Mentor of Distinction
“A lot of people are scared of math. There’s this idea that math is this innate talent that you’re born with, which is a bad attitude to approach it with.”
Leah Hackman, a computing science PhD at the University of Alberta, knows the importance of mentors first hand. Influential mentors in her early educational life include her grade 11 math and grade 12 calculus teachers Mariko Edo and John Campbell. Leah stated that she was always doing math and puzzles but she thought she was bad at it for a long time, even when doing well in math competitions and throughout her school years. The influence of her teachers helped her realize that math was not an innate talent, that it was just like everything else – a skill you can build up over time.
It was in grade 11 that she realized that she really liked math, and applied to the WISEST program in the computing science department. When deciding upon a choice of a major later on, Leah was torn between math and music, another subject she loved in school. Leah chose math and believes that without WISEST, she doesn’t know if she would have figured out her choice of a degree as easily.
In WISEST, Leah also experience the benefits of mentorship, this time with peer mentors. Students she met when she was only 16 were completing their fourth year of undergrad, and as she progressed in her own degree, were always one level up for her. The relationship with these older students inspired Leah and she has carried that on in her own mentoring. Leah is the “unofficial grad student fairy godmother” in the computing science student’s group “Ada’s Team”, mentoring students younger than her in a way she herself was mentored.
Faculty support is also incredibly important to Leah’s success. During her master’s degree and after putting a great deal of effort into one project, she had to switch projects and take longer to finish her degree. This was an emotional decision, and Leah feels that her supervisor was extremely supportive in the decision to have to start again.
As a woman in a mostly male dominated industry, Leah is aware of the challenges women in computer science face. She felt like an outsider among her male colleagues, and in feeling that way, it’s all too easy to fall back into the mentality that math is just an innate skill and that she didn’t have it. Leah was fortunate to have great female friends in her department, and that relationship with women in her same situation was very supportive and restored her confidence.
To get kids into science, Leah believes that exposing kids to science early on is very important, in forms such as the toys they receive, the activities they participate in and the opportunities they are presented with. Leah also believes that understanding why the interest in science drops drop off in junior high is important, as well as supporting students in high school and undergrad to continue on with their education in a STEM field. Leah believes that ensuring women are comfortable in their professions is very important to retaining them in their industry, empowering them with negotiation strategies and support groups.
In her spare time, Leah enjoys “traditionally geeky hobbies” such as video games, board games, and science fiction and fantasy novels. In addition, she loves baking, fascinated with the chemistry of it all, and enjoys knitting, sewing and music.