As a Biology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University and the driving force behind WISEatlantic (Women in Science and Engineering for Atlantic Canada), Dr. Tamara Franz-Odendaal has dedicated her professional life to empowering and encouraging girls and women to carve their own paths in the traditionally male-dominated fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

After an exceptional 12 years as NSERC Atlantic Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, Dr. Franz-Odendaal’s term has recently wrapped up. But the work she led together with a committed team will leave a lasting impact that will inspire future generations of women scientists. And, no doubt, her passion for seeing girls and women succeed in science will now manifest in a myriad of other ways.

The creation of WISEatlantic

Dr. Franz-Odendaal has been a Biology professor at MSVU since 2006 and served as one of only five NSERC Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering in Canada since 2011. In her role as the WISEatlantic Chair, Dr. Franz-Odendaal was daily driven by the importance of attracting and retaining women in STEM fields. With the goal of increasing women’s representation in STEM-based careers, Dr. Franz-Odendaal identified the transitional period between elementary school and junior high as a crucial time to engage girls in science.

“Once you’ve made your decision to not do science, then it’s very hard to come back after that and try and do a [STEM] program,” she said. The WISEatlantic program developed programs aimed at connecting with and inspiring science pursuits among young girls in their most formative years, ensuring they had the opportunity to explore and pursue STEM disciplines.

A group of students sitting at a table at the WISEatlantic retreat

Engaging girls in science at just the right time

For over a decade, Dr. Franz-Odendaal’s WISEatlantic program has directly engaged with thousands of participants through science retreats, summer camps, workshops, conferences, and other initiatives.

Over the years, MSVU has hosted 22 WISEatlantic science retreats for girls. Since 2011, the retreats have engaged 1,050 girls and connected them with a total of 195 inspiring role models who have shared their passion for science. The impact of these retreats is evident: a survey conducted among retreat participants revealed that an impressive 93% were inspired to continue pursuing science classes in school.

Various participants working at science labs at the WISEatlantic retreat

Since 2012, WISEatlantic’s Girls Get WISE Junior Science Summer Camps have offered an immersive summertime science experience. “In each of the camps, we would feature as much variety of STEM programming as possible. From chemistry and engineering to physics and computer science,” said Dr. Franz-Odendaal. The overwhelmingly positive response to these camps prompted WISEatlantic to introduce a Senior Science Summer Camp in 2018, aimed at girls who previously attended the junior camp.

Dr. Franz-Odendaal, a developmental biologist herself, led one camp activity where she taught participants about the biology of zebrafish, which included using microscopes. Speaking on the impact these hands-on learning experiences had on the girls, Dr. Franz-Odendaal noted, “When they got to using microscopes in Grade 8 or onward, they already knew how to do it because they spent five days full-time using the instrument during our camps at MSVU!”

A WISEaltantic attendee using a microscope and another attendee holding a hive frame

Fostering retention of women in STEM

Several attendee speaking in a circle at a WISEatlantic ConferenceUnder Dr. Franz-Odendaal’s leadership, WISEatlantic has also played a significant role in retaining women who have already embarked on STEM careers. Through events, conferences, and mentorship, the organization has provided essential support to women who may face barriers in their professions.

“Through workshops and just sharing stories and challenges, we were able to support women who were questioning leaving [STEM],” she said. Emphasizing the impact of creating a supportive community Dr. Franz-Odendaal continued, “It was about knowing that what women were experiencing wasn’t just them and that it wasn’t isolated. Other women were feeling the same things, and we could support one another.”

Dr. Franz-Odendaal’s impact in numbers

WISEatlantic’s impact on both young girls and women is profoundly evident. Through its various initiatives, WISEatlantic has not only inspired countless girls to pursue STEM in school, but the program has also helped them overcome doubts and uncertainties. “We know we have supported women to stay in their careers, and that’s very satisfying,” said Dr. Franz-Odendaal.

She shared a story about the enduring connection between two girls who had participated in the WISEatlantic science camps. The girls attended the camps at the same time, but then their paths continued to cross when they both enrolled in science degree programs at MSVU. “They ended up doing Science here at the Mount and ended up in the same first-year biology lab. They saw each other across the room and they became lab partners. For several years they worked with us in the WISEatlantic program.”

Since 2011, WISEatlantic has…

  • Engaged over 26,000 youth, teachers, parents and professional women in STEM
  • Worked with over 50 organizations in the Atlantic region
  • Engaged over 10,000 students in STEM activities
  • Sponsored 22 professional workshops for women in STEM
  • Enabled over 2,700 girls to interact directly with over 500 professional women in STEM

Dr. Franz-Odendaal expressed her joy in witnessing the transformation of participants she has worked with over the years. She’s seen many inspired to continue on STEM paths – paths that they had not previously considered. “There are so many girls who have come to our programs who were so overwhelmed about what they should do when they finish high school. We showcased all these different opportunities within science, just to say, ‘These are a huge diversity of things you could do if you stick with science’.”

A continuing commitment to equity in STEM

As Dr. Franz-Odendaal’s WISEatlantic program concludes, there is no doubt that her vision to improve the STEM culture in Atlantic Canada and beyond will continue to inspire and empower future generations. Her impact is a testament to the fact that gender should never be a barrier to pursuing excellence in any field.

Moreover, Dr. Franz-Odendaal’s dedication extends beyond WISEatlantic. As a co-founder and Lead Ally of the Canadian Black Scientists Network, she conducts critical research on the experiences of Black trainees in STEM in Canada, while her previous work has also explored the experiences of LGBTQ+ post-docs in Science. Dr. Franz-Odendaal’s unwavering commitment and advocacy will undoubtedly leave a lasting legacy, propelling the STEM community toward a more inclusive and equitable future.