Minerva Mentoring Award 2010
You could say that Patty Rooks took the “rural route” to achieving her career goals.
Growing up in the small hamlet of Burdett west of Medicine Hat,Patty thought she might move to the city to pursue a post-secondary degree in science and perhaps someday become an engineer. But when she expressed that desire to friends and family, she ran up against the brick wall of discouragement.
“I thought it might be great to go into engineering. But then I’d talk to professionals already in the field who’d shake their heads and say, ‘You’re a woman. I’d never hire you.’ Even in school, I received little support from my teachers and counselors because at the time, girls just did not go into science. Instead, I was told that I really ought to try something like nursing, even though I knew it was not for me.”
Undeterred, thanks to what she describes as a “stubborn” streak, Patty went on to the University of Alberta, where she graduated with a sociology degree, majoring in criminology (she later went on to complete her Masters in Psychology). But it wasn’t until two years later, when a ten-inch binder fatefully fell into her lap, that she was able to realize her true passion for science and mentoring others to find success.
“In 1998, when I was a Science Technician at Medicine Hat High School, I was approached about re-starting the Operation Minerva program by having the manual handed to me!’” she recalls. “It was daunting to say the least. But then I reached out to Joyce Luethy (Executive Director of Alberta Women’s Science Network) and she proved to be a tremendous resource and really, became a mentor to me as I figured things out.”
With support from the school faculty at Medicine Hat High School and the Volunteer Board of Directors at Praxis, the first conference that Patty ran was deemed a success. She continued to coordinate Operation Minerva conferences for the next 12 years, organizing the mentor and volunteer network as well as garnering the support of local businesses.
“Minerva is fantastic because you see the girls come in and right before your eyes, they reach the realization of ‘Wow, I can really do this?’ It opens doors for them and gives them the knowledge that they can be anything – aeronautical engineers, not just electrical engineers. They can be x-ray technicians… anything. It’s such an important program.”
Today, Patty is the Regional Operations Director for the Alberta Science Literacy Association, overseeing programs in Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge that connect scientists, schools and communities in order to promote an active lifelong interest in science, technology and nature.
“Our signature program is the Scientists and Engineers in the Classroom program. My role is to provide support for my Regional Executive Directors, be it the training and orientation of volunteers, making partnerships with other organizations and working with school programs to get ‘buy-in’ of the value of bringing in scientists as a hands-on component to student learning,”she says.
Patty also serves on the Palliser Triangle Health Advisory Board of Alberta Health Services, a role she took on to ensure that the voice of rural Albertans is heard in crucial decisions.
“What prompted me was seeing that through the changes in our health system, there was plenty of representation from major centres like Calgary and Edmonton on the councils, but not enough from rural areas. I mean, I live more than 400 kilometres from Calgary and know that for an elderly person or a young mom with a high-risk pregnancy, driving a long distance for care is not always feasible,” she says. “I believe it is vital that the rural voice be heard.”
In her leisure time – of what precious little of it there is at the end of a busy day – Patty enjoys with her husband, her six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. The family is very“out doorsy” she says, and particularly likes camping, swimming, gardening and hiking, which has only nurtured her children’s innate love of science.
“This spring, we built a worm farm for my son’s worm collection and just yesterday, I took my daughter to visit grandpa – and she arrived with a bug in her pocket to show them,” she laughs. “It’s important to encourage them to try new things, to pick things up and to touch them with the reassurance that it’s not disgusting, there’s nothing to be scared of and it won’t hurt them. We shouldn’t hinder that sense of wonder and exploration kids naturally have at that age.”
Patty’s parental approach happens to fit perfectly with her philosophy of mentoring.
“After I graduated from university, I was grateful to find people who helped open doors for me, showed me that what I was doing had value and gave me opportunities. The people I met along the way believed in me at a time when I needed someone to believe in me,” she says, which may be why her life’s work is about instilling confidence in others.
“My best advice for students walking in my shoes is to believe in yourself,” she says. “You can do anything you set your mind to.”