From a young age, Monique Frize, née Aubry, has known her own mind. This has proven useful over the years. As a pioneering female engineer with a career spanning over five decades, she has had to navigate various personal and professional challenges that have tested her resolve and focus.
Born in a family of acclaimed French-Canadian writers, Monique was immersed in the world of literature from a young age. The eldest of seven children, she became an avid reader at the age of five. However, science and maths were always her first loves.
From grades 1 to 12, the only subjects I really liked were science and maths. I really did not like Latin and I really didn't like the way history was taught!
Plans by the United States to visit the moon provided a focus for her interest and fascination with science. “I was really gripped by the announcement that U.S. astronauts were going to the moon,” she says. “To me, that was very exciting. It got me thinking about how scientists do some amazing things.”
She continues: “My interest in science was mostly driven by me; there was no one really pushing me. In my class at an all-girls school, it wasn’t expected, or the norm, for girls to go onto university let alone study something like science or engineering.”
Love and tragedy
Monique successfully got into the University of Ottawa in an electrical engineering programme. “During lunch hour one day, I met a group of young men from engineering who were playing bridge. One day, they missed one of their colleagues and they asked me to join. I was delighted,” she says.
She connected and ended up falling in love with one of the group. “We got married when I started my degree in 1963. Tragically, he died seven weeks after our wedding in a car crash at the Ontario Highway 401 going to an engineering conference in Toronto.”
Monique’s grief was deep but the degree programme helped to occupy her mind somewhat. She describes training to be an engineer “for the both of us.” In 1966, she became the first woman to achieve a degree in engineering from the University of Ottawa.
It was a very difficult three years; to concentrate and yet live that difficult time, being alone after having loved this man; the man of my life. I was only 21.
New beginnings in London
In September 1967, Monique started her MPhil Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London with the support of an Athlone Fellowship.
“This was the best experience of all my education years,” she reflects. “It was unique and wonderful.” She adds: “The course had about a dozen students from a biological background and then we had four Canadians in the engineering part and we were all very close. I became best friends with Anna Buchtal (she later became an anaesthesiologist) and Christopher Ernest (he worked afterwards as a researcher at the Eye Institute). I learned so much from them.”
It wasn’t just the academic side that made Imperial memorable for Monique. She immersed herself into the social life too. “We had lunch in the pub on some days and we went to see some museums during lunchtime, especially the Science Museum and the V&A.” She adds: “I also went to my first prom in 1967. There I was as a French-Canadian singing “Britannia Rules The Waves!” It was very strange but I really felt like I belonged.”
Fortuitously, Monique met the man who would become her second husband on the ship to England. They kept in touch and got married at the Chelsea Registry Office.
Pioneering new work in Canada
After Imperial, Monique returned home to Canada where she went into a teaching job at Université du Québec à Montréal in 1970. She wasn’t in the job for very long before getting hired as a clinical engineer at Notre-Dame Hospital, the largest hospital in Quebec, in 1971. This role provided her with significant opportunities to pioneer some vital work in the safety and efficacy of medical equipment.
She created the Montreal group of clinical engineers. Colleagues from Vermont, the Maritime provinces, Montreal, and Ottawa attended the monthly meetings.
We worked on defining the role of this new profession and shared technical know-how to enhance our positive impact on the safety and efficacy of medical technologies ... I truly believed that what we were doing was going to make the hospitals safer, because there are a lot of hazards that can be created by equipment.
After eight years in the role, she was hired in 1979 as the head of Regional Clinical Engineering Service for seven hospitals in New Brunswick. Between 1979 and 1989, the department grew from managing US$1 million of medical devices to over US$40 million and Monique’s staff grew from four to eleven technologists and a junior engineer, in addition to clerical help.
“Every morning, I was really gung-ho to go to work. I was excited about developing new testing approaches to equipment as well as figuring out how to get other people to work together.”
In one way, I was a builder. I was tough and wouldn’t accept anything less than the best for my hospitals. That drove me. There were a lot of battles.
Monique quickly earned an international reputation due to her work and publications on the Clinical Engineering field in Canada, the US, and Europe and her research on electrosurgical burns. In 1979, she was asked to become one of five members of a working group by the International Federation on Medical and Biological Engineering (IFMBE) with the mandate to develop the Clinical Engineering field in thirty countries affiliated with the federation.
Her department in New Brunswick also became a model for many other departments around the world. This led to a request by the United Nations for Monique to help establish similar services in the Kingdom of Morocco. She also helped in Bangladesh and Haiti.
She described her approach to these missions, specifically to Morocco: “Right from the start, I said I wanted to make them completely independent so that when I left, they didn't need me anymore. So, after four or five missions, they didn't need me anymore which was good for them.”
In December 1989, Monique was appointed as a full professor and first Chairholder of the Northern Telecom/NSERC Chair for Women in Engineering at the University of New Brunswick. In 1997-2002, she won the grant for Ontario and was appointed full professor at Carleton University with a cross appointment at the University of Ottawa. She also held the role of Chair for Women in Science and Engineering in Ontario.
Inspiring future generations of women
Alongside her passion for sound engineering solutions, Monique has been a true advocate for women within the field. Her work has had tangible, long-lasting outcomes. Along with Claire Deschenes and Gail Mattson, she created the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists (INWES) in 2002. The network currently represents thousands of women in various engineering and scientific fields.
Between 1990 and 2002, I delivered over 400 invited talks on gender issues in science and technology. I participated in an equal number of media interviews, met groups in academia, industry, and made dozens of school presentations including in a few schools in the UK.
And in 1996, she was asked to chair the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Gender in science and technology working group, which sought to advance gender parity within the industry. This work led to the establishment of a body to oversee the inclusion of women at all levels in APEC groups, committees, and governance. There is policy that includes inclusivity in a document released in 2020.
To say that Monique has had a prolific career would be stating the obvious. The impact of her work is being felt around the world today.
During her academic career spanning 20 years, she was awarded approximately CAD$3 million in research grants, supervised 48 master's students, five PhD students, two post-doctoral students, and 35 undergraduate theses. She published over 200 papers, of which 155 were in peer-refereed conferences, 36 in journals, 11 chapters in books and six complete books as single author.
She also discovered the major causes of electro surgical burns during surgery and received a patent for a new electrode design in 1987.
Although retired now, she still maintains a keen interest in the field she helped establish. She’s just co-authored a book with colleagues on women in STEM organisations. But retirement has also afforded her the opportunity to explore other passions. “I started painting a few years ago. It’s something I’ve never done before and it’s just a lot of fun,” she says. “I’m going to Tuscany with my friend in June on a painting course.”
It means so much to me to win this award. Imperial is so special to me and I want to be a role model for women who go to the College.
Imperial's Alumni Awards recognise the outstanding achievements of our alumni community and the variety of ways they are making a real impact across the globe.
The Distinguished Alumni Award celebrates celebrates outstanding alumni who have demonstrated sustained excellence in their personal and professional achievements, are leaders in their field or have made a substantial impact on society.