Keep Your Options Open: Advice from an Engineer Bringing Water to Farmers

Sonja Fransen, Water Management Engineer, Guelph Development and Technology Transfer Office, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

What’s one thing that would surprise people about your field of work?

What some might find surprising about engineering is that there is a mix of office work and field work; which I really enjoy. My first job as a student involved going outdoors to collect data. Even now, I’m out setting up a new edge of field study. When I have students working for me, I make sure to take them into the field so they can understand where all the data comes from for our projects.

How did you get into your line of work?

My chemical engineering program required six CO-OP work terms. My first work term was with AAFC as an irrigation and drainage engineer, working with farmers to help give them access to water. I loved it! After that, I tried two other jobs that weren’t for me and asked to go back to my AAFC placement for my last work term. At the end I was offered a job. I have worked at AAFC for 16 years with essentially the same role but with different titles. Right now I’m working on water quality and edge-of-field studies. Specifically on nutrient loading of nitrogen and phosphorus, where the impact on water quality is a major concern.

What is your most memorable moment at work?

When I was a CO-OP student, we built a big irrigation pipeline in Southern Ontario. It was a $10 million project, involving a group of 25 farmers. For our work on this project, my team won a coveted AAFC Gold Harvest award in 2011. It’s one of those things you hope to get by the end of the career, which makes it pretty memorable for someone just starting.

Is there something we can do to support women in STEM?

For women and anyone in general, there should be better mentoring in high school. For me, at the end of grade eleven they sat me down and asked what courses I wanted to take to get into a university program. My dad was a chemistry teacher and my mom was a nurse so naturally I leaned towards the sciences. It would help if schools got more involved earlier in explaining what careers are out there.

What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in science, technology, engineering and math?

Keep your options open and take more classes than you think you need. You never know what programs might need. For example, I didn’t know that the University of Waterloo required two maths for my program; I was lucky in the sense that I took a second class out of my own personal interest. I recommend taking a CO-OP program that lets you try a variety of jobs to give you a sense of what a career in that field is like. I had three different placements and only liked one of them. How do you know what you like until you try it?

What are your hobbies, and do they influence your work?

A lot of my hobbies have to do with travel; photography and scrapbooking for example. Though not directly related, my hobbies bring creativity to my work, help balance my work-life, as well as develop my time management and organizational skills.

What do you hope to see in your field in the next 10 years?

I hope to see more jobs in my field. Opportunities for engineers have been increasing in general, but in my department there has been a decrease. It’s not for want of engineers, there are many capable people. Staffing priorities were re-evaluated such that senior engineering positions were phased out of AAFC-STB. This means there are less senior engineers to help train new engineers.


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