The professor looked the student in the eye and summed up the problem.

“This is exactly why women should not be in engineering,” he said.

Jennifer Smith remembers that smack-down more than 20 years ago like it was yesterday. If it was meant to chase her off one career path and onto another, it didn’t work.

Struggling in physics, she had sought out the professor’s advice. She left the meeting appalled, and more determined than ever to be an engineer.

“It was a defining moment,” Smith said in an interview Thursday. “I said to myself, ‘I will stick it out until and see this through to success.’

“I kind of wanted to prove him wrong.”

Today, she is executive vice-president of global market solutions at Christie Digital, and often finds herself — Thursday, for example — encouraging young women to hold on to their interests in the so-called STEM cluster: science, technology, engineering and math.

Smith was one of five speakers at Curieosity, an event that drew about 100 female students in grades 9 and 10 to the Tannery Event Centre. The name pays homage to Marie Curie, who shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, and won the Nobel in chemistry in 1911.

The importance of getting more women into STEM careers has gone well beyond triumphing over rusty holdouts of sexism.

A labour shortage threatens the ability of Canadian companies to compete against counterparts in other parts of the world, Smith said.

“If we don’t tap 50 per cent of the population — that happens to be you, girls — we’re going to fail,” Smith told the audience.

Bused in from five high schools — St. Mary’s, Saint David, Resurrection, Monsignor Doyle and St. Benedict — the students listened, tweeted, posed for photos with speakers and toured the Communitech Hub before heading home.

“It made me realize that I could do things in science that I wasn’t thinking of before,’’ said Paige Coture, a St. Mary’s student. “It’s very powerful.”

Mad Hatter Technology, a Kitchener company working in marketing technology and creative digital media, hosted the event. Founder Melanie Witzell said that when she was in university, a career in science seemed limited to research or medicine. She studied genetics and biotechnology as an undergrad at the University of Waterloo.

“I had no guidance to the fact there was this whole other sea of opportunity in science,” Witzell said in an interview.

Curieosity, she added, “is a day of inspiration with a showcase of talented women leading successful careers, sharing their journeys, beginning the conversation, and helping the aspirations of the next generation of young women.”

The theme fits Communitech’s own examination of the challenges of getting more women to pursue, land — and stay in — science and technology careers. With Communitech acting as lead agency, the federal government contributed $300,000 to launch the Women in Technology project last September. (Communitech hosts We For She, a networking event about women in technology, June 3, from 5-8 p.m.)

A federal jobs report earlier this year pointed out that while women make up the majority of students in university, they are “under-represented in a number of disciplines, including mathematics, computer science, architecture
and engineering.”

Theresa Doyle, a teacher at St. Mary’s, sees improvement in what’s being done to turn that around.

“If you look at the textbooks we had years ago, it was all men in lab coats,” she said. “Now we have women as examples, and we have mentors and models to show students.”

Smith shared the podium Thursday with Renata Dziak, a forensic scientist at Ontario’s Centre for Forensic Sciences; Jennifer Raoul, a patent agent with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP; and Deborah Saucier, neuroscientist and vice-president academic at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa.

Jacqueline Shan, founder and chief scientist at Afinity Life Sciences Inc. sent a video clip, as did Natalie Panek, mission systems engineer and robotics operator with MDA Space Missions. Shan created Cold FX, a popular cold treatment.

Four Google Canada employees — Ingrid Fielker, Melissa Dominguez, Rachel Wiens and Michelle DeBeyer — made up a panel, fielding questions about what it’s like to work at Google, and where they might be if they weren’t at Google.

“It’s pretty awesome to have worked on something that millions of people use every day,” Dominguez said about the Gmail app for Apple’s mobile devices.

Common threads emerged among the different stories the speakers told. They urged students to stay passionate about their interests, seek out helpful mentors and never settle for normal.

“If you spend your time being normal,” Saucier said, “you’ll never know how amazing you can be.”