Mentor of Distinction
Heather Kaminsky can attest to the importance of keeping all your options open.
When she was a high school student at Old Scona Academic in Edmonton, Kaminsky enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (I.B.) diploma program, taking every possible drama and fine arts course she could fit into her schedule, going so far as to take physics in summer school to enable an extra course in drama during the year. It wasn’t until she was offered university entrance scholarships that she envisioned a future career in science and engineering instead of the performing arts.
“Up until that point, I knew I was going to university, but pretty much anyone who knew me thought I’d end up in fine arts or in political science as I loved debating,” she recalls. “But then, in my final year, I started to realize how much I enjoyed science and started to lean toward that field.
“It appealed to me because science still allowed me the time to participate in my other interests if I wanted. I also knew that I could come out with a steady, better paying job after attaining a four‐ year degree.”
After much deliberation, Kaminsky decided that her discipline would be materials engineering, study of all things solid, as it applies the principles of chemistry, her preferred branch of science.
“My job is to research everything to do with oil sands mining operations, from taking the oil out of the ground to processing it to extract the bitumen as well as the most optimum way to reclaim an environmentally sound landscape,” she says. “At the same time, I do get to travel quite a bit, whether it is visiting our PhDs in France, meeting with researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, or going up to Fort McMurray to see the large‐scale implementation of our research.”
Now in her third year with Total, Kaminsky says that she enjoys working for a company that encourages its employees to grow professionally and to gain experience in a number of areas by moving them into different roles or to other parts of the organization.
I would say that the most fulfilling part of what I do is the problem solving. I like to be able to define a core issue and figure out how all the components fit together so that the end of the day, I can say, ‘I know why it does that and what can be done about it.'
“For example, one of our challenges is removing as much water from the tailings as we can, but if we do it too early in the process, the material gets too thick to pump and we can’t transport it where it needs it to go." She is also actively involved in a number of industry organizations and societies, including AWSN and WISEST, and is serving as this year’s program chair for the Calgary chapter of ASM International (American Society of Materials).
One of her recent endeavours is co‐founding a new Alberta Women’s Science Network initiative called Mentor Up, a diverse mentoring network for early‐career professionals to exchange ideas on career challenges and opportunities.
“The idea is to bring together professionals in science, engineering and mathematics and create a network of men and women from diverse cultural backgrounds who can mentor and share their experiences with one another,” she says. “We’re only just starting and the network is still in its early stages, but we’ve already held one event and look forward to hosting more panel discussions, small group discussions and keynote speakers in the future.”
When asked how she manages to balance her work responsibilities with her outside commitments and still leave time for fun and relaxation, Kaminsky recalls some excellent advice she received at a conference on career planning.
“The speaker put a glass jar on the stage ad placed three giant rocks in it. Then he asked the audience, ‘Is this jar full?’ and we said no because obviously, there was still a lot of empty space,” she says.
“Then he added a bunch of smaller, pebble‐sized stones and asked if the jar was full. No matter how full you think it is, you can probably put one more little thing in, but if you don’t get the big rocks – your top priorities – in your jar first, then you will never fit them in.’”
Kaminsky says that high school students should take this advice to heart by fitting every possible course they can into their schedule.
“This is your opportunity to get a free education, so don’t waste it."