In Conversation with Queen's Engineering Alumna Veena Rawat (PhD'73)

Posted on September 20, 2019


    Veena Robert was the first woman to graduate with a PhD in electrical engineering from Queens.  After graduating in 1973, she went onto hold several leadership positions including positions in the Canadian government and as the first female president of the Communications Research Center of Industry Canada in 2014, she was awarded the officer of the Order of Canada for her lifetime achievements and contributions at the national and international levels to wireless communications. She is passionate about encouraging women to study for stem careers and mentors, young engineers as they begin their careers. Welcome to the podcast Veena.

    Thank you.

    So I'd like to start by asking you about, um, your time at Queens. In 1973, you were the only female phd student in electrical engineering. What was that like?

    I had a very good supervisor, Dr John Beal who’s retired since then. But, uh, you know, I was very thankful that he was willing to accept me in 1973, you know, as the only woman in the phd program. And he was very open minded in the sense that as I will talk later, if any issues arose related to my work, my phd work and it had some restrictions due to gender or something. Uh, you know, Dr. Beal was always, uh, willing to address these issues. Although I was the only female, many of, you know, my colleagues were married, I was married, so it was a nice environment. I really don't remember anything negative about my environment of at Queens.

    That's wonderful. Um, can you tell me about any mentors you may have had at the time?

    At that time you really didn't have this, uh, concept or you didn't hear that much about mentors or mentoring or mentees. It wasn't so common, even from the human resources perspective.

    I learned from just about everyone at every level. If I saw somebody, uh, even if they were an administrative assistant for they were the head of the department, if I saw some strengths and I thought that was really something good and positive, then I would like to kind of make a note of it and see how I can do that. They're not your mentors, but you are exposed to lots of people and other people have a lot of different strengths.

    That's great. So, uh, after you graduated, tell me a little bit about how you got your career started.

    When you finish a phd, you think you will get it, you know, some kind of elected or, or assistant professorship at a university. But at that time there were not many openings. But then, uh, I was very fortunate that one of our colleagues and good friends who was also a year ahead of me, Dr. Keith Harman. He started working in Ottawa at a private company and the work he was doing, the r and d work he was doing at this company, it actually related to my phd work at Queens. And since he was aware of my work, he expressed an interest in my considering some opportunities at that company in Ottawa.

    So I finished my phd and I started my career at the company and uh, for I guess just under two years and then I moved on to the government in the ministry, uh, Canadian government dealing with the telecommunications regulations, uh, and develop my career there because the government gave me lots of opportunities for moving around from engineering to policy regulations to international. And then I went to Blackberry, as you are aware, before I got into, you know, my current consulting opportunity.

    So, along the way I noticed you've had many firsts along with being the first female to graduate with a phd in electrical engineering at Queens. You were also the first female president of the Communications Research Center and the first woman to chair a world radio communication conference. Um, so it takes a lot of confidence to become the first to do things. And I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about what your biggest challenges were along the way and what helped you?

    I had a fellowship actually really good fellowship through my supervisor, Dr Beal is for, from the Sudbury mines. However, the, at that time the mines did not allow women to go inside the mines and I needed some data to be collected from the mine. So real data so that I can see what the communication, you know, system would look like. However, you know, I couldn't do that. So my, as I mentioned, my supervisor was always working around any challenges like that. And he just sent a technician to,  you explain to the technician what I was looking for? And I got the data. I think I had a reasonable confidence. Uh, it took a long, uh, it would take a long for, you know, for me to kind of lose that confidence or, uh, or I always believed in solving the problems or getting around the, you know, any challenges or anything as far as was not going to work out for me.

    You know, seeking help or working with the right people. I think that's, that's the other thing I would say. Uh, I worked with the people around me also gave me a lot of confidence. The, the people I worked with starting from my supervisor and my colleague, Phd Students. Uh, I was never led to believe that I couldn't do it. Okay. Or something like that. So I think I was, uh, uh, I'm really thankful for that because my, I started my career, you know, uh, at Queens and, uh, I'm very thankful to the opportunities I had and the exposure that I had and you know, how I could grow myself from there on. So, so it was all good.

    Hmm. That's great. So I know that you're involved in a lot of policy and regulation development for the communications technology sector at the global level. Um, I'm wondering if in your opinion, if you can tell me what you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities that this sector faces today?

    Well, first of all, they need to bring more women and uh, you know, in their companies and their organizations and then having these women take, uh, you know, uh, develop and take responsible positions in the international organizations. Cause I know they can do that. And one of the challenges, and I'm doing a lot of mentoring with, uh, some of these women that w when the challenges are just the lack of confidence, especially in an international environment, leave alone working in your own country. But when you go to an international environment, the lack of confidence, speaking on the microphone, presenting your views, debating within an international environment. So that's one thing. But in terms of the techno, uh, you know, communications technology sector itself, the, in my view, the technology is moving really fast. As you can see, uh, you know, even, uh, in your, the technologies you use every day, uh, from smart phones to all the communication devices you use, uh, it's moving really, really fast. And, uh, the policies and the regulations, they lag behind and sometimes they can actually delay the implementation and the deployment of the technologies. Globally, uh, having the high speed broadband access to everyone. And in particular, I would say to women, I am now talking a global environment. The access to technology, access to the basic, which, uh, you know, um, uh, such as internet or access to smart phones that is still lacking for whatever reasons, whether they are the affordability, economics, social, cultural reasons. But that is a challenge and I, I know most governments are facing that.

    All right. Do you see security as an issue as well?

    For sure. Both privacy and security are also the issues, but, uh, I think we should be able to address them to, you know, using the technology properly and, and using technology more and more to help us out. But they should not, they should not be the roadblocks for use of technology because, you know, we should be deploying the technology as much as possible, but that's the future.

    You're a strong advocate for women to study for stem careers. I wonder if you can tell me about how you are engaging in women and mentoring them.

    When I was, when I just left the university and then I was in a work environment with the government, so I was a lot engaged in actually, uh, working with the high schools. I'm getting more engaged with the women who are working already. So they have done their engineering or science and technology environment. And so there are now in a work environment and they're looking for ways to how to move their career ahead. For example, how to take leadership roles in the international forum, uh, some and just not, not, not being able to move their careers ahead. So they're looking for adviceI'm getting more engaged with the women who are working already. So they have done their engineering or science and technology environment. And so there are now in a work environment and they're looking for ways to how to move their career ahead. For example, how to take leadership roles in the international forum, uh, some and just not, not, not being able to move their careers ahead. So they're looking for advice one thing I definitely believe in is that every little thing, you know, every little initiative and every initiative, you know, adds up and make the, uh, bigger impact. So the fact that my sharing information helps them because then they can point to other people and say, Hey, uh, you can, you can have a career, you can have a professional life, you can have a family life. And, and women are doing it.

    And what advice would you give to students who are just joining Queens today?

    They can do it, they can do science and engineering. It's just hard work and definitely confidence in yourself.Positive attitude for sure. And she, you know, there will be challenges but then you have to find a solution for every challenge and problem. There is a solution. We just have to work hard at it.

    That's great. And then my last question is what's your favorite part of the day? What get, what gets me excited is really, uh, if I'm working with someone and they come back and say that, you know, this is what they did. that just, uh, makes my day in the sense that, uh, the very limited small effort on my part, very small effort, if that can help someone build the confidence and can even affect one per year. Okay. I, I just, uh, that, that just keeps me going and the makes me continue to believe that wherever the opportunities there, you know, we, we need to, we need to just take that and work with these young women and to encourage them as much as I can.

    Wonderful. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

    thank you