Student Type: Women in Technology Scholarship Recipient

Parmis Mohaghegh

Combining creative thinking and engineering to solve important problems and improve the lives of people 

Creative minds express themselves in a myriad of ways. For Women In Technology (WIT) scholarship recipient Parmis Mohaghegh, that creative problem solving brain paired with an affinity for math has helped her realize her dream of studying Engineering at UBC and to one day develop medical technologies that will save lives. She lists being awarded the Irving K. Barber WIT scholarship as one of the greatest accomplishments of her life, proving that she can do almost anything she puts her mind to. And that is something she couldn’t be more right about.

Originally from Iran, Parmis moved to Houston, Texas when she was a teen and later to Vancouver, BC as an adult to pursue a career in science and technology. Growing up with supportive parents that valued education, Parmis was always motivated to realize her potential. “I was also lucky to be surrounded by ambitious friends and classmates, a lot of whom ended up in science or technology related fields. All of that gave me a lot of courage to pursue what I was passionate about and to not limit myself based on my gender,” she explains. A math whiz and lover of the arts, it was clear to Parmis that she wanted to do something in the sciences field, but she wasn’t exactly sure what that would be until she had a life changing experience at 16.
“There are a few times in life so special that they stand out in the sense that, from those moments forward, life significantly transforms from one kind of perspective to another,” Parmis shares. This transformative experience happened when she was volunteering at a paediatric cancer research and hospital center in Iran. “During my time as a volunteer, I witnessed how a disease like this can ruin children’s lives and the lives of everyone around them. It was heartbreaking to see children suffering so much, but I could still see hope in their eyes as they struggled on, laughing through the pain,” Parmis shares. The hospital had some of the most cutting edge technology in the field and Parmis was able to witness first-hand how science and technology could decrease suffering and save the lives of these children. “Being personally involved with children suffering from a life threatening disease gave me a life goal. I realized if I became an engineer, someday I might be able to solve important problems and improve the quality of life for people.”

Armed with a mission, a brilliant mind, and a strong work ethic, Parmis embarked on her journey at UBC. It isn’t a “cake walk”, and being a woman in the science and technology fields can have its own set of challenges. “Of course, there has been the occasional professor who firmly believes that women’s brains are not fit for physics and mathematics, but I’ve also had wonderful and supportive mentors in all the places that I’ve lived who taught me to believe in my abilities and pursue my passions,” she shares, “That’s why mentorship is crucial for women in these disciplines. Having role models who have found great success shows us that with perseverance and passion we can find our place in currently male dominated fields.”

Being awarded the Women in Technology Scholarship not only enabled Parmis to pursue her studies by way of financial support but, also offered her the extra added confidence boost to become one of those greatly needed mentors. “Receiving this scholarship was a confirmation of my abilities and reminded me that despite how I feel sometimes, I belong in my chosen field,” she beams. “I met great people and gained more confidence to do my part for promoting equality. In 2019, I started volunteering for the women’s advisory committee of the City of Vancouver, which provides advice to Council and staff on enhancing access and inclusion for women in the city.”

After completing her 3rd year in Engineering Physics and her first coop program at the UBC Robotics and Control Lab, where she focused on the development of new artificial intelligence technologies for biomedical engineering, Parmis entered her second coop position with a software company called Thoughtexchange. “I’m working on content moderation and natural language processing,” Parmis explains. “One thing that I always look for in a company is that they provide equal opportunities and value diversity. I firmly believe that a key way to foster creativity in any field is through diversity.”

As accomplished as Parmis is and intimidating as she may seem, she is incredibly humble and believes that anyone can achieve what she has with a little gumption and hard work. “No one feels confident at the beginning. Pursuing a career in tech, while very rewarding, can be a bumpy ride sometimes,” she states. “But if you are passionate about something and are lucky enough to be able to pursue that passion, you owe it to yourself to not let your fears get in the way. As Nelson Mandela says in one of my favourite quotes — ‘Everything is impossible until it’s done’.”

We are so happy to have been a part of Parmis’ story and wish her all the best as she goes on to save lives, change perceptions, and motivate others to pursue their dreams.

Kennedy Rolston

“The journey there will be different for everyone, but you will eventually end up somewhere where you will shine if you continue to follow your interests fearlessly.”

Passion doesn’t always manifest the way you imagine it will. In fact, it will often take you places you never knew you wanted to be. This statement couldn’t be truer for Indigenous Women in Technology Scholarship recipient Kennedy Rolston. Switching degrees after over two years in physics, the Albertan rugby All-star found her calling in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) at the University of Victoria (UVIC) through hard work, perseverance, and an ever-increasing list of personal goals. Now studying climate change and civil engineering, Kennedy believes she owes much of her success to believing in herself and having the financial, community, and personal support of the Irving K. Barber BC Scholarship Society.

Growing up in a household with supportive, academic parents, Kennedy always knew that attending university was part of her path. But like most teenagers, she wasn’t entirely sure what she was going to study. “I was interested in science and math from the very beginning. When I was a kid, I would always say I liked Physical Education best in order to fit in with all the other kids,” Kennedy loved and still loves playing rugby, “but math was always my favourite,” she explains. “It just made sense to me, and I always felt like if I didn’t understand something right away, if I just worked a little harder on it, then I could get it.”

Kennedy’s love of math made physics a natural progression and major at UVIC. But after two full years in, the numbers whiz realized that she was in the wrong program. It was devastating. Although she was excelling in her classes, at the end of her second year, Kennedy’s mental health plummeted. Without leadership or a clear focus, she felt adrift in her life. Hope came in the form of an Oceans and Atmosphere course. “I found that what I was really interested in. I have always wanted to do something that would have a large impact and this, for me, was studying climate change.” With a reignited passion, Kennedy was back on track. But this was only the first hurdle she would come across in her STEM career.

Rolston was now challenged with a longer timeline for degree completion and induction into the working world where she could earn an income. She realized that, without support, she couldn’t afford to chase her dreams. “The biggest barrier for me was a financial barrier. And the Women in Technology Scholarship changed that for me,” says Rolston. Once awarded the scholarship, Kennedy was ready to take climate change by storm. She still, however, had another obstacle to overcome. One that many women in her position have come across.

As a woman studying STEM in post-secondary, staying motivated and confident in a predominantly male environment proved to be one of the most challenging hurdles of all for Kennedy. “I had always heard that there were fewer women in technology and STEM jobs and classes, but it wasn’t until I was in university that I realized to what extent,” Kennedy admits. “Not only were my fellow classmates all men, but nearly every professor that I’ve had in my four years of school has been too. In the 23 STEM courses that I’ve taken, only 2 of them have had female profs.” This was where the Women in Technology Scholarship helped Kennedy out immensely. “The Scholarship has helped connect me to a network of inspiring women who have the same passions as me and to other indigenous community members who are supporting me,” says Kennedy. These challenges are also what have given Kennedy a new purpose to add to her roster. “I need to be a role model for future women and that gives me drive to make a difference.”

“Since receiving the scholarship I’ve been doing really well!” Kennedy enthusiastically states. She has since received a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Undergraduate Student Research Award which allotted funding for her research on atmospheric physics. She is preparing for her third co-op term, is hoping to go on an exchange to conduct research and engineering work in an Indigenous community in Australia and has lined up an opportunity with a local engineering company. Not one to become idle, Kennedy also works part-time and coaches her high school rugby team. The Women in Technology Scholarship has helped her believe in herself so she could turn her dreams into reality. “Perhaps most important of all, the scholarship was a reminder that I had earned my way to where I am today. Big dreams require lots of work, and receiving this scholarship reminded me that I have other people supporting me while I work towards my goals,” Kennedy shares. “All of the things that I’ve worked towards so far are successes in themselves.”

You are already a success in our eyes Kennedy! We wish you all the best in your future and have no doubt that you will be able to help other women in STEM and make the world a cleaner, more sustainable place — all while likely squeezing some rugby in there somehow.

Lorelei Guidos

Mentorship is key for women studying in technology  

Some people are destined to be heroes — people that view roadblocks in life as lessons to learn from and share with others. Lorelei Guidos is one of those people. A major in Software Engineering, she has carved out a purpose for herself in technology with the hopes of one day becoming a teacher and mentor to young women in need of leadership. And the Women in Technology Scholarship she received from the Irving K. Barber BC Scholarship Society has been pivotal in helping her get closer to achieving her goals.

Originally from Salmon Arm BC, Lorelei grew up with a supportive and encouraging family. “My parents pushed me to always do my best and they instilled the idea that my sister and I could always do whatever we wanted,” Guidos explains. Her sister especially was an imperative influence in Lorelei’s life. Without role models in the technology fields to look toward, Lorelei’s sister became the driving force in convincing her that she did not have to settle for her unfulfilling trajectory as a business major and instead could pursue a career in Engineering at Thompson Rivers University. “There are so many systemic barriers preventing young women from even considering pursuing a career or education in the technology sector,” Lorelei states. “You just don’t see many around”.

Beyond the gender barriers Lorelei faced, she also fought personal battles with mental health while pursuing her education. Although she continues to manage those challenges, Lorelei is driven to conquer each day by a greater purpose than personal success. She is motivated by the desire to one day become a teacher of technology so that she can give to others what she did not have. And that might help to relieve some of the mental pressures that her students may feel when embarking on this big chapter of their lives. “I believe that women need to see other women finding success and joy in these fields. I never had a strong female in the technology world to inspire me to pursue engineering or any science, and I know that having that influence would have led me to my engineering studies earlier,” says Guidos.

But those obstacles have not stopped Lorelei from making up for lost time. Now in her third year of Software Engineering, she has been the top female in her classes, one of the top students in her program, and is the vice president of the Thompson Rivers University Students’ Union Engineering Club. But it does not stop there. “While I am proud of what I have been able to do for the university, the accomplishment that I take most pride in was becoming an instructor and coordinator for the CanCode initiative through the EUReKA! Science Program at TRU,” Guidos shares. “This outreach is very important to me because my long-term career goal is to teach students about technology and software.”

Even with all those academic achievements under her belt, Lorelei still says that being awarded a Women in Technology scholarship in 2019 is her greater accomplishment to date. “It showed me that I deserve to be here and studying technology,” Lorelei beams. “It also allowed me to meet some incredible people. Receiving the Scholarship allowed me to focus less on the financial aspects of school and more on what I love about it, which is learning. It paid for my entire third-year’s worth of tuition, which is incredible,” she continues. “I will continue to strive for excellence in my studies, I will continue to represent my university and program, and I will continue to share my experiences with everyone who will listen to me because of what it could mean to them.”

Some mentorship advice Lorelei would like to share with those thinking about applying for scholarships: Do not be intimidated. “The world is out there waiting for you to show up and yell “I’m here!” Also, ignore stereotypes and societal pressures. I basically only knew how to turn on a computer before I started university and now… I’m in my third year of software engineering and loving it!”

We wish Lorelei all the good luck and prosperity in her journey toward becoming a leader for young women in tech and beyond.

Haley Waldhaus

Validation to pursue the exceptional integration of arts and mathematics. 

Working hard, contributing to the community, owning leadership roles, and excelling in the sport of your choice are all substantial accomplishments. But nothing quite reinforces the weight and merit of those selections as external validation.

This was very true for Haley Waldhaus, a recipient of a 2019 Women in Technology Scholarship ($10,000) awarded to her by the Irving K. Barber BC Scholarship Society. The funds she received are going toward her University of Victoria Civil Engineering tuition.  However, “the biggest thing is the confidence boost, and the affirmation that comes with the Scholarship.  The knowledge that someone else believes in my abilities. This helps me focus on my community,” she concedes.

During Haley’s childhood and youth, the idea of civil engineering never came up as an option. “I found it difficult to imagine what a woman in STEM would look like—no one said ‘you should go into engineering.’ It took a female science and mathematics teacher, to plant the engineering seed. That seed took root and flourished. “That teacher was pivotal,” Haley acknowledges with gratitude.

Now in her third year of study, Haley is on the third of four co-op placements. Currently, she is with Vancouver International Airport working under a mechanical specialist. She’s learning about building engineering and thermal comfort. Haley’s first co-op was with a consulting services company in Courtenay, where she was involved in land development and the early concept design of a sustainable tiny home community. Haley spent half her time testing concrete strength and soil stability and learning about environmental contaminants. Her second co-op was with a company engaged in civil design including utilities and subdivisions.

This range of projects that Haley has worked on speak to her curiosity and appetite to explore. “The diversity of the field and ability to evolve as one’s knowledge and interests become more focused” drew Haley to civil engineering. She also appreciates the exceptional integration of arts and mathematics, her two greatest passions.

Throughout her life, Haley has had to negotiate and manage anxiety. A dedicated and once-competitive dancer, she finds this activity helps her build confidence. There are very few women in civil engineering, and though Haley knows “we are all working towards the same goals,” at times being in a male-dominated industry has been trying. More women are enrolling in engineering today, thanks in part to scholarships like the one she has just received, and business-based initiatives focused on increasing diversity. Haley is excited to be part of a new mentorship program at UVic that helps female students navigate engineering.

Down the line, Haley is considering research or entrepreneurship in environmental sustainability and the development of community energy systems and safer building materials and construction practices. However, more schooling is at the top of her list for now.

Haley has a few important notes for any woman contemplating engineering:

“Always, always believe in your abilities and what makes you unique—your ideas and perspectives have a place in engineering. People in engineering are so diverse. Everyone comes from a different place and has something different to offer.”

We are so proud of your accomplishments Haley and are excited to be on this journey with you.

Marlie Russell

My Brain Wasn’t Made To Memorize Microbes. 

Q & A with Marlie Russell, computer science, UBC Okanagan

When British Columbia was burning in 2017, UBC Okanagan computer science student Marlie Russell was out there fighting the fires near her home town of Williams Lake. She credits hauling heavy equipment up mountainsides in scorching heat for sharpening her work ethic, devising workarounds on faulty pumps for honing her troubleshooting skills, and proving herself on the fire-line with the support of her crew for strengthening her self-worth — all skills she knows she’ll need as she carves a path for herself and for other women in computer science.

The Irving K. Barber British Columbia Scholarship Society recognizes Marlie as a trailblazer in her field with the 2018 Women in Technology Scholarship ($10,000).

We caught up with Marlie to get the scoop on her connection to tech.

Q: Can you give us a snapshot of your current interests in computer science?

A: Computer science is all about problem solving, and my favourite problems to solve involve figuring out the most efficient way to store and access data under certain circumstances. With this, I want to move back to the Cariboo (where I’m from) and work in the natural resource industry.

Q: Why is scholarship support important for young women in the tech community?

A: Women should know that they have a huge range of career options, including a career in technology. The Women in Technology Scholarship has incredible value in encouraging women to pursue a career in technology by increasing awareness that this option exists, and that it can be an incredibly rewarding field to be in. I didn’t actually know that computer science was a field of study until my second year at university!

Q: What drew you to tech? And specifically to computer science?

A: I was studying biology and chemistry previously, but I don’t think my brain was made to memorize hundreds of microbes! A few of my crew members in firefighting were studying engineering, and I always eavesdropped on their conversations when they talked about their studies because it sounded so much more interesting than what I was learning, so I switched to mechanical engineering where I took my first coding course. To my surprise (and everyone else’s), I was good at it and I loved it, so I switched my major again, and I’ve been studying computer science since.

Q: What have been some of your challenges as a woman in this field?

A: The biggest challenge has been scouting out other women in my classes and grabbing a seat next to them! We usually make friends fast, then make more friends with the students around us, so our study groups are always a mixture of men and women. This is incredibly helpful, since we all approach problems differently — and to solve complex problems, it’s important to have as many perspectives as we can get.

Q: What do K–12 schools need to change in order to better support girls in their pursuit of computer science, engineering and math?

 A: The biggest change would be increasing awareness, and that has already been happening. My younger brother took a coding course in high school, but I had no idea our school even offered it. I was determined to be a doctor, so I only looked at the biology and chemistry courses, and had horse-blinders on for technology courses, but I am certain that there are plenty of elementary and high school students who would get a lot of value from technology education if they knew it was there.

Q: What advice do you have for girls who are considering studying or working in tech?

A: Start by taking an intro to coding course. The first step is to learn the language, then you learn how to use it. If you enjoy creative problem solving and logic, then try computer science — but also know that you have the freedom to choose any career path you want. Don’t go into technology if you don’t want to, but please don’t discard it as a potential career until you have explored it enough to know it’s not for you. And for the record, I think working in technology is marvellous.

Q: What’s your dream job?

 A: My dream job? I would actually love to be a mom! Since I also love computer science, working in technology is perfect for me: I can work from home if I need, and have flexible hours. I’d be doing my two greatest passions, so . . . could life get any better?

 Congratulations, Marlie. We wish you all the best as you push yourself to ever greater heights.

Stay posted for more profiles of our winners of the Women in Technology Scholarship. This scholarship is a significant opportunity to support women’s advancement in the fields of engineering, math and computer science in British Columbia. If you’re a young woman in tech, or if you know of someone who is, spread the word: there’s a whole new round of applications slated for 2019!

Natella Jafarova

I Thought That Only a Genius Would Pursue a Math Degree. 

Q & A with Natella Jafarova, statistics, University of Victoria

When she was a little girl living in Azerbaijan, a career in math and statistics was most definitely not on Natella Jafarova’s radar. Despite her interest in math from an early age, her relatives encouraged her to pursue occupations that were “more appropriate” for women. All that changed when her family moved to Canada during her middle school years. Suddenly, Natella was surrounded by educators who encouraged her to learn more and excel in her studies — so she did, seizing every learning opportunity that came her way.

Natella’s learning and achievement is still going strong: she is one of ten recipients of the 2018 Women in Technology Scholarship ($10,000) from the Irving K. Barber British Columbia Scholarship Society.

Here, Natella describes her path to success.

Q: Tell us about your current interests in your field.

A: As a statistics major I am highly interested in — you guessed it — data. More specifically, I am interested in the analysis of big data in order to find patterns and make decisions based on the outcomes. We live in the age where data is constantly being recorded, and I believe that we can gain a better understanding of world problems if we analyze the patterns within data.

Q: What do you love about math and stats?

A: I love how logical it is. When I was studying biochemistry, most of my studying was memorization, which gave me little opportunity to think for myself. But when I switched into mathematics/statistics, I found that in class we were given a set of tools to use on solving a problem. So, when faced with a problem, there was always a logical way to get to the answer using various mathematical methods, which for once made me think outside the box.

Q: Tell us about yourself in high school. Were you a math nut?

 A: Surprisingly no! I was pretty good at math, but at the same time I was terrified of it. In my mind, I thought that only a genius would go into post-secondary school to pursue a degree in mathematics, which I am definitely not. However, soon after starting university and seeing many of my peers (who had an affinity for the subjects that they were studying) start failing their courses, I realized that a person’s natural ability is not enough to succeed. While it does help to have an affinity for certain subjects, you will not thrive unless you study hard and remain determined to succeed no matter what. This is what eventually led me to realize that I was capable of succeeding in mathematics, which prompted me to switch majors from biochemistry to statistics.

 Q: What do K-12 schools need to change in order to better support girls in their pursuit of computer science, engineering and math?

 A: When I was in high school, we did not have any exposure to programming in a classroom setting. It was very much pen-and-paper traditional learning, which I think did little to help us explore what was out there. Nowadays, people in the industry will rarely do anything that involves pen and paper, as most things are done by programs. I graduated from high school just over four years ago, so this was the standard way of teaching very recently. I’ve heard that schools are now trying to implement more tech-focused learning in K-12, which I think is amazing. I actually have a friend who recently did her teaching practicum in a grade 4 classroom, where they were teaching programming. It looked like a great opportunity, and the kids had created some cool looking projects by the end of the term. I think if programming was to become a part of the curriculum, more girls would become interested in pursuing computer science/engineering/math.

Q: As you see it, where are some of the biggest opportunities for women in tech?

A: With BC’s tech industry alone generating just over $29 billion in revenue and providing over 100,000 high paying jobs, I think that there is an immense amount of opportunity for women to pursue careers in the field. New start-ups, as well as established companies, are constantly on the lookout for hiring talented individuals. With such a tremendous amount of companies to choose from, I don’t see women having a hard time finding opportunities which they feel passionate about in the tech field.

Q: What advice do you have for girls who are thinking about studying or working in tech?

 A: I say do it if it makes you happy. Obviously, the tech industry isn’t for everybody, but if you enjoy solving diverse problems on the daily, then I suggest that you explore what the tech industry has to offer. I think a lot of young people are pressured to choose their career paths from a very young age, but then halfway through their degrees regret their decisions (this had actually happened to me). But they still continue with their chosen path because they are already so far along in their studies. The great thing about the tech industry is that you can start your career at any point in your life. I have seen people from many different educational backgrounds who are now working in tech and have prosperous careers there. So, it’s never too late to start!

Q: What’s your dream job?

A: This is a tough one because I want a job where I am constantly learning and growing with my interests, and having a single job title may not encapsulate all of that. However, based on my current interests, I think that data science is where I want to eventually end up, as it will allow me to build algorithms and use statistical methods to find and analyze big data.

Thanks, Natella — and congratulations again. We wish you all the best in your studies and in your career.