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Inspiring women in STEM

Hands working on a laptop with the INSPIRE logo visible.

UVic stands out with its distinctive co-op programs, aimed at equipping students with practical skills for the professional world while they pursue their studies. These programs offer invaluable hands-on learning experiences, skill development for future employability and opportunities to forge lifelong connections through mentorship. 

One such program is INSPIRE: STEM for Social Impact, an innovative initiative supported by the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS), the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) and the Faculty of Science. 

The program, based in Victoria and now expanded to Kathmandu, Nepal, aims to support women in underrepresented groups in learning and applying science, technology and engineering to tackle community-driven societal problems through mentorship and experiential learning.

Valeriya Savchenko, Daniela Damian, Remee Brown, Kezia Devathasan, Shyla Burns sitting and standing around a table with a screen in the background showing the INSPIRE logo and the words, 'STEM for Social Impact"
Valeriya Savchenko, Dr. Daniela Damian, Shyla Burns, Kezia Devathasan, Remee Brown

Meet the Director

Dr. Daniela Damian, affectionately known as Dana among her students, serves as a professor of Software Engineering in the Department of Engineering and Computer Science and holds the ECS-CAPI Chair in Inclusive Science, Technology and Engineering. 

With extensive teaching experience since 2002 and several teaching awards, including the 2020 Provost’s REACH Award for Excellence in Experiential Learning, Dr. Damian's research focuses on software engineering and collaboration dynamics within the field. As the executive director of INSPIRE, she aims to bridge diversity, equity and inclusion gaps within the field of engineering. 

Meet the students of INSPIRE

We connected with three undergraduate students to discuss their experiences with the INSPIRE Apprenticeship Garage program at UVic. Valeriya Savchenko, a final-year software engineering student, dedicated her last semester to the Bridging Roots project, focusing on language and culture revitalization in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. Remee Brown, a fourth-year biomedical mechanical engineering student, led a civil engineering project, RainWise, on Salt Spring Island, devising a rainwater harvesting system to support local farmers. Shyla Burns, currently in her third year of software engineering, collaborated with Team FireForce to enhance monitoring systems at the Sooke Lake water reservoir for the Capital Regional District, all through the INSPIRE co-op experience. 

Additionally, Kezia Devathasan, a second-year PhD student, oversees INSPIRE as the program manager, exploring intersections of computer science, software engineering and education. Despite navigating the landscape of software engineering as women, their shared dedication to learning, mentorship and camaraderie strengthens their connection within STEM fields.

Questions and answers

we formed INSPIRE...a program that aims to empower women and other underrepresented teams

What is UVic’s INSPIRE program and how did it begin?

Damian:  A few years back, we formed INSPIRE, which is a program that aims to empower women and other underrepresented teams in learning and applying science, technology and engineering to solving community-driven, societal problems. 

We hold a conference at the end of the year—which brings all the participants [of INSPIRE] together to showcase their projects. At the core of the program are experiential learning projects with the community for social impact, where students apply techniques that we teach them—science and engineering, and technology development—and they see them bringing solutions to the community partners. 

[I am an] immigrant to Canada who cherishes living in a place where diversity is valued. I came to UVic in 2002, but to Canada in 1996 to complete my graduate studies at the University of Calgary. I associate with a lot of the challenges that our students have, particularly women. 

Becoming a faculty member, I had experienced wearing many hats—not only as a faculty member and colleague, but as a wife and a mother of a growing family in a new city, a new culture. These intersecting social identities made me reflect a lot about who I am and my challenges, and how the way we work, live and grow depends on the people around us. So, empowering women to not feel discouraged, despite these challenges, but working with a diverse network of people that support each other is what INSPIRE attempts to create. 

Building on UVic’s strong connections with the local industry, in INSPIRE students work in teams and approach community projects in the areas of environmental, social and urban sustainability. High-school students become apprentices to UVic students. Passionate industry mentors guide students on their journey and provide the real-world reassurance of the methods appropriate for the problems at hand.

Why did you choose to pursue an engineering degree at UVic?

Savchenko: Initially, I went into civil engineering because, like every kid, I love Legos but I didn't like the sets they provided. I like creating my own urban infrastructure, and then making green cities. I started at UVic by doing that but then I took my first coding class and thought ‘this is really cool and so abstract and actually pretty easy. Why don't I just do that instead?’ 

Brown: The reason that I chose the biomedical engineering program at UVic is because I have a big interest in how the body works and how you can create new things for the body.  

I tore my ACL and that was a really long recovery. I wanted to find a way to make the recovery shorter, so I thought that, maybe, you could make a tendon—3D printed tendon—and I thought that'd be really cool. 

I decided that if I went into biomedical engineering and then potentially went into medicine after, then I would have all that I needed to do that. With civil engineering, I was interested in water security. That’s why I went into the rainwater harvesting project at INSPIRE. 

Burns: I started in biomedical engineering because both of my parents were doctors, so I was surrounded by the talk of medicine growing up. I kind of always thought I would go to med school. It wasn't until my first coding class, the mandatory coding class in the first year, [that I thought otherwise]. I just loved the professor. I loved the content and it came easily to me. 

Devathasan: I started at UBC and was doing a BA in psychology because I was interested in going to the neuroscience stream over there. Like Shyla, my dad was a doctor, so I always thought that I was also going to pursue medicine after my undergrad. 

While I was at UBC, I took a computer science class because I needed a different elective. I guess, like everybody else, I really enjoyed it. I was like ‘Okay, I think I'm doing the wrong degree.’ So, I moved over to UVic so that I could do the combined psychology and computer science undergraduate degree. I ended up enjoying all my computer science classes significantly more than any of my neuro or psych classes after that. 

I chose to pursue grad school in computer science because that's what I liked doing. And then seeing so many people have the same experience as me—stumbling into a computer science course by mistake—I thought was really interesting. I do like the opportunity of getting to teach and to encourage people to stay in the field.

How do mentorship, support networks like INSPIRE and empowerment contribute to youth and young women thriving in STEM fields?

Savchenko: I think it takes one person to really put a spark in you and just get you excited about a topic about something you didn't even know existed before. An example is my first Co-op, where I was doing quality assurance… my manager [said], ‘Hey, why don't you learn about cybersecurity and do some research? Then you can train the [quality assurance] department about [penetration testing].’ I was like, ‘I don't know anything about cybersecurity, what do you mean?’ And then I started researching, and I was like, ‘whoa, this is so cool.’ There are so many different ways to attack and defend, and you'd have to get so creative and if it wasn’t for him mentioning this as something I could take on, I wouldn't have gone down that road or considered it. It just takes one person to put an idea in you and believe in you. 

Brown: Entering computer science and engineering as a woman, you’re given the narrative that you're going to be the only woman in there and that can make it quite intimidating to be a student in that scenario. At first, when I arrived here, I was kind of skeptical about the engineering program. I didn't know if I wanted to be in it or not, but I just kept pushing through. 

I've seen how important it is to have people in your classes and people who are experiencing the same things as you because otherwise, it's hard to make it through the niche struggles of an engineering student or as a science student in general. 

That was hard for me to realize as a woman in engineering because, when I looked around my class, I mostly saw guys and those were my main engineering friends in first year, but I never really got to the deeper friendship, which was tough. 

Burns: Just to add on what they’re saying, having a community showing [by example]. I want to be where Val is in software engineering, so seeing her, and being friends with her through INSPIRE, was super cool to be able to have those connections. [Being able to get] advice from the director, Dana, and having her guidance—the super cool person as she is—to be able to learn from her and to see it is possible to get to where you want to—that’s always super motivating.

A lot of the profs that I have are men and, again, a lot of the people in my classroom are guys. Being able to have that sense of motivation at the end of the day is important.

It just takes one person to put an idea in you and believe in you.
Remee and Val

What led you to pursue a co-op placement with INSPIRE at UVic?

Savchenko: I was sitting in a calm Computer Science class in the summertime—Kezia and one other girl came to talk about INSPIRE. I looked up the projects as they were talking, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is doable.’ I liked that it's autonomous. We get to lead our own team. I like that, so I said, ‘yeah, let's try it.’

Brown: I saw [an INSPIRE posting] on a limb and applied to it on a train in Italy, and then interviewed from Italy… I didn't know what it was, but I thought that it sounded cool, and I saw that it was on the UVic campus. I didn't want to stray too far because I really like being on campus. I like the vibes here and I like being able to see a bunch of people.

Burns: I love Victoria. I love UVic. It's been a good transition. Like Val, somebody came into my software testing class and started talking more about what the projects are like, how everything would work, but not so much like the projects in detail. I looked up the website, I looked up the projects, I started learning more and looked more into the values of the organization.

I was having a hard time applying to get my first co-op. I hadn't had any previous technical industry experience, so I felt like nobody was going to want me. I felt like this would be such a cool way to meet lots of people, build those experiences and make myself a more employable person, and it definitely did.

Brown: I forgot that the reason I applied was because I saw that it was an inclusive space that [welcomed] neurodivergence, and that's actually what I said in my cover letter. I liked that it was a place that looked safe and welcoming to different learners. I liked the values that it had listed.

How was your co-op experience at INSPIRE? Did it uphold your values and offer supportive, hands-on learning?

Brown: I felt comfortable and supported throughout the INSPIRE projects. I think most people would say the same thing.

Savchenko: Supported and pushed out of a comfort zone in the best way possible to get us to become better career-wise, but also as people [to become] more confident, presenting-wise, as well.

Brown: It was really empowering. It was probably half of our first co-ops, and they gave you so much faith and so much power, and it was your choice if your project succeeded or not. That was a really cool experience… especially for people who don't feel like they belong in a job, or people who maybe feel like, in other jobs, they would have been looked down upon because of their sexuality, their learning disability or the way that they look.

Devathasan: It’s a pretty widely known thing that women tend to not apply to jobs if they feel like they don't meet even some of the listed requirements, whereas other people, like men, may apply and are like, ‘okay, I could I meet most of these things, it's good enough, I can learn what I don't know.’ That difference in confidence level is something that we try to market in INSPIRE. This is an opportunity to learn the things that you don't know.

You can still get that first co-op under your belt and still have a really cool project to showcase on your CV, whereas I think applying to the industry can be certainly intimidating for everybody. Maybe not just women, but because there are so many things on that job posting… I think it's more than possible for people to learn those skills quickly. At least, that's what we try to do at INSPIRE by having people make their own choices about what programming language they're going to use for their project, or they can kind of make it what they want to be.

Burns: I’m applying for another summer co-op right now and I catch myself, if I'm looking at the qualifications that are required, I'll read through them and I’ll think I don't have two out of seven requirements, I can't apply. But then I'll scroll down, and some companies now are even writing in the actual description that they want everybody to apply. It shows that women and other minorities don't apply if they don't hit all the criteria, but they still want you to apply. So, now, I have been applying to them, even though I don't hit everything, which I don't think I would have the previous time I was applying to co-ops. It's like a mindset shift but that's still tough to accomplish and to do.

Savchenko: Having this INSPIRE experience shows off your learning abilities for when you get called for an industry interview. You can show them like, ‘Hey, I didn't know this skill, or like, 30 of these skills when I entered but I had to learn on the job in four months and look, we made something happen.’ I think that speaks volumes.

What advice would you give to young women or girls pursuing an education or career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics? 

Devathasan: I would say, that if you're even a little bit interested in the idea, don't be shy to explore it. The worst thing that will happen is that you realize it's not for you and you can go and pursue something else. I think a lot of people just shy away from it naturally because they don't see themselves represented there. That's the main thing for me. Don't be shy. Try it.

Brown: Yeah, I think what Kezia said, there's a lot of value in knowing what you don't want to do in life. That can teach you just as much as knowing what you do want to do. Trying out as many things as possible, giving everything the good old college try and figuring out if that's something that's for you or not. You’re not going to waste time with whatever you try and do in life. You're going to learn something, you're going to learn about yourself and the world around you.

Savchenko: Do what you want to do, don't look around, because everyone's on their own journey. What you want to do matters most—not who's around you. Whether it's a whole classroom of dudes and you’re the only girl—it doesn't matter. Half of them will probably drop out. Just do what you want to do and focus on your success. Learn how to fail and get back up to try again!

Burns: Try to have an open mind about exploring other programs than what you are enrolled in. There’s a possibility you are going to be exposed to a topic or program that you end up falling in love with and want to transfer into, or you may find out that you chose what’s right for you from the start. You might be surprised at what you learn about yourself if you don’t close any doors.

Kazia and Shyla

Get inspired

Discover UVic's INSPIRE program, fostering a supportive atmosphere for students, especially women, to excel in the fields of engineering. Explore co-op opportunities to earn while you learn and prepare for your career. Learn more about our engineering and computer science programs and find where you fit at UVic.

...working with a diverse network of people that support each other is what INSPIRE attempts to create.