Jeanny Yao, Co-founder Of BioCellection, Talks Through Her Journey To The Top Of STEM

How can we encourage more women to pursue STEM careers?


Although Jeanny Yao will only graduate this year from The University of Toronto, she has already co-founded BioCellection, a company which aims to transform plastic waste in our oceans into products of worth. In 2014, Jeanny was named in Canada's 'Top 20 under 20' and in 2013 Jeanny and her co-founder, Miranda Wang, were chosen to present their scientific research at TED2013. This year, Jeanny will be relocating BioCellection to San Francisco, in the next exciting stage of her business.

Ahead of her presentation at the Women In STEM Summit in San Francisco this June 8 & 9, we sat down with Jeanny to discuss her personal journey into STEM and what she believes needs to change to encourage more women into the industry. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

After spending years of my childhood and youth in Vancouver, I decided to pursue my Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and environmental science at the University of Toronto, where I will be graduating this June. I am passionate about science, nature, and learning new things. In my spare time, I enjoy keeping a vegetarian lifestyle and reading environmental news. I am very strict about composting and recycling, and often encourage those around me to do the same. I love the great outdoors and singing to plants and animals when I get a chance.

What or who inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

My high school was known for its arts programs, but the science department consisted of numerous incredibly passionate educators. Whether it was chemistry, physics, or biology, classes were taught in a “show, don’t tell” manner, piquing my curiosity in the wonders and power of science. In my last year of high school, I had the privilege to work with Dr. Lindsay Eltis and grad students James Round and Adam Crowe in the Eltis lab at the University of British Columbia. This real research opportunity opened my eyes and helped me realize the impact and contributions science could make for our society. On many different levels, these individuals played critical roles in influencing my decision to pursue a career in STEM.

Women are hugely under represented in STEM industries, many say this is down to early education. Can you give us a summary of your experience of education and what more do you think can be done at this stage to break down stereotypes?

Curious individuals pursue STEM in early stage because they want to explore the unknown, improve understanding of the world, and build useful applications based on this understanding. To achieve a sense of curiosity to learn STEM, youths should be exposed to eye-opening experimentations as well as STEM in everyday settings. When students connect classroom concepts to real life phenomenons, they begin to appreciate and interact with what they have learned. High school is the crucial time period to engage in this development. My high school environment club was supervised by a few science teachers, who took students on countless field trips, stayed after recycling to conduct cool experiments, started a early morning dissection club, and built a vegetable garden with us from scratch. I was extremely inspired by the extent they went to help students learn and appreciate science. For that time onward, doing science was like having fun. But past that stage, I started reading sciences and technology news and began to think about the many things I could do with what I have learned. That made me feel empowered and encouraged to keep learning.

What insight would you give to current executives looking to hire young STEM men and women for their team?

Some questions I would ask: is the candidate’s way of thinking rigid or fluid, is he/she able to translate comprehension of a certain topic to a distantly related event, and does he/she enjoy repetitive or creative work? Early STEM experiences and important questions such as 2 and 3 above also help gauge the candidate’s reason for pursuing such a career.

What will you be discussing in your panel session?

My co-founder Miranda and I will talk about our journey in applying science and biotechnology to help solve a global crisis - plastic pollution. We hope to encourage other young women to see STEM not only as a viable career option but also as a way to make big impacts in our society.

You can hear more from Jeanny, along with other leading women in STEM industries, at the Women In STEM Summit. To register your interest, click here.


Read next:

Pallas Horwitz, Manager of Data Science at Mayvenn, Discusses How She Got Into STEM