Alumna’s Terranaut Club pivots during pandemic, continues to introduce young women to STEM

Julia Whidden
Julia Whidden

When Julia Whidden (’13, ’15) attended Acadia University, she had no idea how much her experience would inform the work she now does for Terranaut Club in Nova Scotia.

The Founder and Director recently celebrated two years at the non-profit, and the chance to teach young, diverse women the pillars of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) has been the best experience of her career.

Whidden credits her BSc and Master’s in biology at Acadia – as well as her involvement in the S.M.I.L.E. (Sensory Motor Instructional Leadership Experience) program – as influences that led her to teach ambitious young learners in the Maritimes.

She began her studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, but didn’t experience the connections with students and teachers she was hoping for.

“I wasn’t getting a closeness or community feel from that big institution, and at the time my now-husband Justin Boutilier (’13) was playing basketball at Acadia and pursuing a math degree. I switched schools and came to Wolfville, and I immediately felt like I was where I belonged,” she says.

“I fell for the campus, close-knit environment, and I also got to volunteer with the S.M.I.L.E. program for five years. Acadia and the community instilled in me a passion for and commitment to working in community development.”

She enjoyed numerous roles with S.M.I.L.E. to provide persons with disabilities a way to engage in physical activity that would help them also grow as individuals. During her Master’s, she worked with professor Trevor Avery (’95) on projects involving striped bass and skate conservation in the Bay of Fundy. Now she brings the passion she found for community development at Acadia to Terranaut Club.

Respect the environment

“It’s a science and nature exploration program for girls and gender minorities, and all programs are either free or pay-what-you-can. We want to encourage participants to consider careers in STEM and become environmental leaders in their own communities. We’re building scientific literacy and creating opportunities to connect with the environment in a hands-on way,” Whidden says.

The program is for those aged nine to 18 from all over the Maritimes, with programming based in Wolfville, Lunenburg, Halifax and Bon Portage, an island owned by Acadia.

Acadia’s tie to Terranaut Club is strong, as all five members of their Board of Directors have connections to Acadia. Danielle Quinn (’11, ’14), Emma Carmichael (’16) and Samara Eaton (’96, ’99) are all Acadia biology alum, while Whidden met the remaining members – Christine McLauchlan and Joy Hillier – through Acadia experiences as well.

“Directly and indirectly, all of our leadership and board are connected to Acadia. It’s such an east coast thing,” Whidden says. “Being linked to Acadia is what ties us all together. That, and our love of biology, the natural world, and inspiring the next generation of female scientists and environmentalists.”

Their pay-what-you-can programs hit a snag this summer, with COVID-19 changing the hands-on, multi-day and overnight experiential learning that Terranaut Club is used to providing.

“We didn’t have that opportunity this year, but we adapted quickly. We have worked with some of these girls for three years and wanted to continue to build those relationships so we created our ‘Online Summer Series’, including 25 free virtual events over July and August,” Whidden says.

“From coding workshops to presentations from women in science all over the world to STEM career seminars, we had over 60 girls connect with us, including many participants new to Terranaut Club. Next year, hopefully, we can provide both in-person and online programming. We’ve missed all of our overnight camping, remote island research, and other science and nature adventures!”

Wanted to make an impact

She remembers her time at Acadia and meeting different people with unique abilities who came from different socio-economic backgrounds. It informed her work with community development.

“When I left Acadia and S.M.I.L.E., I felt a gaping hole. I missed the magic of Acadia, the community of Wolfville, and most of all the opportunity to work with children and youth. I spent a year studying sharks in Miami through a Fulbright Canada scholarship, and while there created an opportunity for under-represented and disadvantaged girls to participate in shark research,” she says. But eventually she wanted to move home and apply those skills in Maritime communities.

“I wanted to make an impact in communities that had done so much for me, so Terranaut Club was born. We wanted to connect local girls with local women in STEM, and show them that careers in STEM can be rewarding, exciting and, most importantly, an option for their future. We wanted to build a generation of girls and gender minorities who understand the importance of diversity in STEM fields, and who have the confidence and skills to pursue their careers.”

Whidden advocates for representation in STEM and wants young women to feel that they have opportunities in the fields Terranaut Club explores.

“Acadia gave me foundational skills that I use every day at Terranaut Club,” Whidden says. “The University instilled confidence in me that no matter what I wanted to pursue, I had the skills and drive to succeed.

“I am so indebted to Acadia, and of Terranaut Club’s six in-person programs across Nova Scotia in the summer of 2019, all had a connection to Acadia. Whether it’s in the student volunteers that support our programs, the hands-on biology research we participate in, the venues we use, or more. Acadia runs through everything we do here, and all of us are so thankful for that.”

Written by Jordan Parker

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