International Women in Engineering Day Q&A with Leyla Soleymani and Christine Gabardo – Faculty of Engineering

International Women in Engineering Day Q&A with Leyla Soleymani and Christine Gabardo

Two inspiring women at McMaster Engineering discuss the importance of representation of women in engineering, mentorship and advice for young women.

Leyla Soleymani and Christine Gabardo
Photo by Geoff Shaw

In honour of International Women in Engineering Day, we sat down with Leyla Soleymani and Christine Gabardo, two inspiring women at McMaster Engineering who discussed the importance of representation of women in engineering, mentorship and advice for young women.

Soleymani is an engineering physics associate professor and the associate vice-president, research (commercialization & entrepreneurship), University Scholar and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Miniaturized Biomedical Devices. She is also a member of the Royal Society of Canada, College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists. She was recently awarded the Faculty of Engineering Entrepreneurship Award at this year’s Applause and Accoladres event alongside colleague and business partner professor Tohid Didar for their invention RepelWrap. Combining their areas of expertise, Soleymani and Didar developed a pathogen-repellent wrap called RepelWrap. The invention, created right before the COVID-19 pandemic, is a clear plastic wrap that has the ability to repel elements like water droplets, bacteria and viruses. RepelWrap is now moving towards scaled-up production through FendX Technologies, Inc. 

Gabardo, Leyla’s first ever PhD student and mentee, is a distinguished biomedical engineering PhD graduate. She is also the co-founder and CTO of CERT Systems Inc., a startup that is leading the charge in transforming chemical production and driving decarbonization through innovative technology. Gabardo credits her time at McMaster and her mentor Soleymani for supporting her success in the engineering field. She was also honoured with the inaugural Young Alumni Leadership Award at this year’s Applause and Accolades event, with her mentor Soleymani presenting her the award.  

Why is representation of women in engineering so important?  

Soleymani: It is critically important for women to see other women in engineering roles, otherwise it would be hard for them to imagine themselves in those roles. As they say, you can’t be what you can’t see. 

Gabardo:  Historically, engineering has been male dominated, leading to biases and stereotypes that can discourage women from pursuing careers in this field. By increasing representation, we challenge these stereotypes and create a more inclusive environment that encourages more women to pursue engineering. In addition, women bring unique perspectives and life experiences to engineering, which creates a broader range of ideas and solutions. Representation provides role models who can inspire and motivate young girls and women to pursue their passion for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

What does International Women in Engineering Day mean to you? 

Soleymani: It is a day to celebrate the impact women engineers have had on society, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the areas that still have gaps and remember that there is still work to be done. 

Gabardo: International Women in Engineering Day is a celebration of all the contributions women have directly and indirectly made to the field of engineering. Women have led groundbreaking research to develop innovative solutions that have improved our lives and shaped our world. This day also serves as a powerful reminder of the progress we have made in promoting gender diversity and inclusion within the engineering profession, while also highlighting the work that still needs to be done. 

How does it feel to have a mentor / be a mentor to another woman in engineering? 

Soleymani: I have been both mentored by a woman engineer and have mentored several women engineers. It is a great feeling to be able to take that mentorship that you receive and pass it forward to your mentees. It is a rewarding experience and a way to pass mentorship forward. 

Gabardo: Having other women to look up to in engineering was incredibly important to me when I was in school. It is hard to believe you belong somewhere when others around you, especially in leadership positions, do not look like you or have not had similar life experiences. Having mentors in engineering, like Leyla, I realized that I could continue with my academic studies and career in engineering.  As I am now in a leadership position and a mentor to other women in engineering, it feels great to give back to the community.  

Is there a woman in engineering who has made a significant impact on you? 

Soleymani: The encouragement and support that [Faculty of Engineering] Dean Sheardown has given me has made me realize my leadership potential. She saw the leadership potential in me, when I didn’t even see it myself and helped me develop it. I am forever grateful to her for that. 

Gabardo: Leyla has been such an amazing mentor to me, and I would not be where I am today without her. She nurtured my passion for working on complex problems and shaped me into the engineer I am today.  She always believed in my abilities and provided support as I worked through my PhD, but she also challenged me to grow and excel in ways I never thought possible. She empowers all her students to approach technical challenges with creativity, collaboration, and multidisciplinary solutions. 

What is one piece of advice you’d give to young women thinking about going into engineering or who are just beginning their journey in engineering? 

Soleymani: Engineering is a versatile discipline, find your passion and push your degree in the direction that fits your passion. Women must remember that they deserve every bit of success they have obtained and to keep pushing forward. 

Gabardo: Keep pushing forward! It will be overwhelming and difficult at times but believe in yourself and embrace your passion. Find people to support your journey in mentors, friends, and the broader engineering community. Engineering is a challenging yet rewarding field that requires dedication and perseverance.  

Photos by Geoff Shaw.