Learn Something Every Day: Advice from a Lifelong Engineer Working Behind the Scenes

Karen Durnford-McIntosh, Director General, Real Property and Asset Management at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

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

I think people would be surprised by just how much problem solving goes on behind the scenes. Real Property staff listen to the needs of AAFC employees, and in particular the researchers at our 20 Research and Development Centres across Canada. We help maintain the research centres, provide security, and also deliver services, a variety of contracts, and projects. Agricultural research has very specific niches so the needs of our labs can vary greatly. On top of this, contractors hired might not be experts in agriculture which means we have to provide oversight to make sure things are completed appropriately.

Our role is to makes sure everyone is speaking the same language. A scientist will ask for a certain space to do some specific science, but the design consultant might not fully understand the requirement. My group will take the client’s needs and translate them into technical requirements for design consultants and contractors.

During the pandemic, our Procurement team was working diligently behind the scenes to buy headsets for employees who had transitioned to working from home as well as all the PPE, cleaning solutions, signage, and Plexiglas for AAFC buildings and spaces across the country to ensure the workplace was safe.

How did you get into your line of work?

I have worked for the government on and off since I was 17 years old. My 14 years in the military began after school when I was accepted to the College Militaire Royal in St. Jean, Quebec. I chose the military because I was looking for something challenging, interesting and not part of the norm. After graduating, I travelled and worked in many Canadian provinces and also did a United Nations posting in Pakistan after the Russia-Afghan war. It made me realize how fortunate we are in Canada with our heath care system, fair legal system, freedom, and how much Canada as a country cares about its people.

When I became a young mother, it became difficult to continue a military career with a military spouse. I left the military and went to Queen’s University to further my education with a MA in Environmental Engineering. I joined the private sector and worked on engineering and construction engineering projects. In 2004, I rejoined the federal government as an environmental engineer for the RCMP and advanced my career in various departments including Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (at that time), and Public Services and Procurement Canada before joining AAFC in 2019.

What is your most memorable moment at work?

Within Real Property and Asset Management is our Departmental Security Directorate who are responsible for emergency management. During my first week on the job with AAFC we had a fire in Tower 7. As the Senior person in command I worked with the Emergency Management Team to make sure everyone evacuated the building and that the fire fighters were directed to the right floor. I remember it was -30°C that day so employees were allowed to wait in the T6 cafeteria for the OK to go back to their offices. We received the initial clearance but before we could actually allow people to leave the cafeteria, someone noticed more smoke coming from the T7 LAN room. The fire department had to be called again and it took another four hours to get sorted out. It turned out that the fire was a result of roof construction with torches.

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

To support women we need to give them the tools and support so they feel confident in their abilities. I was the only female in my Civil Engineering class in 1984 and when I met the Dean he casually commented that I was the token female. Although taken aback at the time there was little I could do or say about the comment. Experiences like that make you think and take stock of why you’re doing things. I had teachers that encouraged me to take non-traditional courses that I loved (math and sciences). These are now known as STEM courses but at the time there were not many young ladies going into the sciences or maths. 

In addition - policies have changed significantly since I started my career and they now provide many more supports for young women and working mothers including “newer” policies that allow women and men to take parental leave. When I was younger, I was penalized for taking maternity leave. Making policies fair for all genders will go a long way to improve our workplace.

I think that we can do a better job of promoting STEM roles in the federal government at schools and universities during career fairs. I also try to mentor women that I work with hoping that some of my experiences will be helpful.

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

I would tell anyone interested in STEM to find somebody in their circle that’s working in the field they’re interested in. Find out what the job will be like because the best advice often comes from someone living and working in the field.

Also be flexible, confident, and look for opportunities so you can take control of your own career. Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself and evolve through your experiences. If you learn something everyday, you’re making a difference in your own abilities, in your life, and your career.

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

I am an avid exerciser. I like running, hiking and traveling. While physical exercise doesn’t have an immediate influence on my work, it does help me manage stress and helps me maintain balance in my life. Travel has given me a great global perspective and makes me appreciate what we have in Canada. I feel passionate about what we do as a public servants in supporting Canadians.

I love bridges, they stoke my curiosity. In my opinion, bridges are works of art and are also a testament to the ingenuity of people. Some government projects are not as impressive but when we work together we can tackle a variety of problems and find solutions; we do that in all sorts of situations.

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

I hope to see more women enrolling and working in science and engineering and taking on senior leadership roles in the federal government. After 25 years in government we are starting to see that now and it is very inspiring to me on a daily basis.