Alumnus interview: Sarah Strathearn

We are pleased to have Sarah (LeBlanc) Strathearn as our very first alumni network interviewee! We recently caught up with her to get her thoughts on grad school and to see what she's up to now. Thanks Sarah!

Sarah Strathearn

What degree did you do at UW?

MASc Chemical Engineering (Nanotechnology)

What was your undergrad program and where did you do it?

Nanotechnology Engineering, University of Waterloo

Why did you choose UW for graduate school?

University of Waterloo is a leader in Nanotechnology Research, especially with the support of WIN. I was also seeking a research project with applications to industry within the Bio-Nanotechnology field, and found the best fit within UW as many other schools were focused on more fundamental research aspects.

What's a personal challenge you faced as a graduate student?

My greatest challenge as a graduate student was writing my thesis, as I have always personally struggled with writing. This was a great exercise for me, and every time I see that 100-page report, I cannot help but feel proud.

What were some of the most influential memories you have from your time in grad school?

The most influential moments were when I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, for example competing in the 3-Minute Thesis competition where I made it to the University Finals presenting in front of 200+ people, and when I co-founded WINGSS. These moments have allowed me to grow personally, and have given me new drive and confidence to pursue difficult goals.

Looking back, would you still have gone to graduate school? Would you have done anything differently?

Yes, in retrospect, I definitely would still have gone to graduate school. The skillset and research experience I have gained through graduate school, namely the ability to work independently to solve complex problems and create discoveries, has been very valuable to my career. Having this level of independence and ownership for a project is something that cannot typically be gained through an undergraduate degree alone.

What are you working on now?

I am currently the VP of Product Success and Customer Success Scientist at Nicoya Lifesciences. I am the connection between our customers, sales and R&D to ensure that our benchtop SPR product is successful. I manage our customer base to ensure they have the needed training and technical support to enable their research with our instrument.

What is your favourite thing about what you're working on now?

Working at a young biotech company, I have the pleasure of gaining exposure to all aspects of the company operations. I love still being in a technical role, while getting to interact with our customers, who are innovative scientific researchers, and being able to provide them tools and resources to enable scientific discoveries. This role has also enabled me to travel around the world, to China, India, and Europe to name a few places, where I provide training and technical support to our international sales teams.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years? Do you think this career path trajectory has been altered since grad school?

With how fast the tech sector is moving, it is very hard to say where I will be in 5-10 years. Within my 2.5 years after graduate school, my career path trajectory has already changed drastically from where I thought I would be. Instead of staying within an R&D role in the lab performing experiments, I have moved into a product support/management role much faster than anticipated.

What advice do you have for current graduate students?

Get involved and participate within the different graduate student communities on campus, including WIN, WINGSS, GSS and your departmental student societies. A large part of being successful nowadays is networking, and during your graduate studies is a key time to do this. Whether it's to spark a collaboration, share time on research equipment, gain a reference at a future company in industry, or meet a new friend, this cannot be achieved without meeting new people.

What do you like to do outside of work?

In my spare time, you can often find me on the ice playing hockey or curling. I am always seeking new ways to challenge myself both mentally and physically, so over the past year, I have also taken up practicing aerial hoop.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Take ownership of your graduate school experience in terms of your studies, research, networking, and extracurricular activities. Push your boundaries when possible and go outside of your comfort zone as it will help you grow and learn both personally and professionally.