Future you: How to build a career in environmental sustainability — November webinar
Watch the “Future you” November webinar (November 28, 2023)
So why are we doing these webinars? The labs that we support also serve as training grounds for students. They are spaces where undergrads and grad students conduct research, meet their mentors and gain skills that they can use to build their careers. In fact each of the panelists we have with us today and our moderator have spent time working in a CFI funded lab and as you will find out they have all gone on to work in rewarding careers. As an organization we recognize the value of this kind of training and hope to inspire students to see the same. So let's get started. I want to mention one bit of housekeeping before I introduce our moderator. We are leaving as much time as possible for panelists to answer your questions, so if you have a particular question that you think of as you listen to the discussion please write it in the Q&A section you see at the bottom of your screen. We will endeavor to get to as many of these as possible during the time we have.
Now I would like to pass it over to our moderator Catherine Girard. Catherine is an assistant professor of microbiology at Université du Quebec a Chicoutimi. Her research focuses on the microbial ecology of ice in the arctic and how climate change will alter landscapes and ecosystem function. So she is obviously very well positioned to lead this discussion today with our four very interesting panelists who are all working in environmental fields. So thank you again for joining us today and over to you Catherine.
Catherine Girard: Thank you so much Elizabeth and thanks to everyone in the audience for joining us for this webinar. I am very pleased to be the moderator for today's discussion with our exciting group of panelists. So as Elizabeth mentioned I am researcher, I am based in Chicoutimi in Québec and I am interested in how ecology of microbes changes with climate change. So climate change and sustainability are deeply connecting and for me microbes are one of the key actors at this interplay and throughout my training in steam I was always really fascinating by biodiversity conservation and how microbiology and ecology research could lead to sustainable solutions at the local, but also at the global scale. So I am really really pleased to be here with you to moderator this panel on careers in environmental sustainability and I'm really happy to get to spend the next hour with you and our wonderful panelists who have careers in this sector from all across Canada. So I would like to introduce our four panelists for today.
So first we have Nina Dmytrenko who is a green home expert at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in Ottawa. Hello Nina.
We also have Michelle D'Souza, a biodiversity specialist who is a research and innovation manager at McCain Foods in Florenceville-Bristol, New Brunswick. Hi, Michelle.
We are also welcoming Alan Lee, who is an agriculture lab manager at the sustainable Agriculture Lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Hi, Alan.
And we have Graham Van Every who is a sustainability consulting analyst at Quinn and Partners in Toronto who helps large public companies reduce their greenhouse gas footprints. Hi Graham.
Thanks to all four of you for being here today and I would like to start by giving each of you an opportunity to introduce yourselves and to share a bit about the journeys that led you to your respective fields. So, one after the other I will invite the panelists to share on the paths that led them to their current work in environmental sustainability and to tell us a bit about what experiences or which mentors supported them during this journey and what does the day in the life of our panelists look like.
So let's start with Nina who again is a green home expert. Nina could you take a few minutes and share with us your journey and tell us about what led you to your current work.
Nina Dmytrenko: Thank you Catherine. Hello everyone, it's my pleasure to speak with you today and thank you CFI for organizing this inspiring series and thank you to our participants for registering, attending and showing the interest in this field, as well as I think overall research topic. So, I grew up in Ukraine, in a very technical and very analytical family. So my grandma's they were physics teachers, my parents graduated with mathematics and computer science degrees. So I wanted to be like them, but I didn't want to do any programming because I didn't feel any connection with this. Between my parents there was a little bit of rivalry of whose university is better, so I was team dad and he went to Kyiv Polytechnic Institute so I wanted to go where he went. In high school we already starting thinking of which department because it's not computer science I will be going and we had this conversation about energy and that energy is an essential part of humankind and future challenges will be about energy generation, storing, transportation. So here you go. I go to heat and power engineering department which in Canada would simply be called mechanical engineering. But in that particular department there was so many subbranches where I could because all of the courses were already predesigned for you, you cannot pick and choose. So you have to select your path pretty much from year one. There was a lot on combustion. There was also on nuclear, but in nuclear there is bit gender limitations because of medical reasons, woman cannot be on power plant, at least in Ukraine, this is the rule. But I still wanted to do something about heat transfer. So I was thinking thermal physics would be my new passion and this is where I could eventually branch out into renewable energy. That was my plan.
So I graduated with Bachelor's in Applied Science, then in Master's in Applied Science and then I developed a new dream. I wanted to study in a western university and use those modern facilities that I dreamed about while doing my program back home. So this is how I ended up in University of Waterloo. I was there for a couple of semesters, took the classes that I thought would enable me to link to a larger network of labs in Canada that are working in renewable energy and solar in particular. So after two semesters I switched to Carleton University to an amazing building performance research center which is one of key very strong groups in Canada that is doing research all about housing, including systems, innovative technologies, but also behavioural science behind people using buildings in a certain way, interacting with the technologies in a certain way. So it took me quite some time with some failures and successes to graduate and because of my supervisor I was able to get pretty quickly my first contract with federal government at CMHC. So since 2018 I have been at CMHC in research department.
In terms of my day to day work I will quickly give you a screen shot almost of lifecycle of all of my projects. So if you have any friends or colleagues or parents, family members from government, you probably, at least in research, you probably heard that we like planning the plan. So once in a few years, we are planning the plan in terms of what we will be researching. So we are trying to understand current issues, challenges or crisis and what would be the critical questions that we need to address to move forward with all of those problems. So once in a few years we formulate in those critical questions and once the plan is done we are creating projects that would be able to answer those questions. So we are developing the methodologies, we are predicting what would be the outcomes and once we finally get those results, we support in our policy colleagues is the evidence we generate and we also communicate those results to the general public. In trying to influence whoever we can to move towards greener housing, so that our GHG emissions are going down, that we are developing much more energy efficient building stock and we are preserving it and we are also trying to create somewhat resilient building stock considering the current realities of the climate.
Girard: That's wonderful. Thank you so much Nina for sharing. Next I would like to invite Michelle to share a bit of her journey with us. Michelle how did you become a research and innovation manager at McCain Foods.
Michelle D'Souza: Thank you very much for the opportunity to tell this story. It's always a privilege to be able to share that experience and share that journey especially for me it wasn't a very typical one. So my family comes from India, but I've kind of grown up all around the world. I spent a significant amount of time in the Middle East during my early years, going back and forth from there to India. So I very much come from a rural India family. I spent a lot of my early life running around barefoot in nature. That was what I loved to do. So the second light came out, I was out there and I would come back for dinner, messy, dirty, living the general Jungle Book life. That was all I ever wanted. I think that really informed a lot of my passions and I found peace and solace and just joy being out in the world.
My family immigrated to Canada, 23 years ago now and changed a lot of the way I approach things largely because now all of a sudden I'm in a very different environment, culture is very different, started understanding and trying to understand how I fit in a very new world. One thing that kind of grounded me was valuing education. It was always something that was very, very important in my family and I had an older sister who was following the footsteps of my dad, being an engineer. So, I had end up at Waterloo, a really important engineering school and one of the things that I learned from her experience at Waterloo was how valuable co-op is, cooperative program. So Waterloo, being one of the largest universities for this, I followed suit. Just realizing how valuable it was to get actual hands-on experience on the job. I didn't really have a clear understanding of what I wanted to do at that point. I knew I loved nature and that was really about it.
When I told my dad I wanted to do biology, he was like what kind of a job would you get doing biology? That's a really hard question to answer coming from an India family who is like so you're going to be a doctor, right? That's really, if your going into life sciences that's where you go. I knew that wasn't for me. I think I had an aha moment once while watching a documentary where my dad takes me to this museum, it's one of those 4D Imax experiences and it was about divers going down into the crevices of underwater thermals and collecting bacteria, and I'm watching this surrounded, I'm like, that's it, that's what I want to do. I want to be able to go into the tiny little crevices of the earth and understand and connect with life. So I was like I'm going to do biology.
I also had a very analytical background, or passion I guess. So I choose biochemistry. Thought that would be a really good middle ground. Typically I think a biochemist, if you think of the jobs one goes to, you are going to go into something like the pharmaceutical industry, toxicology, [Inaudible]. So I got the chance to work a diversity of jobs through my co-op program. At my last one, I worked for a toxicology lab and I did really really incredible research. However that required testing on animals. It quickly broke my soul. I realized that was not for me and I think that was a really really good turning point because I was like okay this isn't for me, I need to shift gears or I'm not going to stay in this field.
I made a really bold decision I think in the last year of my co-op, where I said I'm not going to work for money, I'm going to go out to the most remote place that I can think of and do field work. I ended up in Central America, in Honduras specifically and I found a professor who was going to sponsor that effort, specifically using the technology called the DNA barcoding. It was the first time I ever heard of it, but it was an opportunity for me to go and once again, go crawl through a forest and do some research. So my two worlds kind of aligned. I absolutely loved in, I absolutely adored it. So I did an undergraduate thesis in that experience. I had a really great time, met lots of really good people, found my passion again and very quickly realized that I wanted to work for the organization that sponsored that opportunity.
And at that point the professor who had supported me, said to me, well if you are going to and work for them and support them doing research, why would you not do a Masters? At that point I had not considered grad school, I was not the type of person who thought that was for me, but you know, I saw his point. Why not? If I'm going and supporting other people to do research, why don't I do it myself? At that point he is like I know just the guy for you, go and meet Paul Haber. I didn't know at that time, Paul Haber was the father of DNA barcoding. I didn't know at the time, that the advisor that I was actually doing graduate thesis was his old PHD student. So here I go to Guelph now, I'm sitting in the office with Paul and I'm telling him what I love and care about and he's like yeah, sure, perfect. If you want to do a Master's I'm fully supportive of it, let's give this a go. I got thrust into this world of DNA. Not just DNA but got indoctrinated into the Centre of Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph. It's a really fabulous institution that not only facilitates the growth of DNA barcoding, but really builds the infrastructure and the community.
This is where CFI has come into my life at this point. For me it was really finding that passion and finding the tool to help conserve those places that I felt so intimately connected to. That eventually led me to McCain because what I understood at that point was this tool can be used in various different ways and what McCain wanted to do is use this tool to understand and inform more sustainable agriculture. So I thought that was a really exciting challenge and that's what led me to McCain.
My day to day now and I'll get a little bit more into this in the follow up questions. I will put you a little teaser though. So I worked with McCain as a consultant for a few years until I finally was able to secure a position just this past year. It was a position that was designed for me and it really allows me to integrate my experience with research, the international community, a global perspective into how to tackle really large problems. So that's kind of my day to day. So, I work on a global team and I work with regional departments to help understand how we can make sustainable choices in agriculture with all of the nuance that's needed to address it, in every single region or country. So that's my day to day.
Girard: Excellent. Thank you, Michelle. I understand, I definitely got caught up in science when I first heard about DNA barcoding as well. It is extremely cool, I get it. So, thank you for sharing, Michelle. Next, Alan, could you tell us a little bit about your journey, about your background and what led you to now being a sustainable agriculture land manager.
Alan Lee: Thank you for having me for one. I guess it's pretty funny so far that, you know, we have this theme of trying to get into engineering because it's definitely something that happened on my end too. I guess we immigrated in 2001 to Canada. I grew in lower mainland in BC, in the suburbs. So, I know nothing about agriculture. All I see is pretty much, once in a while a documentary pops up on TV and whatnot. I really liked watching Animal Planet and Discovery at the time. It comes up once in a while, I think I want to say in the mornings before going to school or right after classes. You come back and you watch TV and all that good stuff. But yeah, no high school, at the time, it was you know, family members that are all engineers. By brother was applying to an engineering school and what not. I thought to myself why not, let's apply to engineering it seems pretty fun, I have the grades for it, why not. Then as a backup I was like I like animals and plants, they are really fun things to interact with. So let's put that as a backup. It was a thought that I didn't get into engineering at all, so I took my backup and I started taking courses there.
And of course being from zero agricultural background and going to a school that is basically agricultural school, University of Alberta in Edmonton is a really big agricultural school, all my classmates are farmers actually. A really interesting experience there. There was a course in the U of A called [inaudible] 200 where it primarily deals with farm animals, but at the same time the professors were pushing very hard for researchers or even students to interact with producers at the time. So I had this opportunity to talk with producers and talk about what their griefs and challenges are in the animal agriculture industry. This was the time when I was thinking to myself, being a researcher you really should understand what your producers need. But you know, that given that wasn't exactly what I was interested in, I kept on taking more courses. I think in first year I also took soil sciences course where the teachers there and the TA's there were super passionate about looking at blocks of dirt and you know, at the time it was weird. I've never touched dirt, soil before really. So touching it, playing around with it and seeing how it changes as you do different things to it. Like using the ribbon method to figure out what the texture is. Putting some carbonization on it to see if there is calcium in the soil and all that good stuff. It was very chemistry. It was very physics. It was pretty much everything in engineering that I enjoyed more than engineering itself. So I kept on pushing forwards to it.
I got an internship working at a private agricultural firm. I got a chance to work in a lab at the U of A as well and at the time when I was working I had ideas of what I wanted to see, wanted to learn more about this ecosystem called soil and that pushed really hard into what I was thinking. I met this supervisor in the private firm who had plenty of projects going on and one day we were just sitting out at the farm looking at a plot going hey this is wonderful, this is really beautiful. We have results that would not have made sense if we didn't start studying it. We kept talking about it and we came up with a project. At the time I didn't think about doing Master's. There was no reason for me to do a Master's, I just wanted to work and see research. So I think I brought that idea up to a professor that I knew at the U of A, told him, hey there is a project that I think is interesting. Here is a project, you can do whatever you like with it, but I wanted you to know about it because my supervisor can't take this on. Who would have thought that the person I told it to would be like why don't you just do a Master's, there is no reason for you not. Both of them actually because the person became my co-supervisor afterwards from that place and we ended up finishing that Master's. It solidified me being very passionate about soil. It was so much things that you could see from all that research.
The research and the soil came together and I started looking for positions where I could do both which was agronomist position and somehow landed me at the University of British Columbia working as a lab coordinator for pretty much the exact thing I wanted to do.
In terms of day to day, on season is the best time because every day would be me going out into the field sampling and bringing the samples back. So when we are out in the field we get to see a lot of fun stuff, a lot of fun stuff. Of course on the off season, when we are processing, we also get to see a lot of things. We get to use equipment, really fancy equipment from the labs, which I will talk about a little bit later, and it's a lot of planning actually because when you are trying to find projects, everything is about planning and you have to talk to all of your stakeholders about what you want to get out of planning. Last and not least as lab coordinator I train pretty much everybody from grad students to student workers in my lab. And that is my day to day.
Girard: Wonderful. Thank you, Alan. So it sounds like you're becoming quite the mentor yourself in your new position. So, finally I would like to invite Graham who is a sustainability consulting analyst to share a bit with us. So, Graham could you tell us how you came to work in sustainability and what your day to day looks like at work?
Graham Van Every: Absolutely, yeah. Thank you everyone for being here, I'm looking forward to speaking with everyone. A little bit about myself, I grew up just outside of Sudbury, in northern Ontario. So growing up in that area, I soon realized if I didn't have hobbies that didn't involve being outside, I wasn't probably going to have hobbies at all. Pretty much everyone around there were hobbies being out on the lake, hiking, doing something outdoors. So I think that's where my passion for environmental sustainability really began. Then fast forward a few years when I was in high school, I graduated high school, really had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew that I liked math and science and I knew that engineering was a degree that combined both of those subjects, but was also very employable. So I figured if I go get an engineering degree, I can work on some things that maybe I like, but even if I don't like it, in the end I will have a degree that is employable and I could get a job and go wherever I liked.
So I eventually settled on chemical engineering at McMaster. It was chemical engineering because I always thought it was fun when people would have conversations about we should power the world on nuclear energy or cars should run on natural gas, or something like that. I always found those conversations exciting and chemical engineering was something that tackled that. That's why I choose chemical engineering. I did end up really really enjoying my degree just by sheer luck, it ends up being something I really liked. A couple years in, when I was in third year, I had a really good opportunity fall into my lap, one of my professors who I honestly didn't even know knew my name, emailed me out of the blue and said, hey, would you like to come and work at my lab, we have a spot for a new undergraduate student. If you are interested come by and check it out. So I knew I had to say yes, to that opportunity. Eventually went and started working in this professor's lab. We primarily focused on treating waste water and it was a very practical lab. The lab had a lot of private companies that would hire us in the lab. So essentially we would take their waste water and then we would come up with sort of a pilot way to treat that waste water on the lab scale and then say okay, this is what you should actually in the field. These are the types of technologies that you should look at to accomplish what you are looking. So I worked in that lab for a number of years. That made up my summer jobs about three years of university.
Then when I finished my undergraduate degree, I was asked to stay on and do a Master's and I really heavily considered it. I eventually ended up saying no, not because I didn't like the work, but because I was actually a very poor experimentalist. I did not have the knack for lab work, like everyone else in my lab did. So I figured if I was going to get a job I was successful at, it would have to be something that I have natural ability in. So moved on to industry, but I used my lab experience to do so because we were working with private companies, I had some connections. I ended up going to work for one of my companies that our lab had been hired by. That company was called, Anaergia they were a renewable energy project developer. So I started out in the sustainability department documenting the emissions that our company produced, as well as the emissions that are company avoided. Got to write the sustainability report for the company that was eventually published and given out to investors.
Then shortly thereafter that was published I hop on over to the company where I work now which is Quinn and Partners. We are consultants that help companies all across the world, many of whom are large public companies. We help them disclose what there greenhouse gas emission footprint is and help them identify investments that will be good for the world and will be successful in the net zero future.
So my day to day today is pretty busy. A lot of different client calls. A lot of spreadsheets. I do a lot of emissions accounting, where I am knee deep in Excel. Very different from what I used to do in the lab, but I would not absolutely be here without my lab experience. So, happy to here and happy to be chatting with all of you today.
Girard: Excellent. Thank you so much Graham for sharing. Thanks to all four of you for telling us a bit about your training, your experiences and where you are at right now. So for this next segment of the webinar, we are doing to delve a little bit deeper into how you got here and why your work in environmental sustainability is important. Maybe Graham we can chat about this first question with you, just because you mentioned that you were not a natural experimentalist from what you just shared, but you did gain a lot from your work in a lab during your university years. So could you tell us a bit more about what other skills or what experiences you have gained during that time in the lab that helped you for what you do now?
Van Every: Yeah. For sure. I think for me, and this might not be the same for everyone, but for me working in a lab was my first dose of the real world. Doing your courses at school, don't get me wrong, tremendously important, take them very seriously and work hard, but in academic studies, you're taught how to do something in class, then you are given a set of information and then you go and solve a problem that you've previously been taught to do. But when you are in a lab, that's really not the case. I can remember that some days I would be sent something, I would be sent this random lab sample, it doesn't have a label on it. There is a safety protocol that I am supposed to follow, I can't do that if there isn't a label, what do I do? So, just learning to deal with ambiguity and incomplete set of information, really started doing that in the lab. That's something I do all the time today. I work with incomplete information all the time and when I started in a lab, I had incomplete information, okay, I had to learn to build up some communication skills, learn who to ask when I have problems, learn how to ask those questions. Those are still things I do every day today. So I think a lot of it was just that real practical application of things that you had learned and the lab was a great way to do that.
Girard: That's interesting. People don't often associate science with creativity, but it's absolutely what you need to work in the lab to sort of push through the ambiguity and the incomplete information to chase that answer. Alan, you obviously spend a lot of in the lab to this day, what parts of your training or your time in the lab when you were in university sort of helped you grow into what you do now?
Lee: It's quite of funny. At the U of A, I worked at two different labs and I swear I wasn't in the lab about 90% of the time. In terms of what I learned and what experiences I got from these labs, it's mostly at working as a lab technician it's really important that things are timed, you know how long everything takes and as a lab manager now, I'm realizing it. It really is important to know how long every sample takes. So that's the skill thing, is to actually make sure that you always know what every single step of the stuff takes. Now, in terms of actual skill sets I've learned from everyone of those jobs is when you take samples there is a very particular way you should take it. Especially with soil. My second lab was a soils lab which is quite literally the same as what I'm working in right now. Soil sciences is very very similar across pretty much all of the disciplines, whether it's biogeochemistry, microbial biology work and all of that. You need to do basic soil sampling to have a baseline information. So if anything I took away from that is learning how to take nutrient soil samples and bulk density. Surprisingly, I've been doing that pretty much for about four or five years now.
Girard: Techniques that you didn't initially think would be so crucial in your day to day?
Van Every: Yeah, those day-to-day things were really, it solidified all of the things that I have to do. Basically from that one lab actually. All of the techniques that I learned from that one lab have transferred pretty much completely over to what I'm currently working on right now.
Girard: Sounds like a good lab. Time management is absolutely one of the biggest skills that you can take away from this kind of course and for someone in your position I expect it's absolutely critical to operations.
Lee: Yeah, it's important so that supervisor knows that they aren't unloading project with time.
Girard: Excellent. You guys, we are hearing a lot of common themes, engineering, enjoy being outside and everything, but you all have very different distinct careers and I'm wondering if some of you would like to share on what gets you pumped up about getting to work every morning? What gets you excited to get to work and maybe Michelle you would like to take this one?
D'Souza: Yes, I would be happy to. When I really get down to it I think, there is a theme I have in my life and it's I didn't really know how to really approach or what the best way to doing anything was. What I understood was I had a passion for the very very get go for something specific. So nature, being in it, protecting it was my priority. The next thing that really took hold was how do I get involved in that space. How do I get involved in that world? How do I do my best with my skills? To this day, that's what excites me. I have had a variety of different jobs. I have had a variety of different ways to approach that, but at the heart of it, that's what it is for me. It's am I getting up every day and am I speaking to that passion of mine, to that truth of mine. So, like, at first I was super grateful and fortunate to have even understood at an early age what that was, because I think that really is a challenge for a lot of people. What am I passionate about? What are my gifts? How can I make a difference? Once I figured that part out, everything else was about okay, what do I feel like doing today? What do I feel like doing this year? Where do I want to be in five years and how do I position my life and myself to approach that goal in a way that makes sense in my life right now. And for me that is it, that's what gets me excited. As long as every day, I wake up and I'm answering that question, then that's great. The spice is in the fact that every day the way I approach it is different, right? The way I connect with people is different. So when I am in academia I got the chance to ask people all around the world about how they approach that. Now that I am in industry I get to look at on a business side. So that for me is the exciting part, that there is really no one path to answering things that need to be answered especially in the environmental sustainability space. So you almost have to create that excitement for yourself and yeah, I'm just really fortunate to have been able to do that.
Girard: I think that's a lovely way of framing it too. This needing to have a constant for you is a passion to protecting nature and the environment, but also needing that spice to keep things interesting and challenging in your day to day. I think that's really well said. Alan, would you like to tell us a bit about what gets you going to get to work? What excites you about getting up every morning?
Lee: Ooh, I am not a morning waker, I can tell you this much, but in the on season, I can wake up as early 3 o'clock in the morning just to get out and go work in the field. Why might that be? Can you imagine going out into a field, looking at the field, seeing your project, the whole treatment that you have put in actually starts seeing effect, it looks all different and all that good stuff and then when it starts blooming, especially in the agricultural field. When you work with things like, cover crops, when you work with, let's say your wheat, your peas and whatever, you start seeing flowers and those flowers are all different colours. So every day you come in and you see this really beautiful flower garden essentially. That's a very big reason for why I wake up early, for those seasons. I guess in the off season, what really motivates me, gets me out of bed, when I'm very very close to a result, especially when it's been about 2-3 weeks of processing, I'm tired, I just want to get analyst done, but I now that day is going to come, when the analyst comes that I had really fascinating results from whatever I do. Whether it's the fact that our cover cropping treatment where we added some many cover crops to the point where all we see is a jungle, has worked. Oh, that excitement comes in and you're just ahh. You just wanted to do more. You want to write more. You want to learn more about what you do and that's what keeps me going any time I wake up.
Girard: It sounds like seasonality in your on and off season is really nourishing and gets you outside when the treatments are happening on the crops in the fields, but then you get to chase that curiosity in the lab and chase that result?
Girard: Wonderful. I mean, science is certainly exciting especially when you know that you are close to a result, you can actually see your treatments having an effect, but it's not always all dewy there are some challenges to pursuing a job in the sciences or in the environmental sector. So I'm wondering if any of you would like to share on any setbacks or challenges that you may have faced in grad school or during your hunt for a career and if you ever experienced any perspective changes or how you overcame these setbacks? So, Nina would you like to respond to this one?
Dmytrenko: Would love to. So, through my grad school at Carleton, my research was not going at the pace that I was expecting. I was not able to get the data I wanted, however at some point it was almost like a devastating feeling. I am not achieving what I wanted to achieve, especially in that bigger picture. But afterwards when I was successfully able to get a job and actually see how much applicability of those failures are for actual real-life world with all these challenges because when you surround yourself to a lab environment where everything is controlled and then you area moving into real world, nothing is controlled any more, everything is outside of your control or a lot of things. Like, you can be overwhelmed, but I was already overwhelmed during grad school, during my research. So I think at the end when I looking at things right now, especially as a federal government employee where I see how massive those problems are and how difficult it is to find solutions and then apply them across Canada. I understand that all of those failures, they were not actually failures, I just need to convert them into lessons learned, insights and also how they were able to help me to develop resilience to those things. So as long as whatever you're going through in grad school in particular, try to remember about the picture. Elements that you feel there was state and end of life situations, they might be not. As long as you are able to analyze them and pull something extremely useful. Then afterwards build your story based on those lessons learned instead of saying I failed here, I failed there, it's not failure, just pool the lessons. As long as you are able to analyze and get that bigger picture and see how it fits into your path, whatever you are planning for yourself. That is a success story.
Girard: That's a really fascinating perspective and I think a lot of grad students fall into the trap of tying their sense of self to what they are doing in the lab and when that happens, if you fail at something, it makes it very very hard to work through. But what you just shared, on shifting this failure to a lesson and understanding that you know, in the real world we do lack control and that's okay and how can we push through. I think that's really inspirational, thank you Nina. Michelle would you like to contribute maybe to this question. Any setbacks or challenges that you overcame or something to share?
D'Souza: Yeah, I like what Nina said about resilience and I think you know, very much can relate to that particular word. Graduate school is not for everyone. I didn't think I needed it. I got thrust into the world and I absolutely adored and loved the challenge of it, but it is a challenge and you commit a lot of yourself and lot of your time and a lot of energy into this world and space and sometimes if you don't have a perspective of how you connect to the larger picture or the larger problem, which I think just in general academics struggle with sometimes, it can get really hard. You can lose a little bit of yourself in the process. Academia in itself is a very very different place today than it was back in the day, right? So back in the day you got into grad school to become a professor, to do research. The numbers of graduate students who even get an opportunity to go down that path any more is low and it is discouraging. Just in general there is a lack of stability, right? So once you finish grad school, then you're a post doc and if you're lucky you become an assistant professor or professor, but there is a reality in which you can be a post doc for way too long and post docs are two year positions, you're shifting, you're going from different countries, different research projects, you've got to be versatile. I keep hearing this, you never want to do your post doc where you do your PHD, or you do your Master's, you want to diversify, and not just in general.
For me initially that was great. When I started I didn't need stability, I wanted excitement, I wanted to see every corner of the world. Oh, I different project in two years, perfect, sign me up. I got to go to South Africa, I got to go to Nunavik. I got to do projects in some pretty incredible places. But then I shifted, the lack of stability did end up impacting me at one point and it took me a really hard time to understand that that's okay and that my boundaries are shifting. What are my boundaries and what am I comfortable giving up now for that excitement versus that stability. I think that's really really important to understand. One that it's dynamic in your life, it's going to change, it's going to shift. You might fall in love. You might have kids. You know, there are so many things that happen in your life and that shouldn't be a bad thing. Like, know your boundaries, move forward and it's okay to completely shift directions. I struggled a lot with oh my God, I spent X amount of years in academia and now I find myself in industry and I'm looking at people younger than me who are in such high positions, and I'm like I could have done that. You know, just started here. That's such a dangerous way to look at life. I need to value all of that journey, all of the path, all of my learnings and that perspective, I wish I had sooner.
Girard: Yeah, I think that's really important, this resiliency. Grad school is many things, but it's also not really good at showing us paths that are not in this 10-year track, academic pipeline and accepting that this might not be what you want to do, is really important when you are in that system and not always easy. Thanks Michelle, for sharing.
D'Souza: No, problem.
Girard: This next question I would like to direct to Graham. So you told us a bit about your work as a sustainability analyst and I'm wondering how you jumped from your training in engineering to your career. What first steps did you take to transition from grad school or university into your current position?
Van Every: I think the first thing is I used my academic studies to learn what I liked and I think this a theme that applies to a lot of people on this call. For myself I started doing research, I valued the experience tremendously, but I knew that I wasn't all that good at it. For Alan, for example, Alan started doing research and was clearly very good at it and has now found a successful career pathway on that side of things. So I think, my first piece of advice to anyone would just be approach everything in steam, with your head held high, have an understanding, hey this might not be easy, I might not like it, but as long as I'm learning along the way, it's going to be value to me in the long run.
Then the second thing that was huge for me was just leveraging my connections. I talked about earlier about how coming out of university I used a connection that I had made in the lab to get a job and it's funny, I remember applying to probably 20 or 30 jobs out of school and the one that I got was where I only had to send someone an email with my resume in it and that was pretty much the extent of the effort that I had to put into it. So, use your connections for sure and try to be strategic along the way about meeting people who can maybe help you out down the road. But I would definitely caution that it doesn't have to be, like you don't have to use your connections to get a job, you ca use you connections just to help you in general. If you are working in steam, chances are you are surrounded by some pretty successful people and don't be afraid to ask those people, hey, what advice would you give to someone at this stage of their career. When you found your job, how did you know it was what you liked? What would you do if you were in my position? How would you best prepare yourself? Even little things like that can be tremendously helpful and generally speaking people in steam are pretty kind, pretty humble and pretty willing to help people out. So don't be afraid to reach out and ask for help because it can always be invaluable.
Girard: That's really important advice because when we think connections, we often think networking or attending conferences but it's so much more than that. It's interacting day to day with people who are close with us and who are part of the supportive community of steam. That's really great advice and I think this brings us really nicely to one of the big themes of today's webinar which is mentorship. What role did mentors play in your paths? Or how does one find a mentor? How does a mentor support us? So maybe Michelle if you could share a bit about your experience with your mentors and how they were important in your training?
D'Souza: I would love to. So I just want to mention one of my key mentors, Paul Haber. I think you know, especially when you're in grad school, that's a really clear and easy mentor, usually, especially when you go into grad school, you pick that person, make an informed decision about them and there is loads and loads of things that I would encourage you to do well when you are actually thinking of that space. I was really really fortunate and I choose someone who supported my strengths and my skills and that's really important. I want to touch ono a little bit, I guess more in line kind, of what Graham was just saying, your connections and your mentors don't always have to be this thing that you make concrete decisions about. Sometimes going in and understanding that connection in and of itself, is such a valuable thing. You don't always have to have an angle. You don't always have to approach a person saying, I want you to be my mentor. A perfect example I can give is, one of my cherished mentors is, Hannah James. So when I met her she was working in communications at the University of Guelph and she approached me because she wanted to do a little bit of a comms piece on one of the projects that I was working on. Since then that relationship has just blossomed into this beautiful thing because what she made me realize is that communicating my research was this like hidden piece that I just did not put legs on and I didn't understand and we just had this wonderful conversation and kind of like my little shout back out to watching that documentary that inspired it all. It was like this is the stuff that allows people to get excited about nature and connect with it a little bit personally where they may not have had the opportunity and all of a sudden, I went down this path, also loving and passionately wanting to be a science communicator. That was nothing I wouldn't have expected that I could ever do and it happened because I kept my heart open to it I guess. So yeah, I think mentors can come and find you in these really beautiful ways and stay open to that.
Girard: And mentorship can come in many different facets and it's not just your PI or your advisor. It's important what you just shared, it shows the importance of sort of seeing the spark of science and of knowledge through someone else's eyes is powerful and you got to see your work under a totally different lens. So I could see how that would certainly open your eyes.
D'Souza: That's a good way of putting it, exactly. Yeah.
Girard: So I would like to ask maybe a couple more questions before we move on to the Q&A. This one maybe for Nina, I'd like to know what value you see for your line of work for Canada. What kind of satisfaction do you draw from working in the energy sector in clean housing?
Dmytrenko: I think this part of being government employee in research. The work we do is supposed to improve lives of all Canadians. So you are immediately connecting to something so meaningful. You know that all of your successes will be shared with so many more people across Canada. So creating the research that is applicable, meaningful, that you are trying to solve some very real problems, is what gives the joy every day. It's what makes the work meaningful. Earlier today as a research division we were going through a training and we were given an example about project Aristotle from Google where they were trying to understand some common themes for successful for high performing teams and two things were mentioned as a discovery through that project. Its impact, so feeling that your work matters overall and also second thing is that work has a personal meaning for yourself. So, some people can say it's identical thing. It's not two different discoveries. But for me it is because on one hand back to our results will impact Canadians. This is the target. Also we specifically say about particularly vulnerable populations. So we are not going after money. We are actually trying to make solutions that most vulnerable populations need and they do not have the capacities, they don't have resources. So we have to, we have the responsibility of supporting them as much as possible. That's one.
Second one about the personal meaning for me, I have been doing research around energy for 12 years in universities. Then afterwards the applicability of that research in energy was used in housing sector, so I transferred it, but I was thinking about, we do need to reduce energy consumption, so generally reduce consumerism and create those small efficient ways of either generating energy or distributing energy or using energy. So to me it was through my entire university was a passion. And it's not somebody told me to do so or be interested in it, it's connecting with those things that speak to you. So my work truly speaks to my values and beliefs. That is my religion. So climate change is overwhelming problem, housing is overwhelming problem in Canada, but every day you're working on something that you know is maybe tiny bit, but it is towards the direction of solving those major problems. So that's how I see my value in this large organization and in this larger problem set.
Girard: Yeah, that's really important having the knowledge that your research is meaningful and has impact, but above finding personal meaning, I think is a really important point that you make and maybe applies also to people who are more fundamental research and less applied, you have to find that personal meaning, to make it all make sense. Thanks, Nina. Maybe just one last question before we move onto the Q&A and I would like to direct this one to Alan, could you offer a bit of practical advice on how you went about finding your job? Did you look for job opportunities? Did you have to apply to many different places? How did you get your foot in the door basically?
Lee: This was a really fun time for me actually. I went into my Master's straight out of my Bachelor's. So I didn't really have a chance to get a proper job or anything before then. So right out of my Master's I was basically at the end of the COVID pandemic, so I was trying to get a job in agronomy One of the biggest issues then was, moving back home to BC, it was really hard to find a job in agronomy because lower mainland BC isn't exactly known for having agricultural specialist being hired just because there is so many agronomic products there is not actually a firm that can deal with all of them. So I started applying in Alberta in the interior and unfortunately not that much luck because there are already specialists there. I was not as specialized as I thought I would be. So I started looking for a little bit more entry level jobs, in fact things that don't even require a Bachelor's, just a high school diploma basically. I ended up working at ES Crop Consult, as a crop scout for a year, just to kind of get my feel for agriculture was like in BC and at the time I also kept on applying to jobs which eventually led me to working at UBC. But if there is any advice I'd say to give to people who are trying to apply for a job is keep on applying to things that you think you like, and keep on applying to things at different levels of the position, whether it's entry level to advance. Now I didn't get any advanced on, but I've been told that even if the condition of the job posting has more qualifications that it wants, then what you can give, still apply to them in case they ever has this lack of applicants with the proper qualifications.
Girard: Yes, so really don't box yourself in depending on the level of the position, but really use what you want to do, what you actually enjoy doing as the main deciding factor. That's great advice, yeah. Thank you Alan. Well, thank you all for those really insightful comments. I have one last question for our panelists and then we will turn it over to the audience. So I would like to quickly remind everybody who is connected to the Zoom, please enter any questions that you may have using the Q&A function. I'm sure you will have questions as well for our panelists. For my last question, this is similar to what you just shared Alan, but I will ask you for one other piece of advice. So for all of you, I'd like to know what guidance you would offer to students who are right now in university or college that are considering careers in environmental fields? Is there one piece of advice that you would share with them that could help them be successful on this journey? I would like to hear from all of you on this. So let's start with Nina, what one bit of advice would you like to share?
Dmytrenko: I have one and half. So, one to reiterate, resilience. Be resilient, take your failures, convert them into learnings. But the second one, specifically those who are choosing the grad school and lab where they will be doing research, choose carefully the university, the lab and the supervisor. In grad school it's so incredibly important to find a supervisor who is well established in your field, but also who you can have good chemistry because pretty much them and like this dynamic will determine your success to an extent. And maybe one more piece on the topic, even though it's good to be quite fundamental and have the fundamental knowledge on something, but try to convert that fundamental knowledge in your very niche topic. So that eventually you will be an expert or close to in one specific field because in my case it was heat pumps. For very many years in Ukraine I was studied heat pumps. I came to Carleton I was studying heat pumps and it was like new learnings, and completely different from theoretical research to experimental research. But have fundamental knowledge because it can be applicable across very many different fields, just like my energy got applied in housing sector, but have the specific topic, have your heat pumps.
Girard: Find your heat pump.
Girard: Excellent. Thank you, Nina. Michelle one piece of advice you would like to share with our audience who would like to pursue a career in environmental fields?
D'Souza: Yeah. Just listening to Alan speak earlier, I would like to say you are special. We are all special. There is such a large, large problem ahead of us. We have big big things to address, big problems. The sustainability of our planet it's a huge problem and there is an unique way that you contribute to solving this problem. So, find out what that is and pursue it to your dying breath. Like, that's my piece of advice. And don't get discouraged if the world doesn't fit that narrative right now, right? Create that space. Demand that space. Ask that job. Create that job if it doesn't exist. I wouldn't have been able to give you this advice before, but I'm going to tell you right now, it is absolutely possible. There is a shift happening and people want to address these big problems and they don't know how. So you find your passion and you can understand the way that you can help solve that problem, then show people the job that you need to solving that problem.
Girard: Wonderful. So really create that space, I think it really powerful advice and learning to advocate for yourself because you are the best person for a job, you just have to find it. Thanks Michelle. Alan, one piece of advice that you would like to share?
Lee: I feel like this is probably more relevant if you are still in school, but your professors are human as well. Please go meet those professors, go talk to them, go to their office hours. I personally if I didn't go to those office hours, if I didn't talk to my professors even, coming off of class and whatever, I don't think I would have had this opportunity. It was literally the conversations you have with your professors, your TA's and whoever around that area that tells you whether you enjoy the subject or whether the professor has some very interesting research that you might be interested in and those are the connections that you end up making while you are at university.
Girard: Professors are people too. Yes, definitely, don't hesitate to reach out and meet with these folks who may become mentors even though they are not direct advisor. Graham one final piece of advice that you would like to share with our audience?
Van Every: Yeah, I'll echo what others have said in that do what you can to find your own opportunities. If there is something that you think you like, or that you think you can be good at, go find a way to make a job out of it. In your own time, start doing some research. What jobs are available in the area that I like? Try and think about who can I talk to, who can I ask, what can I do to sort of get my foot in the door and give myself an opportunity. Then the second thing that I would say and this is something Nina said, be resilient. Have an understanding that the pathway is not linear, a lot of times you will end up heading in a direction you maybe hadn't envisioned at some point, but that's okay. Whatever you do, just do it to the –best of your ability and if you work hard and keep at it for long enough, generally speaking good things happen.
Girard: That's really powerful advice. This resilience and accepting that paths can be nonlinear but lead you exactly where you need to be and that can be an opportunity that you've tailored made for yourself based on what you are passionate about and what you want to work on. Excellent. Thank you, Graham. Thanks to all four of you for these really useful pieces of advice. I would like to move on now to a couple of questions we have in the Q&A. This first question is about more advice for entering environmental fields and this one is hello, what advice may you have for students who aren't in a STEM program? So someone who would like to work in sustainability or environmental work, but is not currently enrolled in STEM, what advice would you have for them?
Lee: I think I can talk to them about it. It's very fascinating to see that, the lab I am currently working for has a lot of students who aren't even remotely related to what we do here. They are just kind of interested. So if you are not in a STEM program and you want to work in this field, I think all you have to do is have a passion for it. You can learn the skills and learn the knowledge that you need for this after you have started working in the field, especially in agriculture. Right now what we need for the most part is just to have people learn more into it. I wouldn't say I didn't learn a lot doing my university years, I definitely did, but the things that are very applicable to what producers need, isn't as complicated as what a researcher can offer. So if you want to work in the sustainable field and you have a very big passion for it, there is no place to do then to just do it.
Girard: And maybe working from that passion understanding that there is room to learn once you are employed. There is space to grown and understand maybe what you didn't learn in school. Excellent.
Lee: There is always time to learn.
Dmytrenko: I have something to add to this. I think because sustainability is linked to climate change and climate change just simply being such a large problem it requires everybody to participate and solving it whether you area cognitively doing it as a researcher or policy maker or just a regular citizen. So understanding how regular citizens can do it, you probably need a degree in psychology to understand how humans operate. How we can influence the behaviours in all of this. So in green buildings or generally high performance buildings, it's an important factor to understand human factor. So in the lab at Carleton where I studied we had multidisciplinary team that was studying psychology. In my research division we also have a variety of backgrounds, just because housing problem is also a large problem. So yes, find your passion and then apply it and sometimes you will be surprised how to apply it very different fields that you didn't expect that you can make a contribution.
Girard: That's really a really important point. Climate change and sustainability, they are huge challenges and to arise to those challenges, we need interdisciplinary teams and multidisciplinary teams. So you don't necessarily need a STEM degree to be able to contribute. This next question from our audience again is would you say that being top of your class is a large factor in getting opportunities in labs and in interacting with professors? So how important is being the top of your class? Or how important was it for you guys?
D'Souza: I can speak to this a little bit. I think unfortunately, there is a little bit of gatekeeping if I can use that word. Yeah, usually there is a little bit of an advantage, but it's not to say that you can't find these opportunities without good grades but it's kind of going back to that same point. You have to show people, why it doesn't matter that you didn't have good grades because look at this other thing that you were able to do, or look at why you are passionate about this. These are the other strengths, right? So it's not just about good grades and if someone tells you that, than they are not the people that you should be progressing in your life with. I think most people understand this. So don't let people make you feel like that. You got to just understand your strengths and say, this is what I have to offer and go from that conversation in that space.
Girard: The grades may give you an edge, but there are many other ways to shine. Would anyone else like to chime in?
Dmytrenko: Alan go ahead.
Lee: Oh, yeah, sure, sorry. I definitely agree with the sentiment, that you don't need good grades to get into a lab. Now, I'm not really sure what this lab means, whether it's to work as a worker, work as a volunteer or work as a grad student, but of all those opportunities I think there is two parts to it. One part is if you are coming from anonymous background applying in as a position, or for work or for grad student position, that does mostly require I guess what you would call grades and achievements and whatnot, but once you start getting, this is why I think it's really important to have those connections with professors because once you start getting to know them, they really don't mind letting you work even if you're grades aren't the top of the class. It's just simply because they know that you are passionate about it and they believe that if they work with you, you will get through the grad school. That's all they really need is that they know that you are capable of persevering and that's where the resilience piece comes in, I really like that.
Girard: I guarantee many of those professors were not top of their class either. They are certainly more open than we might think. Maybe one last question, again from the Q&A. This one is from a PHD student who is wondering if you could share insights on how they could find internships or co-op program? So this is for someone who is already in grad school maybe looking to gain more experience.
D'Souza: I can just make a suggestion from my own personal experience. Take a look at programs that are already in place that you fit into. So, one of the biggest things that helped me transition from academia to industry was Mitacs If you haven't heard of them, take a look. They are opportunities I think out there because this connection needs to be made. So, there are resources and there are support systems out there. So if you haven't heard of that one please do look into it and there has got to be more than that. That would be my practical advice is look for those opportunities.
Girard: Excellent. So programs like Mitacs can definitely help explore new opportunities when you are already in grad school. Then another one that just came in and I still think we have another couple of minutes to go. So how do you prepare for that shift from academia into industry? What were the greatest challenges or things that were unexpected? Graham I'm wondering if you have insight into this or was there anything that surprised you when you shifted into industry?
Van Every: Yeah, I mean one, I would say don't feel like you have to be perfectly studied on how to be an industry professional right away. I think right away generally speaking when you go into industry, everyone has this understanding that you're new and you're going to make a couple of mistakes, but usually they are not huge. As long as you put your best foot forward and you have your best intentions in mind, it's not the end of the world. I know for me, like I mentioned I started getting some of that communication experience in the lab, but when I went into industry that was huge for me. Learning how you interact with people around the office, learning how you ask for help. How often to talk to people? Learning that you don't have to do everything yourself and actually when you have too much to do you are supposed to ask other people and then they will come and help you. That's not something I got to do in academia, but it totally happens in industry. Yeah, generally speaking it's just learn to be a little more communicative and ask questions because people are willing to help.
Girard: There can be a little bit of a culture shock but open communications and listening, asking for help basically can get you a long way. Excellent. Well, with that, I think we will have to wrap up. Thank you to everyone in the audience who submitted questions to the Q&A, they were wonderful, I'm really sorry we couldn't get to all of them. I would like to thank Nina, Michelle, Alan and Graham for taking time out of your very busy schedules to come and speak with us about your exciting careers and your experiences through grad school and transitioning into industry. Thanks to all the audience members who joined and please note that you will be receiving an email with a link to the recording and a survey in the next couple of days and by answering the survey you will help the CFI improve on the webinars that they offer. You will also receive an entry to an IPad. So please fill out that survey. We would really appreciate if you could share the link to the recording with friends and fellow students. With that I would like to thank you again for attending, thank you to our panelists and have a lovely day.
Catherine Girard, assistant professor of microbiology
Catherine Girard PhD is an assistant professor of microbiology at l’Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Her research focuses on the microbial ecology of ice in the Arctic, and how climate change will alter landscapes and ecosystem function. Catherine is passionate about collaborative research weaving Western and Indigenous Knowledge systems. She is involved in knowledge sharing and outreach, and in promoting the importance of scientific research in the lives of all Canadians. (Photo source: Atwood Photographie)
Nina Dmytrenko, green home expert
Nina Dmytrenko works on reducing the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of the residential sector in an affordable way. She has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and is a technical researcher at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in Ottawa. With a background in energy efficiency and renewable energy systems, she conducts experimental research to better understand the fundamentals of building performance.
Michelle D’Souza, biodiversity specialist for big business
Michelle D’Souza combines rigorous science with compelling storytelling, focusing on the intersection of business and biodiversity. Michelle has a PhD in integrative biology and is Research and Innovation Manager for Global Agriculture at McCain Foods in Florenceville-Bristol, N.B. In this role, she helps establish research priorities, leads innovation and forges strategic partnerships that enhance sustainability and industry competitiveness. Her academic skillset includes bioinformatics and scientific writing.
Alan Lee, agriculture lab manager
As the main contact for any project that requires management and planning at the Sustainable Agriculture Lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Alan Lee says he does a lot of running between rooms. Alan holds a master’s degree in soil science and plans to focus his career on agricultural ecology, building links between farmers and environmentalists.