Local student awarded Order of the White Rose scholarship

Brielle Thorsen, 2020 recipient of the Order of the White Rose scholarship. Image courtesy of Polytechnique Montréal.

Over the years, white roses have come to symbolize Polytechnique Montréal’s commemorative activities to mark the anti-feminist attack of December 6, 1989, which took the lives of 14 young women and injured numerous others. Created in 2014, the Order of the White Rose is a forward-looking initiative that urges us to overcome violence and move toward peace and healing.

On the commemoration’s 25th anniversary, Polytechnique created the Order of the White Rose as a tribute to the victims, as well as the wounded, the families, the faculty members, the employees and the students who were forever affected by the tragedy, according to a release from Polytechnique Montréal, dated Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

This $30,000 scholarship is awarded annually by the Polytechnique administration to a female engineering student who intends to undertake graduate studies in engineering (master’s or PhD) at the institution of her choice, in Canada or elsewhere in the world, Polytechnique said in the release.

“We’re very proud to say that in Autumn 2020, the proportion of women in our undergraduate engineering programs exceeds 29 per cent, whereas in 1989, women accounted for only 17 per cent of Polytechnique’s student body,” said Philippe A. Tanguy, President, Polytechnique Montréal. “Polytechnic is proudly contributing to the engineers Canada ’30 in 30′ initiative that seeks to have at least 30 per cent of women among practicing engineers by 2030. Today, their numbers have reached or surpassed parity in certain specialties, such as biomedical engineering and chemical engineering.”

“We will never be able to erase the events of the past, nor entirely remove the scars those events have left,” Tanguy continued. “By making women’s potential in engineering truly evident for all of society, by standing beside those who fight against prejudice, by affirming the values of equity, diversity and inclusion, and by raising the younger generation’s awareness of the transformative power of engineering, we can all look to the future with confidence and hope. With a heartfelt thank you to all those who shared and worked toward this value and goals, my warmest congratulations to our scholarship winner.”

At an online ceremony on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, Brielle Chanae Thorsen, a student at Queen’s University, became the 2020 recipient of the Order of the White Rose scholarship awarded by Polytechnique Montréal. Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, was guest of honour at the sixth annual Order of the White Rose award ceremony, held online this year.

Originally from Cochrane (near Calgary, Alberta), Thorsen holds a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Queen’s University, where she is now pursuing a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering.

During the virtual ceremony Brielle Thorson spoke about what this accomplishment means to her.

“I’m so honored and humbled to be this year’s recipient of the Order of the White Rose scholarship,” she began. “However, this award is not just for me. This award is for every amazing strong woman in my life that I’ve had the privilege of knowing. This award is for my fearless female classmates. It’s for the women who have raised me. And for all of the women who taught me how to use my voice. If it weren’t for them, I would not be sitting here today.”

“This award has special significance to me, because I myself am a survivor of on-campus violence,” she continued. “Two days before I started university, in my first year, I was sexually assaulted in my dorm room. My university experience was far from perfect, and it certainly was not easy. I struggled to do the simplest of tasks at times, let alone coursework. And I even struggled to love myself.”

Thorson went on to describe how that terrible experience impacted her.

“I learned firsthand how institutions continue to uphold systems that prioritize the well being and futures of perpetrators and abusers, instead of valuing the futures and well being of survivors and victims. I learned that when faced with harsh realities, many people choose to stay silent and do nothing,” she said.

“For a long time, I was angry. And I was grieving the loss of friendships, of people that refuse to stand up for what was right. Today I am no longer angry. And I am thankful to those people, because if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t have all these beautiful people in my lives that I now call my friends, and I wouldn’t be on the journey that I am on,” Thorson shared.

“I think often of our future generation. What type of world are we leaving for our children and for our grandchildren? Are we doing enough to end violence against women? Are we doing enough to make STEM a safe place for the BIPOC and LGBTQ2+ communities? Are we creating solutions that are sustainable for generations to come? As I sit in front of you today, sadly, my answer to a lot of these questions is no. We are not doing enough.

“My mom has always said, ‘If you’re not a part of the solution. You are a part of the problem.’ And I choose to live by this motto. That’s not to say that we need to hold on to and try to solve all of these problems on our own, but I do believe that we each have an individual responsibility, and an individual role to play in paving the future for our profession, country, and world.”

Thorson then spoke of moving into the future, while continuing to keep an eye on the past.

“When I look to the future of engineering, I look at it with complete optimism. We will not be confined to the boxes that society created for us, and we will make STEM safe for everyone. We will do so while remembering the women who came before us, and activists that came before us, and especially the victims of Polytechnique. We will never forget the survivors, and victims, and we will listen to survivors and do everything we can to ensure that other women, and other people, do not have the same experiences we did. So we are so much stronger than those who hurt us. I’m so much stronger than those who hurt me,” said Thorson.

“As engineers, we have a duty to society,” she concluded. “I will not take my responsibility lightly, and I hope you do the same. We will be a part of the solution, and not a part of the problem. And together, with diverse voices and perspectives, I know that the future is bright. Thank you so much.”

The Order of the White Rose scholarship evaluation criteria are based on academic record (30 per cent), technical achievements (35 per cent) and non-technical achievements (35 per cent), according to the release. Established by Polytechnique Montréal, the selection committee comprises deans from the engineering faculties of the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, Université de Sherbrooke, Dalhousie University and University of Victoria, and is chaired by Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire, Honorary Chair of the Polytechnique Board of Directors and the first woman to earn a civil engineering degree from Polytechnique in 1963.

Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire, chair of the Board of Directors of the Corporation of École Polytechnique de Montréal, shared her commendations, and listed the many accomplishments Thorsen has already achieved in her life thus far:

“Our winner this year stands out, not only for her academic and technical achievements, but also for a social commitment, which greatly impressed the jury,” Thibodeau-DeGuire began.

“I know that your parents and likely many other family members are watching this right now. And I can only imagine how proud of you must be. Rightly so.”

“Your career thus far has been exemplary. You are a member of the Saddle Creek Cree Nation. You undertook secondary school in French immersion, a testament to your openness to cultural diversity. You have a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where you are continuing your studies in a Masters of Mechanical Engineering program,” she continued.

“During your bachelor’s, you distinguished yourself in engineering, mathematics, computer science, design circuitry, electrical devices, automated and robotic systems. You’re involved in the mathematics and engineering program committee, the Canadian Indigenous Science and Engineering Society, and Engineers Without Borders. You got Indigenous youth excited about science at a summer camp. You were the first Canadian representative at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and are part of the circle of advisors for Queen’s University’s Aboriginal access to engineering initiatives.”

“In 2018, your academic involvement earned you the title of American Indian Science and Engineering Society Sequoia fellow. And in 2020, you were awarded the peer Leadership Award at Queen’s University. The fight against racism and violence is a cause very close to your heart. You are also a volunteer with Sagesse, a Calgary based organization that works to break the cycle of domestic violence,” Thibodeau-DeGuire concluded.

“In you, women engineers and Indigenous peers in the sciences have found a remarkable ambassador. Well done. By my heart to yours — congratulations to you.”

Brielle Chanae Thorsen’s candidacy

Academic record

Thorsen has distinguished herself in several subjects, notably in engineering mathematics, computational tools, system design, energy efficiency and all that relates to the electrical grid and energy generation, as well as automated and robotic systems, according to Polytechnique. She was also the recipient of the Queen’s University Peer Leadership Award in 2020 and was named an American Indian Science and Engineering Society Sequoyah Fellow in 2018.

Technical achievements

Thorsen has already held various work positions, notably in robotics engineering for Defence Research and Development Canada, specifically in the Counter-Terrorism Technology Centre in the Autonomous Systems Organization on the Unmanned Air Vehicle team. She also has worked in engineering data management for Suncor Energy.

At Queen’s, Thorsen has contributed to various research programs, including a project to enhance the electrical grid, and the modelling and implementation of intelligent/controlled batteries at transformer box stations — the latter to optimize the purchase and sale of electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Polytechnique stated in the release. Thorsen also participated in the control systems design of an off-grid power generation and distribution system to meet demand, improve efficiency, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She was involved in another project for mountain search-and-rescue teams, in which she developed an algorithm to model autonomous search-and-rescue drone coordination.

Non-technical achievements

Thorsen is a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. As part of her early education, she followed the French Immersion program from kindergarten through grade 10. She was inspired by the strength of character and commitment of her family circle, including her grandfather from Goodfish Lake, her mother, a laboratory and X-ray technologist, and her father, an engineer, all of whom provided her with confidence in her ability to help change the world.

Convinced that integration into a university requires engagement, Thorsen became involved in a wide range of activities through which she was able to put to good use her communication skills, leadership, and commitment to the Indigenous community and to women, Polytechnique said.

Thorsen is passionate about keeping girls in sports. As a member of the Queen’s Varsity Women’s rowing team, she was selected to represent Team Alberta at the 2017 Canada Summer Games, according to the release. She was also an assistant coach for the Kingston Special Olympics Swim Club from 2017 to 2019.

Thorsen has been passionately involved in student life, including as part of the Queen’s University Mathematics and Engineering Curriculum Committee, the Queen’s chapter of the Canadian Indigenous Science and Engineering Society, and Queen’s Engineers Without Borders. She was the first-ever Canadian national student representative elected to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and is also part of the Circle of Advisors for the Queen’s Aboriginal Access to Engineering (AAE) initiative, Polytechnique said.

Following a racist attack on one of her university’s residences, she was invited to speak at the Queen’s Engineering Society board meeting, where she emphasized the community’s responsibility to advance reconciliation, and to rid the campus of all forms of racism.

As a guest speaker last August, Thorsen shared her career path and passed on her passion and love of mathematics and coding to young participants in the Sisterhood of Native American Coders summer camp. According to the release, in 2018, she helped organize the IndigeSTEAM Power2Choose Indigenous Youth Summer Camp and also became a volunteer for Sagesse, a Calgary-based organization working to break the cycle of domestic violence.

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