Women in STEM

Alternatives to academia: A panel discussion


For this semester’s Women in STEM initiative, we reached out to three women who hold graduate degrees and have gone on to pursue careers in consulting and government. We invited ASPIRE trainees and professors, as well as other grad students with an interest in the topic, to join us for a panel discussion. Questions were sent in beforehand, and topics included transitioning from academia to their current work, satisfaction of their scientific curiosity, paths to employment, and the importance of mentorship in guiding each of their careers.


Terra Jamieson, Ph.D.

Science Policy Advisor,
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

M.Sc. in Agriculture
Dalhousie University

Ph.D. in Earth/Environmental Science
University of Waterloo

Elizabeth Kennedy, P. Geo., M.Sc.

Director of Industrial Management, Water and Wastewater
Nova Scotia Environment

M.Sc. in Earth Science
University of Waterloo

Lea Braschi, M.Sc.

Climate impacts and Water Resources Scientist
CBCL, Ltd.

M.Sc. in Earth Science
Dalhousie University

Transitioning from academia to other work


The panelists discussed how different their current work is from their work in grad school. All panelists were in agreement that the skills they gained in graduate school equipped them for learning quickly how to turn projects around in non-academic environments. This skill of learning on the fly is crucial in work life; those research skills can be used to turn unfamiliar words into familiar concepts. It is important to learn from the experience you gain and use it as a first step to further your careers.

“It is common to take intermediate stepping stones to get to where you want to be professionally, just know your goals and take small steps in those directions.”

Scientific curiosity outside of a university environment


One attendee asked, “do you find your current job satisfies your scientific curiosity?” The panelists responded that it has been exciting to move from an academic to a non-academic environment, insisting that if you do things right, you will never stop learning. From new technical terms to new points of view on familiar topics, there is sometimes not enough time in the day to find answers to all of your questions. To that end, your curiosity may never actually be satisfied, but the pursuit of the answers is very satisfying. Additionally, they note that the scope of your work may change dramatically every several months or few years as new projects start and are completed, and there are many ways to pursue interesting research questions at work (for example, through collaboration with groups such as the ASPIRE program).

“The curiosity I sparked in graduate school eventually grew beyond my technical expertise area to problem solving, collaboration and identifying champions to work together for devising environmental solutions.”

Paths to employment

We sometimes hear anecdotes about people with Masters and especially Doctoral degrees being dismissed as overqualified for a job. However, our panelists see graduate degrees as entry points to certain areas of government and consulting. They advised students to focus on how your degree makes you adaptable; you must demonstrate that you are interested in more than your research topic - you have to wrap up all of your skills, technical and non-technical, into a package that shows that you are nimble enough to apply your curiosity to other subjects.

“Graduate school taught me how to learn and be confident in new technical areas and now I apply these learning tools to help solve new problems in the environmental sector.”


ASPIRE trainees are encouraged to pursue professional designation (if they are eligible) to round out their professional toolkits. One of the facets of registering with a professional organization is a formalized mentor program, but the panelists credited numerous informal mentors who helped them to arrive where they are today. Sometimes a mentor is someone who in the right place at the right time, and sometimes mentorship is a variety of people who inspire you over the course of your career. Students were advised to be aware of the power of the people around them, and to nurture any interest a potential mentor may have in them.

“It’s important to actively reach out and surround yourself with people who have the skills and professions you aspire to gain.”

After the talk, there were many more questions and conversations as guests clustered together and shared stories and suggestions for career direction. Thank you to our panelists and to everyone who came to listen and ask insightful questions!

We were pleased to host this event at The Nook, which not only provided us with a beautiful space, but also put together delicious food for our group.

Entrepreneurship and Women in STEM


“As two women starting a company, there have definitely been challenges but there have also been a lot of opportunities”


So began the discussion with Justine Lywood on Friday at our first event focused on discussions about women in STEM. Justine joined seven of our ASPIRE students and three faculty members from the Centre for Water Resources Studies on our trip to Sugar Moon Farm. The farm and surrounding trails provided a picture-perfect winter setting for a hike followed by a fireside chat and dinner.

ASPIRE trainees Aidan and Nicole showing off their birdseed ornaments.

On the snowy hike to Jane’s Falls, all attendees were encouraged to reflect on their experiences and the experiences of those who have paved the way for women entering technical professions today. The day before this women-in-STEM-focused event was December 6th, the 29th anniversary of the massacre of 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal. We wanted to acknowledge the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women with a positive gesture of hope for the future.

Engineering schools across the country have some sort of monument to the massacre and we decided that our monument would be in the form of birdseed. All attendees were given a birdseed ornament as a memorial, to be placed in a special spot in the forest; this small gesture of nourishment to birds is symbolic of our actions of encouragement to women in STEM.

Jenny Hayward, Program Coordinator, explained the birdseed ornaments as a gesture of remembrance of the École Polytechnique massacre.

Following the hike, we were invited into the Sugar Moon Lodge. We sat next to the fire and settled in while we were formally introduced to Justine Lywood, an engineer who started plusArctic two years ago. In her own words, plusArctic is a partnership between her and Erin Mentink, a colleague whom she graduated with from Dalhousie and worked with at the Government of Nunavut. Their slogan is “for the north, with the north” and they provide a variety of services, but at the core, their expertise lies in understanding the north - the social, cultural, and built environments.

Justine encouraged the ASPIRE community to submit questions via email prior to the talk and formatted her talk into three themes: entrepreneurship 101, how to maintain the success of her company, and the challenges, responsibilities, and opportunities for women as entrepreneurs.

Fireside chat with Justine Lywood from plusArctic.

One of the first questions that came up was how her skills gained as an engineer have translated to owning and running a business. She answered that all of her experience has been valuable, from the things she learned in school to her experiences teaching English overseas to her technical experience in the Arctic, but the important thing is that as an engineer or scientist, you have demonstrated your ability to learn quickly and to break a problem down into parts and look at them critically to find a solution. As an entrepreneur, she stresses that interpersonal skills are as important as technical skills; she attributes plusArctic’s continued success to their reputation in the north. Another facet of her success comes from putting her full focus and effort into the projects she has, rather than spending a lot of time writing proposals or visiting sites for tender; saying, “If you overdeliver, people will want to work with you again.”


“Recognize what you’re worth and know that it’s okay to ask for that.”


One of the most striking moments of the evening was when Justine handed out pieces of paper and asked everybody to write down what they would charge as their hourly rate if they were to start a consulting business right then and there. On average, the men in the room wrote down a figure $70 higher than the women. It is often challenging, but as a woman and the owner of her own business, Justine must ask for a wage that will cover all her expenses and incorporate a reasonable take-home pay. She said that as young women, our biggest obstacle is gaining confidence but if you present yourself well and own your skills, you will demonstrate your value to clients.

The fireside chat was interesting and engaging and stimulated much more conversation as we toured the sugar shack and shared a beautiful dinner to end the evening. We wish Justine the best of luck for the continued success of plusArctic into the future!