Mentor of Distinction
There is a saying that resonates with Dr. Cecile Siewe: “growing. And if you’re not growing, then you’re not moving forward.”
Not only does the adage apply to her career as a technology development engineer at Shell Canada Ltd. and her recent transition to Canada Lead for the Supply Centre of Excellence, but it is also befitting of her personal story which spans from to Calgary
“When I was growing up in Africa, I was very fortunate that my parents always felt their kids should to aspire to be all that they could be. They instilled in us the belief that we could do anything we wanted to do as long as we had the right education to do it,” Siewe recalls. “In our household, dropping out of school was unfathomable just as going on to university was a default assumption.”
Siewe continues to be grateful that her parents sent her to an all-girls’ boarding school in , where she discovered an aptitude for science.
Going to school in a very traditional environment was good for me as there were no early expectations placed on what girls can and cannot do – so I took math and all the sciences. By the time I reached high school, I realized what a benefit I’d had when I experienced the subliminal gender bias some teachers exhibited toward girls in science and technology, probably without even realizing they were doing it. Realizing the significant influence a teacher can have on a students’ life, I was very lucky to have found and followed my interest in science from an early age.
Siewe left after winning a university scholarship, choosing to pursue her post-secondary education at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in , England. Upon finishing her Ph.D. and toying with a career in academia, she applied for a position at the University of and moved to Canada.
“That was a very good move because it helped me to realize that I was getting much more personal satisfaction coaching undergrad and post-grad students with their research projects than from the hands-on research I had been doing since before my PhD.,” she says. “Fundamental research is very important; you need to look no further than laser technology or nanotechnology to see how it has changed our lives. But I knew I needed to be able to visualize the end result and work with a finite timeline for the application for what I was doing. So, I decided to make the jump to industry.”
While completing her MBA degree, Siewe took a position with the Canada Revenue Agency in Calgary promoting a government program designed to entice multinational corporations to set up research and development facilities in Canada. This opportunity, along with its proximity to the country’s major oil and gas companies, whet her appetite to further engage with industry.
In 2005, Siewe joined Shell Canada as a Senior Technology Development Engineer for Oilsands, before accepting a growth opportunity to become Canada Lead for the Supply Centre of Excellence in 2008. By her enthusiasm, it is obvious that she derives satisfaction in her work.
“It is gratifying to be able to function at this level and be appreciated for a job well done. It means I have invested in an education and gained valuable experience and I am able to put both to good use,” she continues. “At the same time, having the respect of my peers and colleagues as well as the trust and confidence of my supervisors means a great deal to me.”
She says she also enjoys mentoring and passing along the benefit of her experience to others.
“I have been given so many opportunities in life. I went from a boarding school in to being an 18-year-old university student in , to working in Canada and there were many kindnesses shown to me along the way. I realized that even if I’m not directly in academia, I need to take part indirectly via teaching or coaching to share all that knowledge and experiences with others, as well as to pass on some of the kindnesses I received.”
Siewe has been actively involved in Operation Minerva and is exploring new mentoring opportunities both through the University of Calgary and in her own work environment.
“It is impossible to overestimate the importance of coaching to girls, to boys, to adults and to the young men and women coming into the workforce,” she says. “The first time I took on an Operation Minerva group at Shell’s Calgary Research Centre, one of the girls subsequently won an award for the best essay about the experience – an experience which will hopefully colour her life in a positive way,” she says. “In addition to sharing information at work, I encourage the people in my unit to take the time to attend academic and industry association meetings now and then so they are reminded to keep all the pathways in their brains open. The more open they are to that, the more receptive they will be to ideas coming from different directions and the more likely they will be to pass on that mindset to the people in their lives.”
She also extends her personal growth philosophy to her home life, where Siewe delights in the countless teachable moments she finds with daughter, Schuyler, 7, and son, Julien, 5.
“Whenever they ask a question about the world around them, I use it as an opportunity to illustrate how pervasive science is: Why do earthquakes (such as in Haiti) happen? Is one going to happen in Calgary? Why did Terry Fox have to die – why didn’t he just take medication and get better?” she says. “Even when the answer has to be ‘no one knows yet,’ I always add that maybe one of them will be become the scientist who eventually figures it out.
“Recently, Schuyler heard that everything that goes up, must come down. ‘Even bubbles that go up in the air?’ she asked me, and I said yes. Then we had a discussion about why some things go up and why they would eventually come down. Trying to break down the concepts of buoyancy, gravity and heat exchange to a seven-year old is an education in itself!”
Siewe says that while she does expect that her daughter and girls like her will pursue an education and go on to a fulfilling career, she hopes they realize that their futures are wide open.
“I don’t expect every young girl to grow up and become a scientist or engineer – but I do want them to have had many credible opportunities to explore those options as they grow, and whatever career path they eventually chose, they will be making an informed decision.”