Not your average internship: the RBC Amplify student experience

Talking STEM careers with
women leaders at RBC Technology

RBC’s Technology & Operations team is home to many successful women scientists. Three of them discussed their careers, volunteering and why having more women in science is a good thing as we mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11. 

How did your love for science develop?

Adriana Zubiri, vice president, data centres and operational resiliency, RBC: As a young student, I enjoyed all my subjects, but math and science were the most interesting ones. In particular, outer space with all its unknowns was fascinating and I grew up thinking I wanted to study something related to it, like astronomy or physics (or even become an astronaut!). But personal computers started to become popular, and I was curious on where that could go, so I decided to study computer science. And it has been an extremely rewarding career indeed. And every time you think you have seen it all, something else comes up, still takes you by surprise and amazes you!!

Melissa Carvalho, vice president, GCS strategic services, Global Cyber Security, RBC: In university I wanted to be a teacher and went to teachers college while I also studied computer science and math. I was at a career fair during my graduation year and was approached by IBM to work on its cyber consulting team. It sounded like an interesting opportunity, so I applied and was hired. I never planned to work in IT and I’ve had a very fulfilling career.

Foteini Agrafioti, chief science officer, RBC & Head, Borealis AI: Math has made sense to me since I was young, and I enjoyed the logic. My dad is a mathematician and I remember him explaining numbers and geometrical shapes to me and it was my first opportunity to get to know what science was like. I fell in love with these topics in school, because unlike with other subjects, it either made sense to me or it didn’t. I was introduced to machine learning when I was studying for my Master’s degree and PhD at the University of Toronto and become very interested in it at that time.

What do women bring to STEM roles? 

Adriana, Melissa and Foteini all agree that the more diversity there is on a team, the better the outcome. Different backgrounds and experiences provide new and unique ways of viewing, tackling and succeeding at a project. Anytime diverse teams are created to solve problems, the solutions are usually more innovative and considerate of the impact it will have in society because it has received the attention of more diverse voices early on.

Who are some of the women scientists you admire? 

Foteini: Joelle Pineau who leads Meta’s AI lab in Montreal and Raquel Urtasun at the University of Toronto who is a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI are just two of the women AI leaders who come to mind. We have a lot of strong women AI leaders in Canada.

Adriana: Jennifer Doudna who is a Nobel prize winning biochemist who developed an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA and is called CRISPR. The book “The Code Breaker” covers her team’s CRISPR efforts in and the medical miracles and moral questions it raises. 

Also, I was also very inspired by the movie Hidden Figures, the story of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who played an important role in NASA during the “space race.” 

Melissa: I like to take bits and pieces from people I respect to help me learn and grow. I worked with Frances Newbigin at Sun Microsystems early in my career and I admired and respected how she managed being in a male dominate field. She used to say “I don’t have the ability to find the imperfect moment to make mistakes because it will be put under a magnifying glass, so I work hard every day and every single moment of the day to make things matter for the next generation and others.”

Here at RBC, I hold a great deal of respect for Laurie Pezzente, our senior vice president and chief security officer, cybersecurity. To see her run cyber for a top global bank and how she got to that stage is inspiring. I believe it’s one of the toughest jobs at RBC and she handles the responsibility admirably well.

Why do you volunteer outside of RBC? 

Melissa: We need to demystify science and technology for women and ensure they have female role models to look up to and to provide them with advice and counsel. I volunteer on the Board of Directors at Women in Identity, a global not-for-profit that works to support a more diverse workforce in the identity space in regards to gender, race, ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity, creed and social status. We lose so many women at younger ages because they can’t access the tech needed for courses, especially in underdeveloped countries, and due to pressure for girls to pursue career paths that are considered more traditional.

Foteini: I am a member of the Board of Directors at Tech Girls Canada which supports women immigrants in STEM in Canada. Many STEM-educated women who come to Canada cannot work in their discipline because they lack Canadian accreditation. This requires additional study which can make it more difficult for them to get back on their career track when immigrating to Canada. So, we’re striving to break down those barriers.

Adriana: A lot of people have helped me during my career, and I want to pay it forward and do good for others. The scale of impact I can have in reaching the next generation is also important to me. That’s one of the many reasons why I volunteer with Scientists in Schools. I believe we need to expose girls to science when they are very young and have no gender bias, and elementary school is a great time to encourage girls who have an interest in science. It’s important to introduce Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) to all children, boys and girls, at a young age and to encourage them to pursue it if they become passionate about it. 

What do you say to young women who could succeed in a STEM-related field but aren’t sure if they should follow it?

Adriana: I would first tell them “Why not?” You should explore and do what you like. There is so much pressure for students to figure out what they should do with their lives. Find what brings you joy, what you’re passionate about and explore it. 

Melissa: Don’t close any door that’s been opened for you. As long as you’re passionate about something, you can find your way through it. Believe in yourself and your abilities. I know that can be difficult, but believe in what you bring to the table. 

Foteini: Studying in STEM can create a very diverse career, working in many diverse fields. I never thought I’d be working in banking, and I also have STEM experience with consumer electronics and textiles. STEM graduates can work almost anywhere including education, healthcare, transportation to name a few. It’s such a diversity of transferrable skills that can make life very interesting and open many doors.
Katie Viesselman, Senior Director, Wealth Management Technology Solution Delivery Management
Adriana Zubiri, Vice President, Data Centres and Operational Resiliency
Melissa Carvalho, Vice President, GCS Strategic Services, Global Cyber Security
Adriana Zubiri, Vice President, Data Centers and Operational Resiliency
Foteini Agrafioti, Chief Science Officer, RBC & Head, Borealis AI