What’s a girl to do with math and science? Anything she wants

May 30, 2014 Laura Schmeling

Turning a love of math and science into an exciting career


“What do you want to be when you grow up?” - It’s a question that really starts to present itself around the third grade. My answer was always a singer or a dancer. I, like most girls of the ‘80s, entertained myself in my basement with cassettes of Jem and the Holograms, dancing around while wearing tights and my bathing suit to emulate a leotard. As I got older, reality set in, and that question became more difficult to answer. If I wasn’t going to be a singer, what was I going to do?  Of course, there were the usual popular (and sometimes stereotypical) career choices: doctor, dentist, nurse, firefighter, garbage man, teacher, etc. I didn’t have any inkling to be any of those things.

In high school it became apparent that math was my strong suit, and sciences presented a challenge that was almost ‘fun’. I liked that these two fields dealt with detailed methods that I could use to systematically solve a problem and find an indisputably correct answer.

The end of high school began to loom, and a decision had to be made. What is a girl to do with math and science?  Engineer seemed to be the common theme I was hearing. The field is so incredibly broad, and at 16, I was quickly overwhelmed. The possibilities seemed endless!  Until I realized that university was going to cost a lot of money, I didn’t have a job, and my parents made it clear that I needed to pay my own way. Suddenly, my choices narrowed to the University of Regina so I could live at home and enjoy my mother’s care and cooking, while maintaining easy access to the University. I decided Industrial Systems Engineering was the way to go and graduated with my Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Industrial Systems Engineering, May of 2005, all the while taking advantage of the Co-op program – including two terms with Stantec! 

Laura with hockey player Haley Wickenheiser at the recent CCWEST conference


I had a vision of my future that went something like this: in the next five years I was going to make a lot of money, marry my sweetheart, buy a house and obtain my professional engineers license (P.Eng). Within five years after that, I would have children, know most of what there is to know about a job that I loved to do and fit into perfectly, be making even more money, and generally live out my days happily and easily because I had done it – I had graduated with my engineering degree.

Over the next five years I worked in oil and gas engineering, first in oilfield services. But working on the rigs was tough and proved to be more of a life-balance challenge than I wanted. It wasn’t until I shifted into mechanical consulting that I really feel I began my career as an engineer. But I’ll admit I struggled; here it was five years later and I hadn’t met my vision. I hadn’t found a job that really fit my desire for daily challenges as well as triumphs. I hadn’t found my balance of gaining confidence as I gained knowledge. I had, however, found my husband and we bought a condo in Grande Prairie. I began to realize that my actual priorities in life were not so much to make lots of money and have all the things I wanted, but to feel satisfied.

Attending last week’s Canadian Coalition for Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology (CCWESTT) Conference 2014 in Regina brought all of these memories back for me. The theme of the conference was “Open Opportunities: Mentoring the Future.” I’ve experienced both. I joined Stantec in Regina in 2010 – in the same group I did two of my co-op work terms with. My work here is challenging and gratifying. I learn something new every day and am continually expanding my knowledge of HVAC, plumbing, and fire protection, while delving more and more into how each project is run and our role as designers. I don’t have just one mentor; everyone helps each other learn and progress.   

Looking back on my vision nine years ago of where I expected to be by this time, I can see that I was focused on living to work; I thought it would define who I was. Having so many choices and opportunities in this field, however, helped me find what exactly made me happy. I didn’t pursue the steps to obtain my P.Eng until recently, I think, because I didn’t feel confident in my decision to become an engineer until I joined Stantec. Now that I’ve found my niche, I realize my work is just part of who I am. It is a challenge to find a work-life balance, but I’m happy to come into the office each day. I have good relationships with my co-workers and know that every day there will be some laughs. There are times when I have to put some extra focus on work, but it helps knowing that I’m working on a sustainable career path that will allow me to provide my daughter with opportunities for a bright future – whatever she decides to be when she grows up, too.

About the Author

Laura Schmeling is a mechanical engineer-in-training and has been working in the mechanical design field for 10 years.

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