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Lesley Shannon

From Aspiring to Inspiring: Why STEM needs more role models like Dr. Shannon

As the new holder of the Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (B.C./Yukon), Dr. Lesley Shannon believes early exposure to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is critical in raising awareness of the exciting opportunities available for young women in these fields.

Dr. Shannon is an Associate Professor, in the School of Engineering Science at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and it was the advice of her high school guidance counsellor that influenced her to pursue a career in engineering.

This suggestion gave her the confidence she needed to pursue a Bachelor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of New Brunswick, without having ever taken a computer programming class. She went on to obtain a Master of Applied Science in 2001 and a PhD in 2006 at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Shannon studies computer systems design. She works in a rapidly growing field that combines custom computing hardware and software to design and implement application-specific computer systems for applications in a wide range of areas including robotics, machine learning, aerospace and biomedical systems, multimedia applications, and cloud computing.

She stresses the important role of mentorship, “It’s about helping to give girls the right information on the opportunities available to them within STEM, so they can make informed choices when they choose a career path.”

"Young women tend to be attracted to careers where they can help people,” she says. “Yet, they often don't perceive engineering and science as fields that improve people’s lives. Engineering is all about collaborative problem-solving, and women tend to be more collaborative in nature.”

Within Dr. Shannon’s field of computer systems design for instance, the enrollment statistics are bleak. Many universities across Canada are pushing to increase the enrollment of women in engineering to 30 per cent by 2030. In B.C., the number of female computer engineering students is only nine per cent.

Over the course of her career, Dr. Shannon has never been deterred from sharing her passion with students. In fact, working in a predominately male field had quite the opposite effect.

As the faculty lead for SFU’s Women in Engineering Group, Dr. Shannon doubled the female student enrollment numbers from eight to 19 per cent. “If I could get the rest of the province to double their numbers too, I would be happy,” she says.

The industrial partnerships she has developed with companies like Simba Technologies Inc. have played a role in helping to increase diversity. Dr. Shannon will work with Simba Technologies Inc. to develop a Tri-mentorship program where students are connected with mentors who help them develop professional skills and build relationships in their field.

In her new role as chairholder, Dr. Shannon plans to work with Nathalie Sinclair from SFU’s Faculty of Education to determine what factors affect the perceptions held by girls of STEM disciplines and how these perceptions deter girls from choosing careers in these fields.

She will also work with the B.C. Science Teachers’ Association and the Science Fair Foundation of B.C. to reach students from kindergarten to grade 12. She will connect with parents, teachers, and guidance counsellors, who she hopes will assist her in her efforts to increase awareness.

A firm believer that “diversity brings out the best in everyone,” Dr. Shannon looks forward to her new role as the holder of the Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (B.C./Yukon) and to the opportunity to continue mentoring young women about the exciting potential they have to shape and improve the lives of others when they choose careers in STEM.