Stay Curious: Advice from a Leader Who Continues to Support People

Crista-Lynn Ferguson, Director General, Integrated Services at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)

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

I think the size of Integrated Services (400+) and the scope of our duties would surprise many. Some people might also be surprised that Corporate Management has such a large footprint at AAFC's 20 Research and Development Centres across Canada. We provide a wide range of services to support activities such as administrative, financial, some human resources, facilities management, procurement, project management; basically anything that is not research is touched by us.

How did you get into your line of work?

My path has been a bit winding, to say the least! My career started in the military, as an engineering officer in the Royal Canadian Navy. I was in a seagoing role, and responsible for the mechanical and electrical systems onboard a 5000 tonne warship. I also worked for a few years as an engineer in the private sector in the United Kingdom, before returning to Canada and entering the public service, where I worked mainly in engineering, project management, and technical leadership roles, first in National Defence and then with the Canadian Coast Guard (an agency of Fisheries and Oceans).

Some people I meet think that my current role is very different from the previous ones. In my view, I have always worked in leadership and support to operations, and it is just the nature of the operation that has changed. Where before the operation was military operations or ship building and repair, and now the operation I need to support is critical scientific research. The other constant is leading and supporting people. That part of the job is a constant. So from my perspective, the progression feels natural and not far removed at all from where I started.

What is your most memorable moment at work?

There are so many great memories and high points, it's hard to choose just one. As an engineer I love solving problems, so some of the really satisfying moments were when I was able to find a solution or a resolution to a problem. An example was when I was working in the private sector, in support of the UK military, and I was tasked to conduct a failure analysis on a recurring issue they were having with the propulsion system in one of their classes of warship. Many people had analysed this issue without success. I had the advantage of both a mechanical and electrical background, which allowed me to analyse the faults on the mechanical as well as the control systems side. As a result I was able to pinpoint the source of the problem, and even offer a very simple and inexpensive workaround to the Navy, which allowed them to prevent recurrence of the problem. That was very satisfying, and I felt that I personally contributed to their resolution of the problem.

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

I think the first thing we can do is to provide the opportunities (and for women to seek them out as well). Some of the best roles I had were because someone who didn't know me took a chance and gave me an opportunity. It really meant a lot to me. Sometimes I needed to put up my hand and volunteer, but ultimately, someone trusted and said yes. We need to trust people based on their abilities. Secondly, is to show women that there is a place for them at the senior table, and that it is worth progressing to reach that table. This is accomplished through representation, and it's something AAFC does very well. The department has excellent representation of women at many layers of leadership. I think this shows women in more junior positions that there is a path of progression for them.

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

I would say, give STEM a chance. There are so many different specialties that have opened up in the last 25 years. There are now specialities in bioengineering, medical technologies, environmental sciences and engineering fields - it's endless. I love how the fields of biology, mechanics, chemistry, and physics have completely intersected and created some fascinating areas of study. Fields are also expanding based on social and cultural issues. So I would say, explore. Remember how fun it was to be curious? It still is! Be flexible. Give it a chance, there are so many choices. Also, I would say, don't put pressure on yourself to find a single passion. I came from a modest household and I needed to fund my own education. I made my career choices based on "what do I enjoy that can also pay the bills?". I didn't have the luxury of spending more than a couple years in education, but through curiosity and trying new things, I had great experiences in a variety of fields, and now I wouldn't change a thing. Stay curious, and the adventure will find you.

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

I greatly enjoy travelling and really experiencing other places and cultures. I hope to do this again post-pandemic. I think this is part of the curiosity of scientists and engineers. I never get tired of exploring and learning. To me, travelling is part of this exploration and the more I can see and learn in a new place, the better the experience for me.

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

In the field of STEM I would like to see the "T" (for Technology) become an equal in the field. Right now there is an implied hierarchy within science, technology, engineering, and math. I think if we don't come to the understanding that we can't get anywhere without technologists, we will face some tough consequences. Technology is often where science and engineering gets put into action! I want to see technologists and people in trades, recognized for their role in this magic. These folks are just as smart and do work just as hard, and they deserve to be valued as equals. This is especially important when it comes to staffing leadership opportunities. Do we need to ask specifically for a university degree, or do we really want post-secondary education? Is this required at all, or are we really looking for leadership qualities, that are not guaranteed by a degree or diploma? I think we deny ourselves access to some great leaders, and in turn disadvantage some deserving candidates.