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Mechanical engineer part of Women in Science series

Maxime Chin signed up for auto mechanics at her Vancouver high school a decade ago because she wanted to gain hands-on experience for a career in engineering.

But her male guidance counsellor told her there was a long waiting list for the class and that it would be too hard for a lone girl in a class full of boys.

So Chin deregistered. When she first attended the University of B.C., she studied animal biology. But now the 27-year-old is poised to complete a second degree in mechanical engineering and her work experiences as a co-op student helped her find a job in the oil and gas industry in Calgary.

Chin will deliver a talk called Finding Your Path to Engineering and Science: From Taxidermy to Robots, May 9 as part of a Women in Science speaker series at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre.

“What prompted [the series] was in June, it’s the 50th anniversary of the first woman in space,” said Rob Appleton, executive director of the space centre. “It’s a Russian cosmonaut [Valentina Tereshkova].”

Astronomer Stephanie Cote kicks off the series April 11 with a talk entitled Dark Secrets of the Universe, and Elizabeth Croft, a professor in mechanical engineering at UBC, will talk about Transforming Human-Robot Interaction June 13.

Work with GEERing Up! UBC Engineering and Science for Kids rekindled Chin’s interest in engineering. She recruited female mentors for girls’ outreach workshops and camps who helped her see that engineering could be a good career choice for women who want work that’s challenging, innovative and supports a balance between professional and personal life.

Having her own mentors helped Chin gain confidence in a field dominated by men. She notes 17.4 per cent of all undergraduate engineering students in Canada are women. That number is even less at nine per cent in mechanical engineering.

Chin was often the only woman on the job during her work experiences. Sometimes she didn’t encounter another woman all day until she checked in with the hotel receptionist at night.

She says the men she encountered in the field were surprised when she, a small, young woman, told them she was an engineer. Her mentors coached her on negotiating a salary, how to develop her career and helped her to see engineering as a helping profession.

“That really motivates me to be in engineering,” Chin said. “I thought engineering was really making things and then it stops there, but even when you’re working in something like oil and gas you can have a huge effect in how production is carried out and the safety factors and the environmental factors.”

Chin recommends women seek potential employers who’ve had sensitivity training, support diversity and, as many engineering firms do, include women’s networks.

She says future engineers don’t have to be the smartest kids in their class. “It’s definitely a profession that involves working with people, so it’s a balance of people skills, and, of course, your academics,” she said.

All of the Women in Science sessions run at the space centre. Doors open at 6:30 and admission is by donation.

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