’t understand all that goes on with it.”
This past year, Hill had an opportunity to share her message with a young, but nonetheless appreciative audience.
I went to my son’s Grade 4/5 class and did some science experiments with them – making a balloon blow up with Alka Seltzer, creating slime and bouncy balls to give them an idea of how fun science can be. But I also wanted to paint a general picture of what engineering is about. So I asked, ‘Where did your breakfast cereal come from? Ever wonder who made it? Who made your toothbrush? Who made the car you came to school in? Who made the roads you drive on to get to school?’ It all comes back to engineering.
As a past chair of the Gender and Diversity in Engineering Committee, Hill is also committed to ensuring there is a more diverse population in the field.
“Women are every bit as technically competent in engineering as men. I know this fact from working with my colleagues and teaching students. I also know that although women and men may be equally competent, they are not the same,” she says. “Women tend to be less good at marketing themselves and for this reason, we need programs aimed at promoting women in the fields of science and engineering.”
Hill has long been an ardent supporter and participant in Operation Minerva, which takes Grade 8 girls under the wing of a female mentor who is established professionally in science, engineering or technology.
"Especially, we need to pass on a better understanding of who we are and what we do. Programs like Operation Minerva give girls a sense that we’re not all Dilbert,” Hill says.
She is quick to add that students are not only eager to study what engineers do, but seem to find comfort in knowing that their mentors have well-rounded lives outside of work as well.
One of my undergraduate students recently commented to me that it was nice to have a female professor that has a family. When I thought about it, a lot of the female professors I had didn’t have a family. I think that as role models, it’s important to show that we’re about more than what we do at work. That it is possible to build an engineering career while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Hill was recently able to combine work commitments with family fun. She was planning to attend an engineering conference in Australia, when she and her husband decided the trip would be a great opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime family vacation as well.
“It’s certainly one of the positive aspects of this job – how many people can say they get to go to Australia on a conference for work?” she says. “This is just a small example of the many ways we can get the word out about engineering, share our enthusiasm for what we do and make sure the impression we are giving people is a positive one.”