Women in Communications and Technology (WCT) launched its Waterloo Region chapter at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics Wednesday with a talk entitled “Curiosity Drives Innovation” – delivered by the woman who is now its most famous member.
University of Waterloo professor Donna Strickland, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work with pulsed lasers last year, engaged an audience of about 150 in an hour-long discussion that included a rainbow slinky, a glass funnel, and, of course, a laser.
She tracked the history of the work that garnered her international acclaim as only the third woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in Physics before diving into the December 2018 Nobel ceremony.
“That’s enough science,” she said, putting away the rainbow slinky. “Let’s talk about going to Sweden.”
Strickland flexed her comedic chops at the chapter launch, telling stories that had the crowd laughing, such as when the king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, escorted her as they led the slow procession into the Nobel Prize banquet.
What, she wondered aloud to the crowd in Waterloo, does one talk to a king about at such a time?
“Anyone who knows me knows I walk fast,” said Strickland.
So she said she whispered to the king: “It’s killing me to walk this slow.”
Along with the laughs, Strickland sprinkled in touching moments about her time in Sweden.
At the Nobel Museum café, Strickland was seated in a chair signed by another famous Canadian Nobel laureate, Alice Munro. “Too Much Happiness!,” Munro signed, along with the date — May 13, 2014. (Munro couldn’t attend the ceremony so the chair was sent to her so she could sign and return it.)
But perhaps the most inspiring moment was when Strickland signed a book that had been autographed by every Nobel laureate. She asked to see the signatures of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and “every Canadian who had ever received the Nobel Prize.”
After Strickland’s talk, she fielded questions from the audience on everything from what would she say to young girls interested in STEM (focus on what you really want to do) to the impact mentors had on her own life.
“I had a strong mother who let me know I could do anything,” said Strickland, “but I also had a dad that supported us in science.”
Mentorship is a key part of WCT. The organization has chapters across Canada dedicated to engaging, inspiring and advancing women in the communications, media, technology, and telecommunications industries.
The Waterloo Region chapter was about six months in the making, said Sherryl Petricevic, who co-chairs the chapter with tech entrepreneur Sherry Shannon-Vanstone.
The push for a local chapter began after Shannon-Vanstone spoke at a WCT meeting in Ottawa.
“Given Waterloo’s position as a technology hub, but more importantly as a greenhouse for incredible women, this chapter is long overdue,” said Shannon-Vanstone.
Companies are focused on gender diversity, but yet women are still underrepresented in top leadership roles, she said.
The chapter is focused on helping women at all professional stages progress in their careers.
“If we can create an environment where women are coming and sharing and growing and learning then I think that’s a good win,” Petricevic said.
“My personal hope is that we start to move the dial in seeing women in leadership roles ... that we start to see women achieving their professional goals, whatever they may be.”
Wednesday’s launch was a testament to that, featuring young women just starting in STEM, such as members of the Falcontech Terabytches, the Fergus female high school students who will fight it out with nine other teams in a national cyber security competition in Ottawa next month, to those who have enjoyed long careers in STEM, such as Strickland.
The chapter has three more events planned. They’ll tackle ethics in artificial intelligence at their next meeting in June, social impact investing in September, and women in politics in January.