Letters to a young engineer, 2024

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Letters to a Young Engineer, produced by the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, features dozens of pieces from leading academics and professionals offering congratulations, inspiration and advice to the next generation of engineers.

This year’s edition features letters from Dean Mary Wells, Dr. Lisa Aultman-Hall and Dr. Nadine Ibrahim.

The letters are reprinted below in full:

Mary Wells

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us” - Joseph Campbell, American Philosopher.

Dear Graduates,

Congratulations on completing a milestone in your lives. Do not underestimate the feat you have just achieved. Graduating with an engineering degree from a Canadian university requires hard work, resilience, perseverance, and optimism. Savour this moment and feel proud of what you have accomplished!

Headshot of Mary Wells Dean of Engineering

I think Joseph Campbell’s quote is very relevant for this moment in time. Life does not always work out the way we want, but my advice is to stay flexible and be open to new opportunities as they present themselves. Attending university is a life altering experience which provides an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and the world around us.

The next part of your journey may not feel as certain. There are no more lectures to attend or labs and exams to write. While your engineering journey at university was challenging, it provided you with a sense of structure and accomplishment, as each term was completed you progressed towards your degree.

You are now entering an open ended and unbound part of your future. You will now establish yourself as a graduate and decide where to apply your engineering skills and mindset, considering what you hope to accomplish. This may seem both daunting and exhilarating and I encourage you to embrace the upside of uncertainty and reflect on your hopes and dreams, ones for yourself and our world.

In reflecting on my own professional journey, I would like to offer a few words about two polar opposites: planning and serendipity. Together, they have directed the arc of my own career, one that has been both joyful and personally fulfilling. I share this with you in the hope that it might inspire you to make the same discovery as you embark on your own careers.

While today is about future expectations and excitement fulfilled, reflect back over your time at university and how many times the unexpected and the unexplained changed your life’s course. Perhaps you landed a dream job, which took you by surprise. Perhaps you met your true love through an unexpected encounter. Perhaps you had a life-altering travel experience. Serendipity is the gift of making fortunate discoveries by accident. Today fifty percent of modern inventions were the result of someone stumbling on a novel solution by accident. Penicillin, the computer, microwave oven and even Velcro were all discovered by accident.

So how do we cultivate serendipity?

Take risks, be open to unexpected opportunities, pursue novelty, and put yourselves out there even if it feels a bit scary.

Next, go with your gut and trust your intuition.

When I was choosing my first job after completing my undergraduate engineering degree, I was very methodical and made lists of pros and cons for each opportunity before deciding what I would do. Although it led to a good first job, I was also bored within three years and anxious to try something new.

When I decided to pursue a PhD, I took the opposite approach. I tried a new subject that I had no experience in – I took a risk! I moved across the country to Vancouver, BC to attend UBC and encounter a new group of people and new ways of thinking. I loved doing my PhD and it led me to a career in academia which I still love today.

So trust your gut and don’t always allow logic to blind your decisions! This is sometimes difficult for engineers and I still struggle with it myself!

Finally, dream. Dream big. Knowing what you want from life will allow you to recognize opportunities when they present themselves serendipitously. If you combine this with a deep commitment to achieving excellence in your craft, through study and hours of practice, you will achieve a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment and happiness in both your career and your life.

Consider the sense of satisfaction earned by working hard to find the best solution to a problem, one that considers all the stakeholders and is driven by ensuring a positive and sustainable impact is made on the world. That, to me, is the joy in being an engineer.

When the opportunity to become a Dean became available, my colleagues suggested I apply as they knew I was passionate about students and their experience at university. I felt intimidated as I had never been a department chair but I decided to apply. I took a risk and pushed myself beyond my comfort zone. Three years in, I cannot describe how much meaning and joy I derive from being a Dean. The chance to guide and mentor the faculty, students and staff towards a common objective and provide an environment where they will thrive is something I find energizing.

In reflection, many of the important moments in my life were and continue to be shaped by serendipity - chance encounters with the right people and ideas.

There is no denying that this engineering journey will at times be challenging and ask much of you, but I can assure you that if you persevere you will receive much more in return.

Now more than ever our world needs passionate, engaged and compassionate people who can think beyond themselves to have the courage and the fortitude to address some of the most important problems our world faces.

Take care of our world and the people in it. Generously share your gifts - your intellect, empathy and kindness with those around you. I now pass the baton to you as you move into your own engineering careers and use your own talents and energy to make a positive difference in our world.

Mary Wells is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo. She was previously Dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Guelph (2017 to 2020). Prior to her tenure at Guelph, Dr. Wells was a Professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering at Waterloo for 10 years.

Lisa Aultman-Hall

Since I completed my engineering degree in 1991, it has not become easier to be a new graduate. Our world is huge and our vexing problems, including overpopulation, cannot be addressed with technology alone. You may be concerned with meeting some ideal or the expectations of your parents or your classmates. You may be focused on titles or money. I encourage you to stop, pause, and challenge how our world defines success. I do not believe success is defined by the quantity of an individual’s outcomes, but rather the quality of an individual’s inputs.

I have a cheesy metaphor for how I often think of our joint journey here on planet Earth. It is like we are on a huge ship all together, billions of us, at sea, propelled only by oars. It is hard to see over the edge of the ship. Where are we going? Everyone has a different size or shape of oar. Some row together, some row in crossdirections, some have no oars at all. There is misinformation, there is disagreement. Is there even a captain? Often, we struggle in stormy seas. How does one know which way to row in such stormy seas?

At convocations, speakers and writers encourage graduates to go out and do great things. But the type of success I wish for today’s engineering graduates is to experience being on a team where their contributions matter. Seek teams where you do your part, bring your talents, and engineering to the problems you see on a given day. Do not put unrealistic expectations on yourself in terms of quantity or status - just make sure that your oar is rowing in a direction that you believe to be good, a direction that advances a better global society. It takes many rowers to move a big ship. Don’t worry if you think the ship is going in circles, over time it will straighten out. Make a conscious decision to see needs and to do good wherever you find yourself.

When you are faced with an opportunity, choose to make the world a better place. Do not worry how you compare to others or whether your contribution is small. Every single oar affects the progress of our joint ship. Be driven by justice and values, not status. Success is not fame or fortune. Just do your little piece because even when one person may appear famous for what society considers success, rest assured that all of the truly great things take a village, a team.

Profound change is slow. So be patient and rest when you need to. As engineers, we have very good oars. Use them with a team to propel our world forward. It is now more important than ever to focus on the whole system instead of only the technical. Use your oars well for the collective global good.

Lisa Aultman-Hall is a Professor and Chair of Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo.

Nadine Ibrahim

Congratulations! You have arrived at an important milestone in your life. It took a lot of effort to get here, and you persevered! When you look around at all those graduating with you, you are similar for having almost the same résumé, taken the same courses, written the same exams, and learned and applied the same skills. This is far from the truth – you are not all the same! I want to show you how diverse you all are. You are unique!

Nadine Ibrahim

Throughout a very rigorous and structured engineering program, you likely had to carve out time for your interests, extracurricular activities that you wanted to sign up for, events you wanted to participate in, or competitions you wanted to join. For each one of these activities, you created a new network of friends, discovered a new found ability, strengthened an existing talent, and added a new skill to your skillset. Keep doing these!

Every club you led, every event you organized, or every talk you attended gave insight into a new perspective and put you in front of new people. Keep doing these! It’s the sum of all that you do outside your classes that complements your technical knowledge, builds character, and shapes you into the unique leader you are today. Leadership lies in the ability to plan, initiate, communicate, and influence. More often than not, you’ll find that you demonstrate leadership without the title of “leader” because leadership belongs to all those who are giving and motivating, creative and confident. Engineers have the ability to influence, and therefore a responsibility to lead. You can lead from any position you find yourself in. Your impact is what makes you unique, and that’s what sets you apart, and how you stand out.

Within a very structured engineering program, you also have flexibility in the choice of specializations and options. This may have gotten you to choose electives outside your department or faculty, or combining parts of engineering knowledge on a co-op job or on a design project. There’s a lot of excitement in the boundaries between disciplines. You create lightbulb moments when cooperating with others who are different from you and accepting new viewpoints that are also different from yours. May you have lots of these throughout your professional careers. The special space within and among disciplines breeds the interdisciplinary knowledge and collaboration that sparks innovation. Inspired by Nissani (1994) on “Fruit Salads and Smoothies: A Working Definition of Interdisciplinarity,” where he creates an analogy using food to bring meaning to interdisciplinarity, which implies: if monodisciplinary is an apple, multidisciplinary is a fruit bowl, interdisciplinary is a fruit salad, and transdisciplinary is a smoothie. May you always have colourful careers that keep you inspired and engaged.

I find that interdisciplinary knowledge to be the most fascinating. If I were to chart my career pathway, you would see that it is a meandering path, both in disciplines and in geographies. Drawing from my own undergraduate experience at the University of Toronto (UofT), my starting point is as a structural engineer. I was interested in civil engineering because of my interest in structures. A new “Collaborative Environmental Program” was being started in the late 90s at UofT, and only offered to civil, chemical and mechanical engineers, which I chose, and added environmental engineering to my toolbox. Also, while in undergrad, a Certificate of Preventive Engineering and Social Development was offered to those interested in the cross section of engineering, technology and society, which I pursued, and added preventive engineering and social development to my toolbox. While continuing on to grad school, I was motivated to continue to work in the structural labs in the Galbraith and Sandford Fleming buildings, which involved research on the performance of new repair materials. I wanted to include the economics of these new fibre-reinforced polymers, so I learned what I could about life cycle cost analysis to support decision-making for repair vs replacement options, and with that, I added economics and decision-making to my toolbox.

With two degrees then, and a desire to see the real world and join the workforce, my dreams took me to explore working in Egypt, but my dream of working on a construction site did not materialize. Instead, and much to my surprise, I came to know that Egypt, like many other countries in the developing world are recipients of financial assistance for development projects. I embarked on what became 6 years of environmental consulting in the Middle East and North Africa Region, working with multilateral organizations like the United Nations Development Program, and bilateral organizations such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA, now Global Affairs Canada). What I did was reach into my toolbox and bring out the environmental engineering tools, but what I put into my toolbox was so much more, including international development, consulting, and business development, and an appreciation for local knowledge and the developmental challenges in many cities and communities.

Later back to Canada, and back for a PhD, I had become a “T-shaped” engineer holding breadth of knowledge from other disciplines that rests on the foundational engineering knowledge at the base of the T. With a new found interest in global challenges and climate change, my research focused on climate change action in global cities, while keeping a job in asset management working alongside municipalities in Southern Ontario as they planned for growth, maintenance, repair and replacement of municipal infrastructure, and investment decisions within the constraints of municipal funding. Thanks to great mentors and bosses, I loved the ability to simultaneously acquire academic and industry experience. I had reached into my toolbox for climate change skills, economics theories, and my passion for cities, and put into the toolbox climate action costing, sustainable cities, and urban infrastructure.

A postdoctoral opportunity comes next, and puts into action the saying, “hard work puts you where good luck can find you.” A project was just starting up at UofT, and the team reached out to me asking me to join “Engineering Education for Sustainable Cities in Africa.” My response: engineering education is my calling, sustainable cities is my expertise, and Africa is in my heart. I had reached back into my toolbox for the skills from the developing world experience, and the global sustainability efforts, and within 3 years added to my toolbox urban infrastructure challenges that are magnified on the African content, rapid urbanization and population growth, and 13 amazing African countries explored.

As I carried my toolbox everywhere I went, I wondered who would be interested in these combinations of tools and skills, or more concerning to me, is whether I would be able to find a career where I can use them all, because I love them all, and it would be hard to have to choose some and let other tools rust. And there it was, the career I now lead at the University of Waterloo as the Turkstra Chair in Urban Engineering is one that demands my academic training and values my industry exposure. In this role, I create opportunities for industry-academic engagements, and lead new educational attitudes around sustainable cities to ensure the civil engineers of tomorrow are the new urban leaders, entrusted by society to achieve a sustainable world, while ensuring better quality of life. My hope is to build a community of engineering leaders and to foster urban sustainability literacy among students to enable them to traverse beyond their disciplines to create livable futures. These efforts aim at increasing the role of civil engineers in urban governance and empowering engineers in decision-making in cities. You are the new generation of city leaders.

There’s always something to add to your toolbox everyday when you keep your mind open to opportunities. Wherever you go, ask yourself: What can I add to my toolbox? When faced with new opportunities and endeavours, do not doubt yourself, reach into your toolbox, you’re going to find something there that gets you started, and trust that you’ll always put back so much more. And always question if what you are chasing adds value to your skillset. Move intentionally towards your goals, while keeping an eye out at what lies outside your boundaries and comfort zones. A meandering career pathway is an exciting one, with curves and bends that are evidence of a life well-lived and an unbounded curiosity.

This is a letter about how structural engineering created a pathway to sustainable cities, safe communities, resilient infrastructure, and inclusive space. Tell your story as you weave all the skills in your skillset together, and how you built your career using all the tools in your toolbox.

Nadine Ibrahim Nadine Ibrahim is a Lecturer in Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Waterloo, and holds the Turkstra Chair in Urban Engineering. She is also the chair of the Engineer of 2050 Special Interest Group at the Canadian Engineering Education Association.