SFU PhD student awarded Wendy McDonald “Women to Watch” Diversity Award

(Photo courtesy of Careesa Liu)
By: Kitty Cheung, SFU Student


The Wendy McDonald Diversity Awards, hosted by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade’s Women’s Leadership Circle, celebrates gender and diversity in leadership. This year, an SFU engineering PhD student has won in the “Women to Watch” category.

     Careesa Liu, a biomedical engineer and co-founder of the Surrey Collaborative Outreach and Research Experience (SCORE), is the 2018 recipient. She has earned the award for her research in brainwave-based technologies to assess brain function, as well as for her leadership in a healthcare training program for youth.


On women’s empowerment

Named after Wendy McDonald, the board’s first female chair, Liu describes this award, which recognizes women under 35 who have made a difference in their organization, as an “incredible honour.”

     “Wendy McDonald was truly a pioneer who helped pave the way for so many women afterwards,” wrote Liu in an email interview with The Peak. “She worked tirelessly and led her family business to become a multinational conglomerate – at a time when few women even worked outside the home, and in an industry that is extremely male-dominated.

“I’m still in the early stages of my career, and receiving an award in [Wendy McDonald’s] name is a great inspiration for me to continue pursuing my passions and try to follow in her footsteps.” – Careesa Liu

     As a woman succeeding in another male-dominated field, Liu encourages other young women wishing to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields to “believe in themselves, work hard, and persevere. But more importantly, they should also seek out mentors (male or female) who can help guide and support them in their career, as there will be difficulties and obstacles along the way, but having the right support will go a long way to ensuring their success.”


In the blink of an eye

Regarding her passion for research, Liu speaks about how “something as simple as blinking your eyes can actually reveal so much about how our brains process information.” As many brain function assessments are behaviour-based and therefore subjective, Liu’s research provides an objective and non-invasive method by measuring the brain’s electrical activity, capturing how it responds to certain stimuli.

     In particular, Liu is looking into the cognitive functioning behind spontaneous blinking with its connection to the precuneus, a region of the brain involved with neurological diseases and disorders.

     “Being able to capture precuneus function using brainwaves from blinking has the potential to open a new window into brain function,” says Liu, “and [it] enables improved monitoring of brain function in diseases like brain injury and dementia.”

     Liu’s previous work as a biomedical research engineer at the National Research Council Canada allowed her to witness the “impact that advanced brain technologies can have on improving the care and quality of life for brain-injured patients and their families.” Her current research involves developing a form of technology that is “portable with fully automated software, easy to use, and produces results that are easy to interpret,” allowing her to fulfil her desire of pursuing knowledge while helping people.

     When discussing her work environment at the Surrey Neurotech Lab, SFU’s first clinically embedded laboratory located at Surrey Memorial Hospital, Liu states “I work with amazing people every day who are driven and passionate about not only advancing science, but also creating scientific breakthroughs that positively impact people’s lives. Most days we run studies or are huddled doing our respective data analyses and other graduate work, but that never stops us from joking around or poking fun at each other.”

     Later this month, Liu will be heading to Australia to represent SFU as a delegate at the International Student Research Forum, where she will share her learning with health researchers from around the world.


Developing Surrey’s human capital with SCORE

Liu was inspired by the advancements in technology and infrastructure around Surrey’s Central City community to create the Surrey Collaborative Outreach and Research Experience (SCORE) with co-founder Sujoy Ghosh Hajra. This youth summer course enables students to gain hands-on experience with medical technologies by pairing them with partner organizations.

     Students in the SCORE program have the opportunity to learn from university researchers, business leaders, and tech innovators by participating in service-learning experiences, seminars, and field trips. The SCORE program has received recognition by the SFU Surrey-Central City Community Engagement competition as well as the 2016 Global Best Awards for Excellence in STEM Education.

      With the development of SCORE, Liu has also been granted the Spirit of Canada 150 Award for outstanding community service: “In a way SCORE is a way to give back to the community, and for the young students in the community to gain access to the amazing opportunities being created here.”


With files from The Vancouver Sun.