Tamara Franz-Odendaal was a young girl when she first discovered her interest in science. She recalls spending time in her family’s garden in her hometown in South Africa watching insects amongst the plants and flowers and wondering about their behaviour. “Certainly for a scientist, curiosity is the big thing,” she says.
Now a professor of biology at Mount Saint Vincent University where she studies bone and skull development, Franz-Odendaal is inspiring a new generation of girls to love science. As the Atlantic Canada chair of the National Science and Engineering Council in Canada, she organizes workshops for junior high-aged girls to learn about science and careers in the field. Encouraged by the advice of her nine-year-old-daughter Julia, Franz-Odendaal entered a contest called Unstoppable Moms for Unstoppable Girls from Dove. A portion of her prize money was donated to a charity of her choice. She chose the National Eating Disorder Information Center (NEDIC). She was also honoured by the Discovery Centre as a science champion, receiving a Discovery Award for Science and Technology.
Halifax Magazine spoke with her about being a woman in science, what young girls learn about themselves in her workshops and how teachers, industry and parents can work together to break down barriers for girls interested in science and technology.
How do you get girls interested in science?
We run one-day workshops for grades 7 to 12, a couple a year, and they involve two or three hands-on sessions about 45 minutes long where we are doing some science or technology activity, whether programming something or building a bridge … strategizing or problem solving. And then we have a really important session where the girls get to meet women role models who work in science professions and they sit and talk about what my job is like. Then I also launched an all-girls science summer camp, and that goes for one week.
Why target junior-high girls?
Well, ideally you’d like to get them even younger, but I don’t have that much time. But young girls and boys are making decisions in Grade 9 and Grade 10 about their courses. That’s too late to try to get them to do a science career. I thought we could get them a couple of years before they make that decision.
What is the response you get from the girls who take part?
They love it. One of the biggest responses is, “I just didn’t know there were so many careers out there.” The summer camp has been especially rewarding because you can get to really know the girls. And they get so excited. They get to do real lab work in my lab, and they think, “Wow.”
Why do you think girls don’t think of science for a career?
The stereotypes of what scientists look like is still very strong—for example, the older white male in a white lab coat. Parents and grandparents and teachers grew up in a world where these stereotypes were very strong. But now, there are a myriad of careers within science: you can work in a lab, in the field, in an office. And we don’t all wear white lab coats, and there are many female scientists now. Of course, at present, there are more in biology than in, say, computer science or physics.
What can schools, industry and parents do to encourage girls to enter science professions?
Parents and teachers: Seek opportunities to expose youth to science. Talk to them about science. Science is everywhere around you. It’s in the food products [nutrition scientist], it’s in our cosmetic products, it’s in the technology we use. Just ask your kids, “Why do you think the scientists designed this app this way?” Or “Why do think this plant is hardier in winter than another one?” All the answers are science based. So just ask why, even if you don’t know the answer. Get your kids thinking about the world around them. Maybe you want to research the answer with them, too. Industry needs to be more aware about their marketing strategies, [they] need to invite women into their industries, and need to make them feel welcome. Show girls why their industry helps society. A research study showed that if parents engage their kids in the above ways, it can make a big difference to their attitudes toward science.
What do you want to say to girls who are interested in science?
My main message is to keep the doors open. You want to keep the doors open at school and you want to keep those math and science subjects up all the way through. There has been numerous reports in Canada and Nova Scotia that say we are facing a STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] labour shortage. We also feel that bringing more women into the STEM careers would bring more innovation and diversity in the workplace. If you’re in IT designing a new app or a new program, we know that women make most consumer choices. So maybe you should have a woman on your team if they are making the consumer choice? It seems like a no-brainer to me that you’d want women in your profession. I don’t think it’s that the professions don’t want women—I just think there aren’t enough in line to get those positions.