Katja Murray at her quarantine graduation. Photo courtesy Katja Murray

Home is where the inspiration is

  • August 29, 2020

Katja Murray didn’t have to look far for inspiration to make the leap into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math), a field where women remain largely on the outside looking in.

Murray, whose father holds a PhD in chemistry and whose mother is a dentist, had all the inspiration she needed right at home.

“A lot of the role models that girls have of women in STEM are figures like Marie Curie and Roberta Bondar who are great but they’re so (famous) they’re almost untouchable,” said Murray. “I had a positive and relatable role model in my mother and I’m really happy to be a positive role model for younger girls to show them that it can be done.”

A recipient of the highly coveted $100,000 Schulich Leader Scholarship, Murray is gearing up to begin her post-secondary school journey as an engineering student at Western University in London, Ont., in September.

The 18-year-old from Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School in St. Catharines, Ont., got the news on April 21 that she was one of the recipients of the annual award. Now four months later she says it still hasn’t completely sunk in.

“There are times where I catch myself and I think, ‘Wow, this is really
happening,’ ” said Murray. “I’m just really humbled and honoured because there were so many exceptional candidates who were all smart and deserving. I’m just so grateful.”

Funded by the Schulich Foundation, the prize is awarded to up to 100 high school graduates enrolling in a STEM  program at partner universities across Canada.

Finishing high school with a 99-per-cent average, Murray plans to pursue a career in biomedical engineering, where she hopes to build medical devices. A well-rounded student, she’s been involved with various initiatives in her community such as helping to raise funds for her sister school in Haiti, volunteering at an animal hospital and with Bible camp at her parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

An avid athlete, Murray also enjoys playing and coaching girls’ soccer and competing on her school and club hockey teams. As one of the only two females on her club squad in the Niagara-on-the-Lake Minor Hockey Association, she says she’s more than prepared to enter the male-dominated world of engineering.

“I’ve always played hockey with boys and been in the classroom with boys, so you gain that confidence to know that they’re all just people,” said Murray. “Even though engineering is dominated 80 per cent by men, it has one of the lowest pay gaps at only four per cent. I want to show that women can be in engineering and that we’re wanted and that we’re valued.”

Above academic achievement, Murray’s high school physics teacher, Brian Lostracco, says he’s most impressed by her character. Her tenacity and ability to persevere is a reflection of her faith in God and passion to make an impact in the sciences.

“Some of us say we’re Catholic by name, but we don’t act on it. But she’s a true disciple,” said Lostracco. “She trusts in God and I know we will be hearing her name in the years ahead. I have no doubt she’ll be doing some great things.”

Murray’s older brother Gabe, who studies at Brock University, will be staying with his sister in London for the first four months of school to help her acclimatize to the new environment while continuing his own courses online. Most of Murray’s classes will take place online as well, though about 30 per cent will be on campus with masks, social distancing and sanitation requirements.

Throughout the global uncertainty in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Murray remains optimistic the world will get through this and hopes she might one day be part of the solution to medical challenges that plague our world.

“It gives me hope that we can find a new sense of normal and keep everyone safe, and to really focus on using science to make informed and educated decisions as we go forward,” Murray said. “If there’s any chance that as a future scientist or engineer, I could be a part of those decisions and help with that research I would love to because I want to help people to stay safe.”

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