It’s been 32 years since 14 female engineering students were killed in an anti-feminist mass shooting at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, yet Willow Dew says she is committed to fighting those same remnants of intolerance that persist in the field today.
On Thursday, the 23-year-old graduate of the University of Alberta was awarded Polytechnique Montréal’s Order of the White Rose, a $30,000 bursary set up in 2015 to commemorate the victims of the Dec. 6 1989 massacre.
“Being a woman no longer prevents us from becoming engineers, but even 32 years after the tragedy, there are still barriers in our society that unfortunately discourage or even stop some from pursuing their future in engineering,” Dew said in her acceptance speech, which was held at the school.
“This award and the initiative which it represents is emblematic of the incredible work that has been done in changing attitudes towards the potential of women.”
Dew says she finds strength in the experience and resilience of her mother, who was in her last year of engineering school at the time of the tragedy and felt its shockwaves, albeit from a distance.
“Her perseverance has inspired me and given me also the confidence to pursue engineering myself and to immerse myself into a culture changed by a generation of women pioneers in this field,” Dew said.
Inclusion of women, marginalized people
While some praise Dew’s intellectual abilities, boasting a perfect grade point average, and her assertive leadership, the awardee has distinguished herself through innovation and her desire to contribute significantly to the challenges of climate change — with women and underrepresented populations at the heart of it all.
“For far too long, women’s voices have been excluded and minimized from many important spheres, including engineering, however in the face of complex societal problems such as climate change, we cannot continue to exclude marginalized perspectives when designing and creating solutions that affect the entire population,” she said.
Despite the inequalities that still persist today, Dew “encourage[s] young women who wish to become engineers not to be discouraged by external pressures,” inviting them to “nurture their passion” and “have confidence” in themselves.
Having just completed a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Dew is now pursuing a joint master’s program from three European universities in France in biological and chemical engineering.
She wants to advance the domain of sustainable energy and sustainable development, driven by her belief that bioproducts and bioprocesses will play a crucial role in the energy transition and mitigation of climate change impacts.
Dew is also hoping to pass on her passion for engineering to other female students and young girls.
She has spearheaded several initiatives to interest young girls in science, technology, engineering and math careers, though her proudest achievement was as a team member and leader of EcoCar, a group of students tasked with developing zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, during which she succeeded in increasing the participation of women in order to ensure parity.
‘Together we are strong’
In a touching speech at the ceremony, Nathalie Provost, a survivor of the Montreal Massacre and spokesperson for PolySeSouvient, which pushes for stricter gun control, welcomed Dew into her community.
“That community began with my sisters and me on that tragic evening on December 6,” she said. “We were not alone that night; We were together, we held hands.
“These hands are now extended to the women who shape the world of tomorrow,” Provost said. “You are that woman this year.”
While different strategies can be used to succeed, Provost urged Dew to use her roots within the female community and rely on shared resources to achieve her goals.
“Alone we are small, together we are strong; Willow, we will be your forest.”