You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to win the Athabasca University (AU) Distinguished Alumni Award… but it doesn’t hurt.
After a distinguished career in the space industry, Dr. Stefanie Ruel distinguished herself further while completing two graduate degrees at AU, and she continues to distinguish herself as a published author and academic looking at challenges women face in scientific fields.
But she did not expect to add AU’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award winner to her already-lengthy list of credentials and accomplishments—which includes the prestigious 2018 Academy of Management Best Critical Dissertation Award.
“It was very emotional to be recognized that way,” she said. “I had no idea this was coming, so it was a surprise, and it was humbling even being nominated.”
Education and early career
Ruel’s interest in science had always been there during her childhood in Sherbrooke, Que., and in Ottawa, Ont., but it was a TVOntario science camp she went to as a youth that made all the difference.
“I was completely in awe and excited to go to this camp every single day and discover something new about science,” she said. “That camp propelled me and motivated me to focus on science, and I never looked back from that moment.”
In high school, she had no women role models to inspire her to get into a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) field, but she excelled nonetheless and later earned a science degree in mathematics from McGill University.
Ruel worked in the Canadian nuclear industry with the group of medical advisors before landing a position at the Canadian Space Agency. She took on increasing responsibility with roles on various space-based missions, including being the Head of Mission Planning for RADARSAT-1 satellite, and then ultimately leading multiple mission teams conducting life science research on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
Although she stopped being promoted and realized she was often the only woman at the table in meetings, she had not yet drawn the conclusion she was being discriminated against as a woman, thinking instead she needed to enhance her credentials.
Advanced degrees at AU
Ruel decided to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA), and worried about how to fit the demands of being a full-time student into her already-packed schedule, leading missions into space while also raising four children.
After a co–worker recommended AU, she looked at AU for herself and realized the MBA program would provide the flexibility she needed.
Through her coursework and the MBA coaches, Ruel began to realize she was working in a discriminatory environment. With the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) program, she looked more closely at discrimination in the broader Canadian space industry. That work has been published in her book: STEM-Professional Women’s Exclusion in the Canadian Space Industry.
“I am privileged to be able to explore different STEM areas, expanding on the work that I did through my MBA and DBA at AU, and to also bring these experiences forward for individuals interested in working in various STEM fields”– Stephanie Ruel
She left the space industry and took a position as assistant professor in organizational behavior at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB). She has now moved on to a position as a lecturer at the Open University based in Milton Keynes, U.K.
She continues her research on gender and diversity in various STEM fields, and engages with university students to help prepare them for the business world.
There are several projects Ruel has worked on recently.
In 2019, she and a colleague in the Gina Cody School of Engineering spearheaded a summer institute for graduate students about equity, diversity, and inclusivity in STEM. This experience led to an opportunity for them to conduct a funded research project for the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans to look at equity, diversity, and inclusivity at the intersection of STEM/Business Management in higher education.
Ruel is also working with a colleague at Finland’s University of Jyväskylä looking at women who work in the video game industry in Canada and Finland—a project she said is especially relevant as she sees her kids playing more video games during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
In collaboration with the engAGE Centre for Research on Ageing, she and a colleague at JMSB recently launched a project called “There’s a Woman in my Past” on International Women’s Day. They opened a storefront at a local mall and invited women in STEM and entrepreneurial fields to talk about women who inspired them, while engaging with art activities.
Ruel is also working on a historical study of Alouette, the first Canadian satellite launched into space during the Cold war. Canadians tend to celebrate the technology and the 100 men who contributed to marking Canada as the third spacefaring nation, but Ruel and her colleagues have uncovered more than 120 women who significantly contributed to this mission.
This is not the kind of work she expected to do while attending that science camp as a youth, but she appreciates that she can now be a role model for other young women.
“I am privileged to be able to explore different STEM areas, expanding on the work that I did through my MBA and DBA at AU, and to also bring these experiences forward for individuals interested in working in various STEM fields,” she said.
Learn more about the Alumni Awards and watch short videos about the 2020 winners on the Alumni Awards webpage.