Can UVic attract more female engineers?

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Since its approval this June, a new undergraduate biomedical engineering program at UVic has been gaining attention as the first of its kind west of Ontario.

The program aims to draw more women into engineering. Female-to-male ratios in engineering programs are consistently skewed across the country, with only 17.7 per cent of engineering undergraduates being female in 2010 according to Engineers Canada. Biomedical engineering, however, has, on average, a 50-50 female-to-male ratio nationally.

“Our female enrolment is low compared to other faculties because we have the [engineering programs] that women are not as interested in,” says Tom Tiedje, dean of Engineering. “We would like to grow our female enrolment, and the obvious way to do that is to put in place programs that appeal to women.”

Biomedical engineering bridges the gap between the medical and engineering fields. Biomedical engineers typically evaluate biological and medical systems and devices such as artificial organs and prostheses. With the rising cost of health care, biomedical engineers are increasingly desirable in hospitals, where medical technology saves time and money.

Since 2007, UVic has offered a biomedical option in the Faculty of Engineering, as many other Canadian universities do. However, the old option required an extra academic term for students to graduate and offered no biomedical courses until late in the program. This new, five-year program offers specific biomedical courses earlier in the degree and more hands-on experience through requisite co-op terms.

Students interested in biomedical engineering will take the common first-year engineering classes and in second year will take two semesters of quantitative physiology offered through Engineering instead of Biology, a unique course in Canada, though common in the U.S.

“Instead of taking your physiology through a biology department . . . here it is taught in combination with the engineers,” says Stephanie Willerth, co-ordinator of the new program and professor of the quantitative physiology course. “Instead of just memorizing, you’ll also be applying all your engineering equations alongside your biology.”

In her undergraduate degree, Willerth created her own biomedical engineering education by fusing chemical engineering and biology.

“I really liked the biology, but I thought it could be done in a more efficient manner,” she says.

After completing UVic’s program, options are vast in the biomedical engineering field.

“It should be relatively easy to transition into medical school,” says Tiedje. “That quantitative background combined with a medical degree would be a good basis for medical research.”

Vancouver Island is an ideal location for increased biomedical research. Companies such as StarFish Medical and CanAssist, based out of Victoria and UVic respectively, offer local employment opportunities.

“We have a lot of faculty members with an interest in research in biomedically related areas,” says Tiedje, who suspects that the biomedical engineering program will increase the co-op opportunities at UVic.

Willerth suggests that the ability to actually interact with and help people adds to the profession’s popularity, a sentiment that Tiedje agrees with.

“I think it’s just a profession whose time has come,” says Tiedje.

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