Rebecca Baron gave a TEDx talk last year, calling for more encouragement and more opportunities for women in the STEM fields. Her nine-minute talk can be viewed at tedxkidsbc.com/rebecca-baron. (screenshot)
Rebecca Baron, a teenager who does research on air quality and speaks out about the gender gap in the sciences, has won the inaugural Temple Sholom Teen Tikkun Olam Award.
Baron will be given the award on March 5 at Temple Sholom’s Dreamers and Builders Gala, honouring world-renowned landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.
“We are incredibly proud to be able to offer this Temple Sholom Teen Tikkun Olam Award to Rebecca,” said Temple Sholom Rabbi Dan Moskovitz. “Even at a relatively young age, Rebecca had demonstrated a passionate commitment to using her intellect and Jewish values to repair brokenness in our world.”
Baron, 16, is currently a Grade 11 student at Prince of Wales Mini School but has already been recognized nationally for her experiments on air quality. She won top medals at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in 2015 for research on whether bacteria found in household plant roots filter formaldehyde from paint fumes. Last summer, she won an award for the best business plan at a national student program focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Baron said in an interview that she became aware of a gender gap in the sciences as early as Grade 3. As an example, boys and girls were interested in dissecting a fish when she was in kindergarten – she was so excited about the project that she decided at that moment to become a scientist. But when her class did a similar experiment in Grade 3, many girls were no longer interested. In subsequent years, she noticed how stereotypes, social pressure and cultural biases pushed many young girls away from the sciences.
She felt the curriculum that she experienced was not geared to encouraging girls to pursue studies in STEM. For instance, women were seldom portrayed as scientists in textbooks.
On their own, the incidents may not seem like much, but small things add up and contribute to an overall negative effect, she said. Statistics Canada in 2014 reported that women account for only 22% of the STEM-related workforce. Baron gave a TEDx talk last year calling for more encouragement and more opportunities for women in the STEM fields.
Baron attributed her unflagging interest in math and science to encouragement from family and friends. “It may be harder for others who do not have as much support as I have,” she said. “I just pushed through it.”
As her fascination with science developed, Baron began to conduct experiments at home, working on the kitchen counter. After winning awards, she “cold-called” academic researchers to ask if she could use their labs. Eventually, she found someone who said yes.
She now conducts her experiments after school in a lab at the University of British Columbia’s Life Sciences Institute. She also takes part in Science World’s Future Science Leaders program.
She linked her intellectual curiosity and social activism to values instilled by her parents and inspired by Judaism. She sees Judaism as valuing the strength and wisdom of women.
“The Torah emphasizes the emotional and physical differences between men and women,” she said in her submission for the Tikkun Olam Award. “However, these defining characteristic are not seen as inferior or superior to one another, but instead are considered to have cause for equal celebration.”
Baron went to Vancouver Talmud Torah for kindergarten, and from grades 3 to 7. Her bat mitzvah was at Masada, the Israeli mountaintop that symbolizes the determination of the Jewish people to control their own fate. As she stood amid the archeological ruins and looked toward Jerusalem, she felt a strong connection with the Jewish people. “It was a really neat experience,” she said. “I definitely did not expect that.”
She intends to use the Tikkun Olam Award money to help develop a nonprofit organization to encourage young women to pursue STEM and familiarize them with job-related opportunities.
Moskovitz said the annual Temple Sholom award is for a Jewish teen who is “doing the sacred and important work of tikkun olam,” regardless of affiliation or religious congregation.
The award was made possible by Temple Sholom members Michelle and Neil Pollack, who initiated efforts to create a prize recognizing teens who make a difference. Their generosity enabled Temple Sholom to make the Dreamers and Builders Teen Tikkun Olam Award an annual celebration and recognition of one of many inspiring Jewish teens in Vancouver.
Robert Matas, a Vancouver-based writer, is a former journalist with the Globe and Mail.