South Asian Women-Conjuring A Strange Brew Between Engineering & Philanthropy
Dr. Parameswaran and his team of graduate engineering students at Simon Fraser University have combined both humanitarianism and computer technology by showing engineering is not all about computers, but also an emotional connection. Their aspirations include helping the less fortunate in developing nations. I sat with Dr. Parameswaran and his diverse team of engineers, while they presented a brief biography about themselves and discussed their contributions to biomedical technology.
Led by Dr. Parameswaran, this team is building a device similar to a glucose monitor that will detect pathogens found within blood samples. Their focus is studying microchip technology called Microfluidics. Specifically, they are in the process of inventing a device that will detect e-coli bacteria, and cancerous cells found within blood samples. Their initial step is to research e-coli bacteria before they move into more life threatening diseases, such as cancer since the cause of select cases of infant mortality within developing nations is due to e-coli bacteria. This bacterium creates fatal symptoms, such as severe diarrhoea and abdominal cramping. Dr. Parameswaran’s research team’s ultimate goal is to launch this device within remote rural and impoverished areas of the world.
Dr. Parameswaran’s team is connected to international partnerships, working closely with Anna University’s biotechnology department in Chennai India and the Raman Research Institute based in Bangalore. His team of engineers include three women: Sumanpreet Chhina, Mona Rahbar, and Avneet Bajwa. These three women are critical to developing this research and a working prototype. While all three hail from diverse backgrounds and are immigrants; where they actually originate from seemingly does not matter since their commonality is their humanitarian interest.
Sumanpreet Chhina is involved with the pathogen detection part of the Microfludic project. She first emigrated to Canada in 2007 from Punjab, India. Once she arrived in Canada she stated that she experienced a culture shock, where she had trouble finding a job, and had to find ways to adjusting to her new life in Canada. She had completed an engineering degree in India and wanted to further use her credentials. Sumanpreet heard about Dr. Ash Parameswaran and decided to apply to SFU’s engineering graduate program. In spring 2009, Dr. Parameswaran accepted her as a graduate student. Sumanpreet lives in the Lower Mainland with her husband and extended family. Sumanpreet also explained to me that her husband is pursuing higher education and both share a common passion towards the academics. She loves coming up to SFU’s Burnaby campus because it brings her closer to nature, and has made long lasting friendships with her cohorts.
Mona Rahbar is involved with the process and analysis part of the microfludic project. In 2003, Mona immigrated to Canada with her immediate family from Iran. Her father wanted her to move to Canada because he felt that there were better educational and job opportunities. Unlike her colleague Sumanpreet, Mona did not experience a culture shock. Mona knew that the culture and the living conditions in Canada would be quite different from Iran, and so accepted those differences prior to immigration. In Iran, Mona had completed an Engineering degree, but once she arrived in Canada she decided to pursue a field in medicine. Her pursuit for becoming an MD involved taking medical school prerequisite classes at Langara College and Simon Fraser University. In 2008, Mona had a change of heart, and decided she wanted to attain a Masters Degree in Engineering. She has also stated that she likes working under Dr. Parameswaran, because his labs are interesting, and he is highly supportive of his students’ efforts. In 2010, Mona finished her master’s degree, and is now pursuing her doctorate degree.
Since July 2009, Avneet Bajwa is involved with studying the effects a drug has on a cell and its concentration profile. She is mainly studying the treatment part of the project. Avneet is in Canada on a student visa and prior to her visit to Canada, Avneet was working for a multinational corporation called Infosys Technologies Limited as a software engineer. After two years of work, Avneet decided to pursue higher education. She also informed me that her father holds a PHD and wanted Avneet and her sibling to pursue higher academics. This further led Avneet to apply to several Canadian postgraduate schools. Simon Fraser University accepted her on the provision of her grandparents and extended family living within the Lower Mainland. This has enabled her to establish a familiar Canadian support network. Her brother is currently completing his master’s degree at the University of Alberta. Like Mona, Avneet did not experience a culture shock. She informed me that her native city of Chandigarh is much like Vancouver, where the clothing and culture are quite modern. The only challenge she faced while living in Vancouver was in purchasing or finding vegetarian food.
While she has pangs of homesickness and misses her hometown, she speaks highly of her father and her desire to be home – because of him. I was quite intrigued that Simon Fraser’s Engineering department was accepting students with degrees from Asian countries. This was quite striking since it is a well known that many Canadian immigrant’s credentials are not professionally recognized within Canada. This perhaps is the first step in many by Canadian institutions in making strides to recognize and accept degrees from future Canadian immigrants. I deem this will help to remove discrimination and barriers faced by new immigrants when entering the Canadian work force.
These three remarkable women from diverse backgrounds are creating a difference in society, through studying in a field that is primarily male dominated, and using it for unselfish means. Dr. Parameswaran stated that at Simon Fraser University out of 1000 Engineering students, only 100 are female. However in India, about 48 to 50 percent of engineering students at any given university are female. No one understands why there is a low turn out of female students in Canadian engineering programs, but I hope the stories and contributions that these women have made to engineering and biomedicine will inspire other young women to venture into this field. If you are interested in reading more about this research, I would suggest accessing the Censors and Actuators Journal in the near future. This journal will go into detail about the Microfludic chip technology that is being developed for pathogen detection by this amazing group of engineers.
Recognized as one of the most distinguished scientists in India, Dr. Kalam has been instrumental in leading the country towards prosperity, a movement he outlines in his book, India 2020 – A Vision for Freedom in India. While on a brief visit to Vancouver in September, former Indian President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam made a public lecture at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue on the topic: Moving into Modernity: Technology and Prosperity for Rural Communities.
Dr. Kalam’s personal story exemplifies an impossible trek from an ordinary boy to a leading scientist and to President of India. An engineer, nuclear scientist, inventor and author, Dr. Kalam was the first Asian to receive America’s top engineering prize, the Hoover Medal, in 2009. The recipient of several honorary degrees, he earned the nickname ‘The People’s President’ during his 2002-2007 tenure.
Despite all his numerous personal accomplishments, his vision for India as a nation is even more staggering. His trajectory has led to his very simple, but effective message for youth: ‘Knowledge makes you great.’ His emphasis and investment on education, knowledge mobilization, and knowledge transfer is helping to transform India. His focus includes leading top world universities like Simon Fraser University to collaborate with India in the areas of bioinformatics and infectious diseases, population and public health, and contemporary arts and entertainment, and working to develop new initiatives in nanoscience technologies, sustainable adaptations to climate change, and computational criminology.
Dr. Kalam believes educating rural populations, specifically by focusing on educating women will enable India to be transformed. His vision extends to provide social security and the eradication of illiteracy and health for all. His ideas may seem lofty, but for India to become a leading nation, huge goals are necessary. Dr. Kalam’s ideas about agriculture and food processing encompass a target of doubling the present production of food and agricultural products by 2020. Agro food processing industry would lead to the prosperity of rural people, food security and speed up economic growth.
Numerous lecture attendees wanted to find out how progress could be undertaken without proper infrastructure. Dr. Kalam discussed that critical technologies and strategic industries witnessed with the growth in nuclear technology, space technology and defense technology are necessary for growth. Infrastructure with reliable and quality electric power including solar farming for all parts of the country, providing urban amenities in rural areas and interlinking of rivers are pivotal for measured growth.
His views were not all about what he thinks India has not accomplished and needs to change, rather he also focused on India’s strengths – information and communication technology. He believes this is one of India’s core competencies and/or wealth generator, and can be used for tele-education, tele-medicine and e-governance to promote education in remote areas, healthcare and increase transparency in the administration.
BC Solicitor General Mike de Jong said of Kalam’s visit: “The president, as you know — the former president — has a unique interest in science and technology, given his own credentials as, in many ways, the father of the space program and the missile program in India. He has moved beyond outer space and is very much focused and preoccupied now on improving life on the ground in India. His notion of an infrastructure development initiative for rural India is of great interest to us, both in terms of the benefits that will accrue to Indian citizens, but also the opportunities it presents on the trade front. He has a particular interest that he shared with us in the development of green energy — solar, wind and other technologies — and in fact is anxious to see collaboration between British Columbia and Canada and India in the development of clean energy technologies.”
Moreover, Dr. Kalam’s vision for India, if it is implemented, will enable India to truly secure a place globally as an advanced superpower.