Helping women and girls see a future in STEM

How teachers play a role in promoting scientific identity

Date published: 2024-02-12 10:00:00

Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics of Black Holes Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo with students and employees of Parité sciences at the Eureka Festival in Montréal in May 2023. From left to right: Azin Mohammadi, Rebecca Hamel, Mirjam Fines-Neuschild (Parité sciences co-founder), Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo and Blanche Mongeon.

Photo: Parité sciences

Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo has been interested in science since her early school days. Lots of girls feel the same, studying and excelling in the sciences from elementary school through high school. But few pursue those studies past graduation: women make up just 20 percent of university science classes. Today, Hlavacek-Larrondo is the Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics of Black Holes at the Université de Montréal—and through the Parité sciences initiative, she’s working to clear a path for more girls and women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“Everyone should be able to choose a career they love without being held back by societal biases,” she says.

The importance of mentors

Astrophysicist Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo mentoring high school student Geneviève Sarrazin. They are both in front of a whiteboard filled with physics equations.

Astrophysicist Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo mentoring high school student Geneviève Sarrazin. This is the kind of initiative Parité sciences does—using real examples to show young female students what science is about with the goal of building scientific identity.

Photo: Marie-France Bélanger, Les Années Lumière (in French only), Radio Canada

Through her research, Hlavacek-Larrondo is investigating some of the most extreme phenomena in the universe: the supermassive black holes at the heart of every galaxy. Using artificial intelligence to make sense of the massive quantity of data generated by advanced telescopes, her team has learned that black holes have been playing a fundamental role in how galaxies are formed going all the way back to the formation of the universe more than 13 billion years ago. The team will also be among the first to get access to data from the new XRISM telescope, launched from Japan in 2023.

Earning her place at the forefront of supermassive black hole research took hard work, dedication and the support of key mentors along the way. That started with Hlavacek-Larrondo’s own mother, who was so passionate about chemistry that she moved from Chile to Russia to get her education. This showed Hlavacek-Larrondo that it was possible to overcome any obstacle in pursuit of your goals. Numerous teachers and professors also encouraged her to keep challenging herself, from studying the physics of teleportation in high school to applying for and getting accepted into some of the toughest postsecondary astrophysics programs—including Cambridge University, where she earned a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics, and Stanford University, where she was a NASA-funded Einstein postdoctoral fellow.

Despite her own success, Hlavacek-Larrondo couldn’t help but notice the relative lack of other women and racialized minorities around her throughout her education and career. While she has always prioritized mentoring the next generation of female scientists, in 2020, she and colleagues Mirjam Fines-Neuschild and Jean-François Arguin founded Parité sciences to expand the scope of that work.

To be it, first you have to see it

Two young girls in purple t-shirts and blue jeans are standing behind a table with a black tablecloth. On the table, there are 4 letter-sized posters standing on makeshift cardboard easels featuring famous women scientists.

Two students volunteering at the Parité sciences booth at the event, “Les filles et les sciences,” in Montréal in October 2023.

Photo: Maria Delgado

One of the biggest factors influencing whether girls pursue science is the concept of scientific identity— their capacity to envision themselves as scientists.

“If you ask a group of kids to draw a scientist, most of them will draw a white male in a lab coat,” says Hlavacek-Larrondo. “That default understanding of what a scientist looks like keeps girls and minorities from seeing that as an option for themselves. But the good news is that scientific identity is something you can change and build over time.”

Because teachers play a big role in establishing scientific identity and encouraging girls’ interest in science, the Parité sciences team decided to focus on the classroom. They developed a one-hour online workshop that presents 10 small adjustments teachers can make in the classroom to develop scientific identity in all students.

For example, rather than having teachers call on individual volunteers to answer a question (which tends to highlight the same small group of students—usually boys—who are confident enough to raise their hands), Parité sciences encourages teachers to have students discuss the question in small groups, before coming together to collaboratively build the answer as a whole. This elicits increased participation from more students and helps students recognize their own ability to make meaningful contributions.

The free workshop is supported by a toolkit of resources, including infographics and examples of the many possible careers available in STEM. The material is also available as a three-hour self-guided course that counts toward Quebec’s continuing education requirements for teachers.

More women in STEM means better research

Since its launch in 2021, Parité sciences has provided training to 900 educators, reaching an estimated 42,000 students in Quebec. The initiative has received more than $800,000 in federal and provincial government grants as well as private donations and has been presented at multiple conferences. This included the Atlantic Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Conference in February 2023, which has led to plans to expand the program to the Atlantic provinces.

For Hlavacek-Larrondo and her colleagues, that’s just the beginning. They hope to one day see the program expand across the country and include more focus on other underrepresented groups.

“It’s about social justice, but it’s also about better science,” says Hlavacek-Larrondo. “The biggest results I’ve ever achieved have come when I’ve incorporated more perspectives. Because more diversity leads to better, more innovative results.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo’s work to support women and girls in STEM, visit the Parité sciences website, where all workshops, courses and resources are available free of charge, and watch this video (in French only).