To celebrate International Women’s Day, Scientists in School joins thousands in the global push for gender equality. To honour this important day, we’re celebrating our science workshop presenters. Through their important work and accomplishments across various fields, many presenters at Scientists in School have defied gender stereotypes and misconceptions about women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Today, we’re shining the spotlight on one of our fantastic presenters, Rina Chua-Alamag.
Working predominantly with First Nations communities, Rina Chua-Alamag’s career has focused on knowledge transfer and exchange, program development and evaluation, and diabetes and cancer education. With a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science from McGill University, Rina led a team to develop and implement a provincial colorectal cancer education and screening program to train frontline healthcare workers in Indigenous communities. Her impressive career has seen her in roles such as managing the Aboriginal Cancer and Prevention Team, Population Health Unit at Cancer Care Ontario; a role as Health Promotion Supervisor, Health Services, at Six Nations of the Grand River, and as Zone Dietitian for the Sioux Lookout Zone Hospital.
Today, when she’s not in classrooms presenting Energy Makes It Happen! and Body Works for Scientists in School, she works as a Health Educator for a Family Health Team developing and delivering nutrition-focused education sessions to community members.
We chatted with Rina about why she pursued STEM, who inspired her to follow this particular path and how being a woman has influenced her career.
What is something you wish you knew about STEM when you were a kid?
I wish I realized how much fun it could be! Being a somewhat serious and studious kid, I didn’t always appreciate the joy in the process, not just achieving the end result. This is what I love about Scientists in School programs. They teach us that learning is fun and that science isn’t boring.
What made you choose your field and what do you love about it?
I grew up surrounded by family members in the healthcare field, so that’s where I drew inspiration to do something similar in my career. In high school, I struggled to define a career path, however I knew it would be in science, if not specifically in the health field. Career counselling and aptitude tests helped me discover various opportunities and the field of dietetics. While I was in university doing internship placements, I was exposed to a variety of settings I could pursue. In terms of what I love about my career in dietetics, there is so much satisfaction garnered when you know (and people tell you and thank you) that you have made a positive impact on someone’s health, no matter how small.
Is there someone who inspired you to go in to STEM? Who is your STEM role model?
I don’t recall having a specific role model but rather having a natural curiosity and inquisitiveness that sparked a passion for finding information about the world. However, there were special women who helped nurture my desire to learn and helped shape my career aspirations. As a new immigrant in grade school, the first biggest obstacle to overcome was the culture shock. It can be challenging to find a balance between one’s identity and finding your place in your new environment. A teacher, Ms. Gaba, took me under her wing in her classroom and supported me (and in some ways, protected me) with any challenges I encountered, especially in math and reading. As an adult, although I was well into my career, I remember listening to a keynote address from Dr. Roberta Bondar. I was in awe of her accomplishments but more significantly, inspired by how she handled and overcame challenges.
Should parents, teachers and STEM role models encourage girls to pursue STEM? Why?
Yes, I think this can help. Modelling fosters inspiration. Growing up in my home country (the Philippines), I was never made to feel like being a girl inhibited my abilities to achieve my interests. It was only after we immigrated that I started to hear comments about “supposed” limitations based on how I looked and my background. Some of these comments came from people close to me. Those closest to us—parents, teachers, family, friends, and people we admire—can make a positive impact by encouraging and guiding young people through their aspirations. It’s also critical that children are exposed to how role models handled and overcame challenges. The path to achievement is not often straight-forward or accommodating.
How has being a woman in STEM influenced or impacted your career, if at all?
As a woman, I have been fortunate to have other women support and guide me. There have been male superiors who have been also supportive. However, where women are often nurturing, men have tended to be more matter-of-fact in their approach. Nonetheless, both men and women have taught me important lessons that helped shape the way I navigated career choices.
When kids meet STEM role models who are like them, how does it impact them, if at all?
In a perfect world, I’d like to think that this should not have much impact. All children should be introduced to STEM, and for those who express interest in it, have opportunities to further explore their curiosity and be guided towards opportunities. Our current climate, however, makes this sentiment less and less realistic. In my opinion, divisiveness and intolerance are dominant, more visible than ever before. Role models who are like us can implicitly convey a message that if this person has succeeded, then I too, can forge the same path forward.