By Cheng Lin
Christine Pu graduated from McGill’s Chemical Engineering program this past May and is now pursuing her Master’s at Stanford University. Christine was involved with a handful of organizations during her time at McGill, namely Engineers Without Borders and a chemical engineering research lab. The Ledger sat down with Christine to talk about her undergraduate experience and advice she has for current students.
Ledger: To start off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself—what are you currently doing and what are your interests?
Christine: Sure, so I just started my Master’s program in environmental engineering at Stanford. I did my undergrad at McGill in chemical engineering and while I was there I had the opportunity during my summers to explore a lot of water quality and water security-related experiences around the world, specifically in Kenya and Tajikistan. And those projects are what pushed me towards being interested in the different aspects of water privileges as well as the different technologies that allow us to be able to provide safe, accessible, and reliable sources of water to low-resource communities.
Ledger: So did you always know you wanted to pursue something environment-related, or did that really come about during your undergrad?
Christine: I think I always knew I wanted to do something environmentally-related. I took AP Physics in the Fall semester of my senior year, and somehow that influenced me to change my direction and study chemical engineering instead.
In undergrad, I worked very closely with Nathalie Tufenkji in the Chemical Engineering Department on the environmental transport and fate of nanoparticles. Through her mentorship and my exposure to other graduate students in her group, I became really interested in the complexities of water treatment and provision.
Ledger: Did you know that graduate studies and research was something that you wanted to pursue?
Christine I was always interested in pursuing a Master’s degree, but I wasn’t always sure when graduate school would fall on my timeline. I started doing research in high school, and have always loved the process of asking tough intellectual questions and collaborating with diverse thinkers on how best to tackle them. Finding a research topic that you are passionate about is challenging. I definitely have gone through (and am still going through!) my fair share of these frustrations. Among other things, it requires a real dedication to keeping an open mind and being able to connect different ideas together.
Ledger: I don’t think grad school is something a lot of people in engineering consider because our degree really feeds into the workforce. Do you have any advice for students considering grad school in engineering but aren’t really sure about whether or not it’s worth it?
Christine: Reflecting on where you want to be in 5, 10, 20, etc. years can be a helpful exercise! Looking at the profiles of individuals who are currently in positions that you aspire to grow into can also help provide insight into what experiences would add most value. The question of going to graduate school vs. going straight into the workforce is a deeply personal one. It’s a balancing act of priorities. Getting a second opinion from other people in your field can really help you determine whether graduate school would be an appropriate next step.
Ledger: You also spoke a bit about how the extra-curricular involvements you did at McGill helped you realize you’re very interested in water and sustainability. Could you tell us more about what you were involved with?
Christine: Engineers Without Borders was one of my longest and most significant involvements. I started out by organizing their very first high school outreach program in Toronto. As I became more acquainted with the organization, I began to get involved with their Annual Failure Report, a collection of meaningful stories from all corners of the organization reflecting on some of their failures in the field and in the team room. At McGill, I joined the university chapter’s Global Engineering initiative. EWB is very focused on systemic approaches to tackling the root causes of problems. They’re a brilliant group of critical thinkers.
Inspired by EWB, I pursued an opportunity to work in rural Kenya as an environmental and social impact analyst. While I was there, I bore witness to how important of a role safe access to water played in the health and well-being of communities. My passion for working in the water and sanitation sector really stemmed from there.
EWB is very focused on systemic approaches to tackling the root causes of problems. They’re a brilliant group of critical thinkers.
Ledger: It seems like you really found a passion for something that’s not conventionally “engineering”. How did you know that it was something you were interested enough in to deviate from the conventional engineering path for chemical engineers?
Christine: To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I did. Something I struggled a lot with throughout my degree was how different my interests were in relation to everyone else’s in my program. As my interests strayed more towards the social sciences, I began to feel more distant from the focus areas of my academic curriculum and my fellow classmates.
But this wasn’t necessarily a disadvantage! My professors and peers offered different perspectives, yes, but this diversity only enriched my education. For one, it has really helped me learn how to collaborate in multidisciplinary environments.
The majority of my time spent outside of the classroom was focused on activities that fed into my passion, so I was constantly reminded of how rewarding it was pursue my “unconventional path”.
Ledger: Do you have any advice for engineering students who are considering less conventional fields and not necessarily just working at tech companies?
Christine: Don’t give up. I remember feeling so out of place all the time during my undergraduate studies. My interests were different than those of people in my own program, my time was spent mastering topics that I couldn’t see myself using post-graduation, and I struggled to find ways to meaningfully engage in the fields I wanted to work in.
It’s important to realize that coming from a diverse background means that you are bringing a different skill set and style of thinking to the table. This is incredibly valuable, especially taking into account how interdisciplinary our work environments are these days.
Being interested in field that is unconventional for an engineering student to pursue means that you are going to have to work a little harder to understand someone else’s language (figuratively and literally speaking). You may not always know the jargon in a different field, but be confident in the problem-solving skills you have developed throughout your degree. Those can be applied in unlimited ways.
Don’t let the fear of “not fitting in” keep you from exploring your passions. Don’t be afraid to commit to things you are interested in and curious about.
..coming from a diverse background means that you are bringing a different skill set and style of thinking to the table. This is incredibly valuable, especially taking into account how interdisciplinary our work environments are these days.
Ledger: Going back to our theme this issue of “Women in Engineering,” could you speak a bit about your experiences as a female in engineering—was it something you thought about, and how did it affect your degree?
Christine: I was very lucky to sit in classrooms where there was a fairly even gender split. Looking back, some of the most inspiring individuals that I got to work with were women, and that really set the stage for what I believed women could accomplish. I had strong female role models to look up to and incredible female mentors that guided me, and I still do! Speaking with women in other engineering fields (in the classroom and the workforce), this seems to be a rare luxury. But rare doesn’t mean that they’re impossible to find!
I think POWE does a really wonderful job of connecting ambitious, interesting, hard working females who are thriving in typically male-dominated environments. They’re very good at creating a community where people feel comfortable with each other — I would highly recommend checking them out!
Ledger: Thank you so much for all of your answers. For the last question, looking at your McGill experience as a whole, what was your best memory and what would you do differently?
Christine: I absolutely loved my time at McGill. This is a hard question to answer because it’s tough to pick just one best memory! I would say— and I’m going to go very cheesy on this—the really, really wonderful friends I made in Montreal. They all had such diverse personalities, but were all, extremely kind, incredibly supportive, and very good at motivating each other. I loved how we constantly to be our best.
Something I would change is how rigid the engineering program is. This I say very cautiously because I truly appreciate and understand the rigour that needs to be designed into an engineering degree. And I can also appreciate that there are a lot of fundamental theories and skills that are integral to this field of study and work. That said, I wish the electives made available to us were more diverse and that there were more structured opportunities (e.g. multidisciplinary projects!) to collaborate with students outside of the engineering department.. I
Ledger: Is there any last advice you have for McGill engineering students?
Christine: Don’t forget to invest time in yourself! Don’t completely forego your hobbies and interests. Don’t let go of the activities that make you happy and relaxed — whatever they may be! Reflect on how you’re spending your time, and make sure that these activities are adding value to your life (and not just to your resume)!