Stick with it and get involved: Advice from a coach with strong foundations in Engineering

Serena Ward, Regional Engineer, Engineering and Environmental Services of Corporate Management Branch for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

What’s one thing that would surprise people about your field of work?

What’s surprising is the shear diversity of work in capital infrastructure. The work done in this group ranges from building irrigation systems and roadways to replacing building systems like boilers and air handlers to fitting up office spaces. A recent major project was the retrofit of the Swift Current Research and Development Centre. This project entailed the planning and construction of a new building, then retrofitting the old labs into the new office wing. It was a long process!

How did you get into your line of work?

By the end of high school I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do after graduation. I had decent marks in math and science, but I didn’t know any engineers personally. Some teachers and family friends encouraged me to consider engineering. I stuck it out through university and managed to get a job with AAFC in the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) working in one of the field offices first as a summer student and then a two-year term which eventually (through competition) translated into a permanent position.

Throughout my career, I have always stayed in the engineering group at AAFC. I even worked in the water infrastructure division rebuilding dams. What drew me to my current role are the opportunities to do a bit of travel, visiting construction sites during planning and execution phases. I like the hands on practical aspect, it gets me out of the office. It is so satisfying to see the outcome of all the long hours of planning - I love seeing the projects on paper get built.

What is your most memorable moment at work?

Early in my career we were re-building a spillway on one of our dams. The older engineers said it was a great opportunity to give newer engineers a feel for the profession. We spent 4-6 weeks living at that construction site. It was really eye-opening! This experience showed me the complexity of what I could be project managing when I got to that more senior position.

Is there something we can do to support women in STEM?

There are some high expectations to be responsive and flexible at work while also maintaining the work-life balance. I’ve attended a few conferences with women in STEM and I’ve noticed that what keeps women in this field is having access to flexible work arrangements. Working from home was not a popular idea, but because of the pandemic it has gained wider acceptance. When I became a mother, I didn’t want my children to be in daycare full time, so I worked part-time time and gradually increased my time back to full-time hours as they got older. Having the ability to care for people while still working is very beneficial. I was fortunate to have these opportunities in my career and I would like to provide the same to others.

What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in science, technology, engineering and math?

Engineering school or any technical program is hard work and lots of effort. It’s not an easy walk in the park! Concepts are tough and work loads are heavy but the payoff is worth it. If you can stick with it, you will see results and have a satisfying career.

Take every opportunity to get involved, even if it’s outside of your work. Especially when starting your careers. Join the Young Professionals network and Mentorship programs. Find the time, even if it’s just 15 minutes to do these extra little things. Who knows where that will lead!

What are your hobbies, and do they influence your work?

I come from a small town in Saskatchewan. I played every sport that was available to me. When I became a parent, I transitioned from being an athlete to a coach. It’s fun taking my two kids to the ball diamond, hockey rink, or gymnasium, they keep my evenings busy. Whenever I moved to new towns where I had no connections, I joined local sports teams or the YMCA to meet new people and stay active. I once even phoned a high school and offered to help coach their sports teams. Being on so many teams, we learn how to play nice with others and foster team spirit; all the same things we learn during management training. Conversations with teams at work is very similar to coaching.

What do you hope to see in your field in the next 10 years?

In the next 10 years I hope there is continued interest and growth in Engineering and in infrastructure project management. Within our department I want to see fresh, diverse faces coming in which help challenge the status quo and provide new perspectives.


For more stories like this, visit Women in Science.