Ghazal the R&D Process Engineer
The narrowest street in Prague
Image provided by Ghazal
I've got a really exciting interview ahead, with none other than one of my coworkers! Since we started working, I've been super impressed by her knowledge and confidence at work, so it was great to get her insight into life as a female engineer.
We also chatted a bit about immigrating to Canada, the differences between Iran and Canada, as well as some advice into stepping directly into a startup engineering role. It was also kind of comforting, as a very inexperienced engineer, to hear that even Ghazal has had times when things didn't go to plan! Without further ado, let's get started!
GHAZAL AS A YOUNG ENGINEER
Why don't you introduce yourself?
My name is Ghazal, and I’m 31 years old. I'm originally from Iran, where I did my Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering at Sharif University. Then I moved to Canada for my Master’s at UBC (University of British Columbia) and I got my first job at G4 Insights. I've been here for almost four years now and now work as a R&D Process engineer.
How did you get into engineering? Was there anything that sparked your interest?
I was always interested in fixing things and solving problems. Part of it is also our culture back in Iran, because most people who are good at math study engineering, and not necessarily pure science or math. Engineering schools are also pretty good if you’re good at math, and I did engineering school at the best school in Iran.
Part of my choice to study the subject was that I was driven to chemical engineering. It wasn't that I didn't want to do engineering, but part of it was Iranian society, culture and everything.
As I said before, I felt I always saw myself as a problem solver; someone who's curious about things, and wants to fix things. I guess a combination of these two things made me an engineering student.
Why did you choose chemical engineering out of the other types of engineering?
I was always thinking forward, thinking about my future, what I wanted to become, what I want to do. Iran is a very good place for the oil and gas industry, it’s really popular back there. Also I thought that I could do chemical engineering at the best school in Iran, which was good for my future.
I'm not going to say that I was crazy about chemistry because I wasn't, but there weren't really as many courses of chemistry in chemical engineering, so I wasn’t really worried about that. The more I learned about it, the more interesting it became for me. But the main reason was probably job opportunities back in Iran.
Graduation ceremony back in 2015
Image provided by Ghazal
What was the most challenging part of your college experience?
I think during my Master's Degree, when I was doing research. My work was experimental work, and there were a lot of issues that I had to deal with. I was working on an old unit and there were many things to fix. I was also new in the research area, and I didn't have much experience.
I wasn't really good at asking for help, as I wanted to do it on my own, which got me into a little bit of trouble. Especially since it was hands on and I had to deal with real stuff on my own. I always liked the challenge, so that was the only thing that probably bothered me.
With your master’s you have to do lots of experiments, and I found that I wasn't getting good results. I realised because of that, I was postponing my defence. If it was work, it probably wouldn’t have been that difficult for me because there was a timeline for that. During my degree, I had to finish all my tests and write my thesis on it. So that was a little bit challenging for me.
What did you write your thesis on?
It was basically about the fouling of heat exchangers. In refineries there are heat exchangers to refine oil, and at the very beginning, they have to heat up oil to be able to send it to other sections of the refinery. Because it’s oil and it's not filtered, there are many (unwanted) carbon deposits on the surfaces. After a while, the performance of heat exchangers start to degrade, meaning that the efficiency goes down. There are things that you can do to avoid such problems or at least make it last longer.
My thesis was basically on the properties that can change this fouling of heat exchangers. It was mainly on shear stress, where we were applying higher shear stress forces to see what would happen to the fouling. If you go deep into the technical part of it, it's not a well-known topic. In fluid mechanics, you have a definition for it, but in the real world, when you look at it, it's not something that you can easily see or feel. It’s not like pressure or temperature that you can measure.
The oil samples I was using were real oil samples. I was receiving ATB oil, and the viscosity was really high. I had to mix the oil with something else to dilute it, by adding different things to the solution and making sure the different percentages of its components were correct. That was quite a challenge.
I remember once, I prepared the oil sample and poured it into the system. There was a pump that basically recirculated the sample through the unit, as well as an annular section which was heating up from the inside. I expected a carbon deposit on the inner surface of this analogue section. So I needed to pump and pressurise the system with nitrogen. When the system cooled down and I went to open the system, I forgot to release the pressure. So I opened up the top of it and oil went everywhere. I was completely covered in oil! I had to throw out my jacket and everything. It’s a good thing the system was cold, as it wasn’t hot, but it was quite an incident. I just remember going to the bathroom and seeing that I was covered in oil. Nothing bad happened, but I just had to throw out my jacket and pants, but it happens sometimes. Things like this can happen to anyone.
Especially in a research environment, stuff like this can happen a lot, because not everything is regulated compared to industry. In industry, there are things to measure, and measures in place to make sure that nothing goes wrong. There are safety steps to follow. But in a research environment, you are always developing your research, so you have to change things all the time.
MOVING TO CANADA
You moved from Iran to Canada, so how did you find moving to Canada? What were some of the major differences?
I’m still asking myself this question to myself every day. Well, immigration is not for everyone. I emigrated at a reasonable age, I was 22, and wasn’t in a fixed situation back in Iran. This meant I was quite flexible with adjusting myself to a new environment and learning new things. I was a little more open to new experiences.
Quick selfie in an Iranian cafe
Image provided by Ghazal
The cultures are definitely different. East versus west are very different. The good thing about Canada is that it is really immigrant friendly and you are not forced to adapt or integrate with a dominant culture or lifestyle. So you can have both; you can adapt some new things, but at the same time, keep what you want from your country and background.
At the same time, it can be a bad thing too as you can feel like you’re a bit lost. You’re not connected to your hometown anymore like before, so you lose things there. You're also not a native Canadian since you’re not born here. You don’t have the same experience as if you were born here. So that was a little bit confusing.
At the end of the day, after a while, you figure out how you want to live. Some people decide to basically live their Iranian life here. I was a little bit more open to experiencing new things, and exploring a little bit more. I felt like there was more pressure on me to adapt more to the culture then I would have been a little bit happier.
I don't really know what it's like, say, if I moved to Europe and lived there, there is a definite culture that you have to follow and you have to adjust your lifestyle with that. A little bit of a push wouldn't have been that bad to live a little bit more like a Canadian. But I do know that there are some downsides to that as well. I mean one good thing about my workplace is that I don’t really feel like people see me differently, or that I am treated differently because I’m an immigrant.
Any specific thoughts about different cultures within Canada?
There are definitely different communities in Canada, speaking about the first generation of immigrants. It's almost like there are parallel communities living in parallel worlds. They don’t necessarily have that same interaction that you expect them to have. For the second generation, it's different. They go to school together and stuff. There are different ways of living that different people choose.
Do you have any advice for students looking to go abroad for study or work?
It’s a very good opportunity to explore things. Going abroad during university is not a common thing back in Iran, but I’ve seen it here, for exchange students. I guess it's a good and very unique opportunity. Especially because you’re young and flexible, and don’t really care about too many things. It's not exactly like real life because you’re a student, but it's a good way of exploring new things. It's probably the best way of immigration if you want to immigrate anywhere. I'm really happy that I started doing my master’s here in Canada.
An academic environment is always more flexible to new people and you feel less stressed. It’s a good place to start with rather than going straight into finding a job.
My experience at UBC was really good. As I said before, I’m an explorer and like learning new things. Back in Iran I started learning French. I really wanted to continue it here, and so I started auditing courses from the French department at UBC. That was one of the very good experiences I had-not at all engineering- but I liked it. I took three or four courses and it was really amazing.
Making a new friend in the mountains
Image provided by Ghazal
For me, it was a big change coming from Iran to Canada. I’ve seen people moving from Canada to the States to study, which isn’t a big change. They’re different countries, but they’re similar. So I think if you want to travel and explore, do it the right way. Go a little bit further, explore a little bit more. There are definitely things to learn outside of North America.
LIFE AS AN R&D ENGINEER
Can you explain a little bit about what you do as an R&D engineer?
I was hired at G4 as a test engineer first, so my experience was fully hands on, which was really good because that's the best way to learn things. Right now, I’m not dealing with equipment that much, but I know how it all works, and the changes that we need to make to get the results we want. That’s because of the very first few months of experience dealing with this equipment.
After a couple of months I started working as a research engineer where you basically do research, which I really like. You have to update yourself all the time on what’s going on in your field, what other people are doing, and what their results are. Essentially you can use their knowledge so you don’t repeat it. Next thing is analysing data. Whatever tests we have, at the end of the day we have to analyse the data, prepare reports, and see what the next step is. Another thing is supervising co-op students and operators that are dealing with BTU, the operating unit we have here.
I've been involved in proposal development, because for R&D you always apply for different grants and funding. You have to submit a proposal for that. Lately I’ve been helping Matt (one of the bosses) with that, just going over the proposal to see if it is something we can do. Basically I review them.
Sometimes it’s a lot to take on lots of different responsibilities, instead of just focusing on one thing. For example, I could be running experiments, testing data, ordering equipment and instruments, or dealing with people outside of the company when completing projects. We had some tests that we had to outsource for analytical chemistry, as we don’t have the right equipment for that.
What’s your favourite part about your job?
The good thing about a startup environment is that you are exposed to many different things. It’s not like routine engineering design work, where you use software to design something and that’s it. You really have to be a problem solver and you might fail a lot, but even that failure is progress. I mean, we’ve worked on a project for six months and then realised that we can’t do it that way. It’s still progress, and you know that wasn’t quite the right approach. At the same time you may feel a little bit disappointed, because you spent the last few months doing nothing. Probably the variety of tasks and the dynamic environment are my favourite things, because there are always changes happening.
What are some of the challenges of working in a startup?
It can be challenging when you work on something for so long, and you either don’t get the results you expected or you don't get any results at all. An especially challenging thing in a startup environment is that you have to do everything at the lowest-cost in the fastest way possible. A combination of these things put a lot of pressure on you. Whenever something goes wrong, it’s really difficult to track it back and figure out what was wrong with what I was doing. There are many variables that you need to figure out which one was the main reason for failure, which goes back to problem solving.
Amazing scenery near Frankfurt, Germany
Image provided by Ghazal
Do you have any advice for someone looking to get involved with R&D engineering?
Get yourself ready for a challenge! Don't be afraid of failure, don't be afraid of asking questions. I mean, at the very beginning, one of the things that I learned from working is that they don't expect you to know everything. A part of working is learning. Yes, in technical terms you should be ready and they expect you to know the technical things, but they don’t expect you to remember every single detail.
Second thing is that it's a different world when it comes to engineering. It doesn't make you weak to ask questions. It's good to be able to think about stuff to solve the problems but at the same time if you feel like you're spending too much time on one thing where you are thinking on your own, it’s totally okay to ask for help. Ask for a second opinion.
Do you ever feel like you've been treated differently because you're a woman in STEM?
Yes, definitely. I'm not sure why, but I feel like in general in a working environment men act more confident. Even if they’re wrong. I have seen this happen before. Both in academic environments and industry it’s the same. Perhaps a little bit less in academic environments because people are more flexible in general, and it’s a learning environment, and the work is about competence. Also in seminars, there are only 20-30% women. The quantity matters, because the more women working in this field, the more men learn to behave. I think that’s an issue.
One thing happened to me a few months ago, when I was speaking to someone about the renewable energy field. All of a sudden this well-connected guy said, “it’s a very good job market for women because companies are trying to balance out their workforce because of gender equality.” I was a little bit offended, because essentially what was saying was that if I got a job, it was because I was a woman and not necessarily because I was qualified. He said, “Oh no, I didn’t mean that at all, I meant that if you and a guy had the same experience and technical knowledge, they would probably prefer you over him.” It’s called positive discrimination, and I don’t believe in it. I feel like if women are good enough, then they will get there. They don’t need this positive discrimination, and that sort of makes men say stuff like that. They will think that women got jobs just because of their gender.
Snow hikes are the best!
Image provided by Ghazal
Could you speak a bit more about women in engineering issues?
I feel like it's good to bring these issues to people's specific focus groups for women in engineering, but it can tread a fine line between helping and isolating them. Women in engineering need this attention to be there, but I think it should balance out in some way. Why do we need to point out our differences? For example, with things like women in engineering day, I understand that it’s probably because there are way less women in engineering than men, and we need to bring some attention to women in engineering. However, bringing too much attention or separating them too much from men means that we could create a different kind of isolating environment.
What is some of your advice for women in engineering?
Something that I really learned-and I wasn't like this at first- is to try to be solid on your opinion. Sometimes you have to push for things that you think need to be done. Especially in a work environment, it’s a little bit different to a school environment. Your professor at school may be really flexible with you, but at work, people sometimes can have strong opinions. You have to confront them if you think they are wrong or want things to be done your way. At first I wasn’t like this, and accepted when other people refused my suggestions. However, I learned how to convince people. Especially when it comes to dealing with my boss, if I have an idea, then my reasoning behind it should be convincing. I have to be able to say why I'm choosing this direction over the other one.
This is especially important when you’re young or a woman. When you’re young, people don’t really welcome you that much. Sometimes I feel like I’m a little biased, because in Iran this is a much bigger problem. When I go back, I have to deal with this in daily life, not just in engineering. So I could be a little bit biased in thinking that I’m not being taken seriously just because I’m a woman and young. But there are other people that are not biased like me and they think the same thing, so I think there is an issue here. As a woman in engineering, you almost have to be more serious and firm to be successful.
A nice cup of coffee in a favourite Vancouver cafe
Image provided by Ghazal
What's next for your career, do you have any goals?
I’m getting my P.Eng (professional engineering status) soon, as I always wanted to get there. I really like working in an R&D environment, I feel like there are good opportunities for renewable energy, and I like working in the area.
At the same time, I don’t want to limit myself. It’s the beginning of my career, and I need to explore a little bit to figure out what I want to do. I’ll probably be open to experiencing more things.
I was also thinking about doing a PhD, but I’m not sure yet. That’s just a second option.
GET TO KNOW GHAZAL
I'd just like to extend a massive thank you to Ghazal for taking the time to speak to me about her career and experiences moving abroad! I'm sure everyone will be able to learn a thing or two from her, and also be comforted by her words about learning on the job!