Monique Frize had to change the world of engineeringFrize was told engineering wasn't for women, but she pursued it anyways
Frize was told engineering wasn't for women, but she pursued it anyways
By Anne Millar and Anne Wells
February 01, 2018
Monique Frize creates biomedical engineering tools and techniques that save lives and improve patient care. Courtesy of Monique Frize.
Monique Frize is an expert in the field of biomedical engineering and is one of Canada’s foremost advocates for increasing the participation of women in science and engineering. She spent eighteen years as a clinical engineer before entering academia and is currently a distinguished research professor at Carleton University and a professor emerita at the University of Ottawa (U of O). Frize has received five honourary doctorates from U of O, York University, Lakehead University, Mount Saint Vincent's University, and Ryerson University. She has also been awarded the Professional Engineers of Ontario and Ontario Society of Professional Engineers' highest honour, the Gold Medal as well as being inducted as an Officer into the Order of Canada and being named a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering. Her more than fifty-year career started with one of many firsts: she was the first Canadian woman to graduate from U of O with a B.A.Sc. in engineering. Monique helped to ensure that other women would face fewer challenges in the industry as the first Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Chair for Women in Engineering.
What factors influenced your decision to pursue engineering? I had never heard about engineering. The first two years at U of O were in general science, and then in third year, you could choose a specialty. The dean and professors said that girls usually studied chemistry, but I did not like chemistry, especially organic chemistry. My parents were very surprised when I chose engineering. My father was very worried that I wouldn’t find a job. There were some dissuasive voices and my father was even called by one of the professors who said, “Can you encourage your daughter to take chemistry?” He replied that I was stubborn — I thought I was determined and self-directing — and I would pursue what I wanted. My future husband was in electrical engineering and he was very supportive, and I had decided that engineering was my choice. I pursued engineering in spite of everything.
What have you enjoyed most in your career? Doing research, training students, and supervising theses. I had a lot of research ideas and my students enjoyed the work. What was amazing is that out of fifty-five graduate students who were supervised by me, eighty per cent were women in computer and biomedical engineering, a field where there are so few women. Women found me and asked to study with me; I was very willing to say “yes” to many of them. Several women had low self-confidence, but by the time they completed their degrees, they were quite confident. Several continued to pursue Ph.D. studies.
Can you talk about your work as the first NSERC Chair for Women in Engineering in Canada (1989-1997)? After the Montreal Massacre, I moved the program into fifth gear immediately. I had to help change the world of engineering. My first day in the position was December 11, 1989, the day of the funeral for several of the victims. I went to the funeral in Montreal and returned to Fredericton to give a talk to around 400 people at University of New Brunswick. What I said very determinedly was that we must have 1,000 more women engineers for every one who had been killed in the massacre. I started reading intensively all I could find about girls, math and gender, and engineering. I became quite knowledgeable after three months on many issues. I also chose to have a one-on-one media training session. Each year, I managed to give more than thirty-five speeches across Canada, a large number of media interviews, and spoke to students from grades one to twelve at dozens of schools. It was very important and a priority to develop my messages. I developed speeches for different audiences: messages for school teachers and guidance counselors; for university administrators and professors; for corporations and workplaces; for associations; for schoolchildren (especially girls) and parents; and for women professors and women students. After the first four years, when the Chair was renewed, the NSERC president is quoted as saying that my chair had had more visibility than the hundred NSERC chairs across Canada. I felt that I had to agree to every media request and deliver my messages to encourage progress at every level. The massacre made me very angry and made me determined to help change the culture in engineering; the obstacles for women to consider a non-traditional career had to be removed.
What was your response to the establishment of the five regional NSERC Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering? Our NSERC committee submitted twenty-one recommendations to the Council, one of which was the establishment of five regional chairs. I began to realize that my national chair would not be relevant anymore, so I applied for the Ontario chair and won the competition with Carleton University, U of O, and Nortel. Claire Deschènes won the competition in Quebec, Maria Klawe for B.C. and the Yukon, Elizabeth Cannon in the Prairies, and Florence-Mary Williams for the Atlantic region. We met in 1997 in Ottawa. It was wonderful to have four other women working in tandem on the issues. I was delighted because now I didn’t have to do all of Canada by myself. I would work in my region, which was large enough. We shared ideas. We were all in different fields, so we now covered a much broader science and engineering area. The five of us organized sessions at conferences and a panel where we could report on progress in our region. It was wonderful.
You have written two histories on women in STEM. What inspired you to write about this topic? I started to write The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering in 2001 because I wanted to leave a legacy of what I’d learned in all of my roles. I also wanted to provide arguments for people defending the intellectual abilities of women and show the biases and weaknesses in detractors’ writings. Some of my colleagues said: “Time will fix this.” I wanted to show that the problems were cyclical and were not going to be fixed with time alone. I also wanted people to discover many competent women in science who existed in all epochs and their excellent contributions, which is one of the reasons I wrote Laura Bassis and Science in 18th C. Europe: The extraordinary life and role of Italy's pioneering female professor.
How has the status for women in STEM changed in your lifetime? When I was very young, there were very few women choosing engineering. From that score, it has really improved quite a bit with close to twenty per cent of enrollees in engineering being women today. But it’s still very far from how many women should be engineers. There’s still a lot to be done. It’s very discouraging to see the messages given to boys and girls when they are very young, all the stereotyping that goes on in the media as well. There’s still a lot of masculine culture in universities and engineering schools and I think that has to change. The workplace is starting to have more flexible options, which helps. When I went on my first job interview during my master’s studies in England, I asked the company interviewer: “Do you have flex time for people who want to have children?” They didn’t hire me. They hired my male colleague, who wasn’t going to have any babies. Today, a woman or a man could ask that question without any fear with some companies, though not all. I think there have been some improvements, but there are still a lot of issues to deal with, especially with conservatism rising all over the world. That’s really a problem for women.
Where would you recommend advocates for women in STEM focus their efforts? I believe that an important task is to reach girls and young women and their parents, teachers, and counsellors, to show them the human and societal side of engineering while encouraging them to see an engineering career as an opportunity that is appropriate for women. The twenty-five recommendations developed at the 2011 workshop CCWE+20 are relevant today and should be implemented by all stakeholders who could make a difference. Recruiting advocates to help accomplish these many goals is critical in my view to see changes occurring in the coming decade.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? I think it’s very important for women to choose the right discipline of engineering — the field that attracts her — and to choose the engineering school that seems to be the friendliest to women. My own research work in biomedical engineering has a connection with humanity, with people. Women need to speak to engineers, find out what they do, and see what would be of most interest to them.
How do you define innovation? For me, innovation is creating something that doesn’t exist and hopefully it is a development that will be useful for society and humanity. I don’t believe in innovation for innovation’s sake. I’m a systems engineer, which is very interesting. A lot of what we do is to take a system that exists for one application, and use it in a different context for a different application. For example, the New Brunswick Telephone Company had a case-based reasoner that selected the ten closest matching repairs for a current repair problem. We made a new system based on that concept that could find the ten closest matching patients to a new admission in adult intensive care. This could help physicians predict to a certain extent how the patient would do and what was going to happen to them. We took the telephone technology and transferred it to the healthcare field. We innovated in that sense.
How do you view yourself as an innovator? All the systems that my students and I develop can be considered innovations; the work is fascinating. It is always about problem-solving; that’s the engineering word that we learn early on. I’m an engineer, a problem-solver, a scientist, and an innovator. I find that throughout all my life, I have been trying to do new things. My first innovation was a patent I obtained in 1987. People could get burns during surgery due to the electrode designs, so I designed an electrode that would avoid burns. Now I create tools to help doctors make decisions based on added knowledge and predictions, especially in the neonatal intensive care unit. For obstetricians, we are developing a tool to predict pre-term birth. I’m trying to also identify a very serious disease in infants, necrotizing enterocolitis, which causes the death of the colon and in turn the death of some of the patients. This disease cannot be identified early enough by x-rays or ultrasound. My infrared camera can measure temperature on the abdomen, which is very thin, so if there’s inflammation at very early stages, this may be visible on the images we take. I want to do a multi-site testing of that diagnostic tool in the near future. I am also continuing to work on patient safety and on the field of clinical engineering.
To read more about Monique and the other Women of Innovation, purchase the book here.