Six young women entering STEM disciplines in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will begin their studies this year with $12,000 HeForShe IMPACT Scholarships from the University of Waterloo.

The new scholarship program is part of Waterloo’s ongoing efforts to achieve gender equity in academic programs that have traditionally been male dominated. They will be awarded to 24 young women over the next four years for a total of $288,000. The University of Waterloo is one of only ten universities around the world to join the United Nations HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 campaign, a global commitment launched last year to promote gender equity.

British actor Emma Watson,  the UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, said: “I’m so inspired by the University of Waterloo’s efforts to achieve gender equality in our lifetimes. Their commitment to women in STEM is unparalleled. This scholarship programme is a perfect example of how the  HeForShe movement is generating tangible change around the world.”

UWaterloo HeForShe scholarship winners

Waterloo's HeForShe scholarship recipients: (left to right) Sarah Muth, Zhuo Yu, Joyce (Anqi) Yang, Jenny Ma, Anya Forestell, and Sally Hui.

Waterloo’s other HeForShe commitments include boosting female participation in STEM outreach programs, enhancing female Faculty representation and attracting more female leaders to academic and senior leadership positions by 2020.

Although they come from different communities around the world and are aiming for different fields, these six young Waterloo students all share an excitement to begin their journey at Waterloo. The university is excited right back, so let’s meet them now:

Anya Forestell-Physics and Astronomy

Anya Forestell knew what to expect when she applied to Waterloo because she’s already been here as a visitor. “Waterloo really caught my eye last summer, while I was participating in the International Summer School for Young Physicists in Waterloo,” says Forestell, who grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Now starting a program in physics and astronomy, she dreams of becoming an astronaut, although she’s also open to exploring other paths.

Anya Forestell

Forestell says there isn’t one moment when she realized astrophysics was for her. “It was more an accumulation of moments: looking through a telescope to perceive Jupiter’s moons left me in awe; reading books such as Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos blew my mind; attending one of Chris Hadfield’s talks inspired me. All of these moments confirmed little by little that astrophysics was my passion,” says Forestell.

Forestell says she’s been lucky to grow up with friends, family and teachers who support her career path, but realizes that gender equality is an issue in STEM fields. “I think one major challenge women will have to overcome, are unconscious gender biases, such as when men are offered higher starting salaries even if women have similar competencies,” says Forestell, adding that women in developing countries face even more barriers. Getting the HeForShe scholarship makes her hopeful for the future. “Receiving this scholarship is a huge honour for me. HeForShe is an admirable program and I am so grateful for its help,” she says.

Sally Hui-Mechatronics Engineering

Even before she started her engineering program, Sally Hui had already felt the warmth of the Waterloo community. “I'm excited about meeting people at the Waterloo campus because they are all really friendly on Facebook and they were really welcoming when I went for the open house,” says Hui. She adds that seeing projects like the Midnight Sun race car and the Concrete Toboggan increased her enthusiasm about innovation at the school, and her interest in getting involved.

Already a robotics enthusiast, Hui says her interest was stimulated by the physics, robotics, and computer science courses she took in high school. In terms of future career plans, she’s considering becoming a product design engineer, but also plans to use her time at Waterloo to explore options, particularly through the co-op program.

Sally HuiIn terms of extracurriculars, Hui worked as a math tutor as well as a writer for the website, Talented Offerings for Programs in the Sciences (TOPS), an enrichment program at her Toronto high school, Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. Lately, she’s also become interested in amateur photography.

Hui says she’s grateful to receive the HeForShe scholarship. “It is good to not have to depend on my parents as much and it will be a really good incentive to study really hard to keep the scholarship,” she says. Although she says she hasn’t felt discouraged from pursuing STEM fields, she has noticed the lack of female faces in her classes. “In the technology courses that I took, there were maybe five females in a classroom of twenty people,” recalls Hui.

Sarah Muth-Mathematical Physics

At age 17, Sarah Muth is already laser-focused on her career goal to become a theoretical particle physicist. In fact, she’s known since Grade 9. That was a big motivation in applying to Waterloo’s mathematical physics program, Muth says. “I love everything about physics. I like the idea of understanding the laws which govern the universe. It makes one feel powerful, but also sort of humbled.”

Sarah Muth

Born and raised in Port Dover, Ontario, Muth is utterly devoted to her studies, having spent her summer working through physics textbooks.  When she was able to pull herself away, she volunteered at a long-term-care home as well as with a group that helps individuals with developmental and physical disabilities. She also likes to make compilation CDs of her favourite music - mostly punk, experimental, indie, and post-punk.

Muth is pleased with the scholarship’s prestige, which she hopes will give her a boost when she applies to the master’s program at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute and later when she applies to do a PhD internationally. Muth says she’s also pleased about the support for women. “I have been concerned about the issue of women in STEM fields for quite some time, way before they offered me this scholarship,” says Muth. “At some critical age, girls are somehow being deterred, and very likely they're not being deterred explicitly. The issue is that there is some sort of implicit bias which is causing girls to believe that they are not as good at these fields,” says Muth.

She also thinks the gain to be had from women’s perspectives in a traditionally male field like theoretical physics is significant. “You want a diverse range of abilities and approaches to solve a problem, which is part of the reason it's so important.”

Joyce (Anqi) Yang-Computer Science

Arriving at Waterloo from Surrey, BC, to pursue an engineering degree, Yang says she first heard about the school from a friend who attended one of the summer camps. “She told me all about Waterloo, saying it's a really great school for innovation and its co-op program,” recalls Yang. Yang had already connected with the university personally by tackling Waterloo’s math and computing competitions for high school students.

Joyce Anqi Yang

Although Yang plans to use the school’s co-op system to explore different fields, she already knows she has a passion for coding through her programming classes in high school. Memorably, she got to code a game using the Python platform. “I chose a very difficult one, gin rummy. It had really complicated rules, so I spent after-school time coding, and it came to 700 lines. It was really fun.” Yang has also attended the Microsoft DigiGirlz High Tech Camp.

When she wasn’t coding, Yang volunteered for the Vancouver city government’s summer camps and special events. Back in Nanjing, China, where she emigrated from a few years ago, she also co-founded a ballet club, teaching younger girls the moves. She’s planning to continue her passion for dance by investigating dance clubs at Waterloo. She’s already signed up to volunteer for a hackathon in Waterloo and hopes to join a computer science club.

Yang says she was thrilled about the scholarship. “I felt like my heart warmed, as I can see the world is trying to encourage more women into the industry,” says Yang.

Jenny Ma- Computer Engineering

Engineering is a family occupation for Jenny Ma—her father was a mechanical engineer, her grandfather a civil engineer, and her grandmother taught math at university. “I come from a family that’s very dedicated to this field,” says Ma. Friends and family directly influenced her decision to choose Waterloo. 

Jenny Ma

Immigrating to Canada from China when she was seven, Ma grew up in Whitby. Besides immersing herself in math and physics courses, she was very involved in her community, volunteering for her school’s breakfast program, a seniors’ home, summer camps, the Salvation Army, and for the Whitby Youth Council where she led the youth mentorship program. She even founded a club at her school to help connect students with volunteer experiences.

While her volunteerism began with 40 hours required of Ontario high school students, Ma says the rewards kept her going far beyond that. “I really liked getting these experiences that you normally wouldn't have, and meeting these people that you normally wouldn't meet. That's what encourages me to keep volunteering,” she says.

Another important extracurricular activity for Ma has been DECA, a youth business program where students compete on cases. In Grade 12, she helped plan a regional competition, and participated in the international competition in Florida where she won fifth place. Not surprisingly, she’s eager to check out clubs at Waterloo, including student council and computer engineering clubs.

Ma says she is thankful for the HeForShe scholarship, and is already familiar with the bias against women, particularly in terms of the negative reaction she receives even from those close to her when she tells them about her possible career goal of becoming a pilot.

For now, she’s excited about her upcoming adventure at university. “I'm looking forward to that first step into adulthood, where we'll have to be managing everything ourselves, and nothing will be taken care of for us,” says Ma.

Zhuo Yu-Mathematics

Zhuo Yu arrived in Waterloo from Shandong, China, just days ago, excited to begin her new adventure studying applied mathematics. She says the school’s co-op program and reputation are what drew her to Canada for her studies.

Zhuo Yu

While the 18-year-old hasn’t decided on a major (mathematical finance is a possibility), she’s eager to get to know the campus and dive even further into a subject in which she has excelled for as long as she can remember. “When I was young, my scores in mathematics were always the highest in my class, so I was encouraged by my teacher and my parents. My interest grew greater and greater,” says Yu.

This past summer Yu participated in the Model United Nations Competition, where she learned not only to write research materials and develop responses for cases that her team presented, but also to realize the value of alliances and building common goals. She says that she learned even more about the UN after winning the HeForShe scholarship. “Before I accepted this scholarship, I didn’t know anything about Emma Watson and the UN effort, so when I received it I searched for the program and learned more about it,” says Yu, adding that she’s grateful to win the scholarship.

She’s also looking forward to settling into life in Canada, and hopes to continue one of her favourite hobbies from Shandong: skiing. She’s also looking forward to meeting new people at Waterloo.  “I want to make friends and learn from them,” says Yu.