A Symbiotic Asset for So Many

Published: April 19, 2022
Updated: September 28, 2022

APEGA’s 2022 Women in Engineering and Geoscience Champion Summit Award recipient, Dr. Qiao Sun, P.Eng., says she’s faced a lot of failure in her life. “Success and failure are a twin of a reality, and every success comes with failure ahead of it.” She explains it’s easy to see the victories and imagine they’re talent-driven without noting the discipline and work. “I think learning from mistakes and failure feeds into your success and allows you to really grow as a person.”

She imparts this courage to fail on her mentees—those who look up to her successes. Dr. Sun is a symbiotic asset to her students and colleagues at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, where she is a professor, and to the engineers (as the award decrees) working towards gender equity. She works tirelessly to support the successes of her students and fellow faculty members. Even her friends’ and neighbours’ daughters benefit from her wise and lived advice.

Through Dr. Sun’s stories, told between meetings at her standing desk at the university, one begins to understand that unto herself—although she attributes her accomplishments to teamwork—she is simultaneously an educational leader, a government influencer, and an entire grassroots organization. She explains, “Equity and diversity is everybody’s matter.”

Engineering solutions

She is taking the lead to remove barriers to access to the university’s engineering program, allowing for more diversity and attracting students who are academically driven but may not otherwise apply.

Dr. Sun explains one of the barriers students face is the program’s enrollment requirements. The Physics 30 high school course is a requirement for Schulich’s engineering program, but Dr. Sun found students opted out of taking the course for varied reasons, including scheduling conflicts or not knowing the implications of lacking the course when applying for university.

In 2019, Dr. Sun and fellow professors who champion equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives worked with the University of Calgary’s Continuing Education Team to create an innovative solution to the gap in learning. They developed the Bioengineering Summer Institute, which teaches the physics foundational content in four weeks through biology and biosystems lenses and hands-on learning while instilling values such as leadership, confidence, and self-reflection.

“By removing physics as a requirement, we are raising the amount of academically excelling students who are applying for engineering,” she explains. This will improve gender equity in enrollments, as currently, only one third of Physics 30 students are female.

“These students are academically strong and prepared for the course, as they have been successful in math and other science subjects. After they complete the Bioengineering Summer Institute program, they begin the engineering program with more sciences than students who have applied with the regular requirements, setting them up for success.” She says often graduates of the Bioengineering Summer Institute are confident leaders in the engineering program come September.

One person at a time

Dr. Sun often asks the teenage students of her friends and neighbours about what they want to do once they graduate high school. Once, at a Christmas dinner, a young woman hinted interest in becoming an engineer. “She was so scared! Without trying, she had decided she wouldn’t be good. I asked, who gave you this idea?”

The student was also lacking the necessary high school physics course. Seeing potential in the student, Dr. Sun brought her to tour the engineering labs and passionately highlighted the projects and explained how the student’s strengths would lend themselves well to the profession. The student attended the Bioengineering Summer Institute and is now a confident navigator of the school’s software engineering program. “She’s completely different. That’s what really gives me a sense of satisfaction: to see this person found her place. You make a difference one person at a time, and I’m ok with that,” Dr. Sun nods definitively.

While she imparts the same knowledge to students regardless of gender, she notices a discrepancy in confidence between female and male students: female students tend to be more critical of themselves. She believes this is often a by-product of social and cultural stereotypes. She works hard to impart the same advice her parents gave to her. “I try to empower them, to recognize their strength and what their potential is.” She also finds novel ways to lead her classes, so all students feel comfortable asking questions. She queries about the plans of each high school student she encounters, lest there is one promising future engineer left unaware of their problem-solving potential.

With her fellow professors, Dr. Sun helped to create the Diversity Champions in Engineering scholarship for first-year engineering students who promote diversity and inclusivity in engineering. Throughout the application process students must explain what draws them to engineering. They share what their experiences in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields has been like so far, and if they are granted the scholarship, what they would do to  champion equity, diversity, and inclusion. “We want to know how they are going to support other’s successes,” she states.

“If you don’t like it, change it.”

She ponders how Canada is so technologically advanced yet has the problem of gender inequity and under-representation in the sciences. “If you don’t draw talent from that population, you are really missing out. It’s an opportunity cost for the profession and society, and for the people who choose not to go into engineering.”

She furthers providing access to education for everyone is key. By providing access, she doesn’t just mean giving a choice. She means removing the built-in stereotypes under-represented groups encounter from the youngest ages—what they think of as options when they’re asked what they want to do when they grow up. She says everyone must have the ability to picture themselves in these types of roles. “When I see a girl into science, I get instantly excited, because I see myself. It’s the younger version of me there.” She says it’s why she jumped at the opportunity to be the inaugural associate dean of diversity and equity at the Schulich School of Engineering.

Self-reflection leads to success

From the very beginning of her career, engineering felt right to Dr. Sun, which is part of the reason she is so enthusiastic to share it with others who may feel the same. “With engineering skills, you can do things you would otherwise feel powerless to do. Engineering training gives you that attitude—if you don’t like it, change it. This is such a joyful learning—a fulfilling kind of career.”

She has worked hard to build respect with her students and colleagues, which is a testament to her ability to frame each situation as a positive, even if it means morphing her behaviour to adopt and succeed in a foreign set of cultural norms.

She says as a teacher in China, one is given absolute respect. “At home, if you walk in the hallway, and your teacher comes your way, students naturally stop walking and wait.” She says they address the teacher and don’t resume walking until their teacher has passed. “When I came here, I was invisible,” she laughs.

Then, she engaged her aptitude for examining a situation and finding out the best way to use it to her advantage. “I thought, I need to earn their respect. It’s not by default, not just because you’re a teacher. So, I started looking at myself. How do I do that?”

She says now she’s comfortable with the cultural difference and is proud to say she feels respected—students have named her Professor of the Year three times. Furthermore, she’s pleased to have earned that respect rather than having it come guaranteed. She confides the situation improved her teaching skills and gave her a sense of accomplishment. “It’s good for me to not take things for granted.” She worked to understand students better, especially how they learn, so she can support them.

Problem solving for the greater good

“Problems with no obvious solutions energize me. Engineering is a very active kind of attitude.” Dr. Sun explains this attitude is what drives her to continue to improve the world. She recognizes there is more work to do. She is happy to do the groundwork necessary to increase representation in the profession and awareness of engineering while encouraging others to do the same.

“We need to look at the collective power of people and society. If we can empower each other, we can achieve amazing things.”

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Dr. Qiao Sun, P.Eng.

Dr. Qiao Sun, P.Eng.

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