Mentor of Distinction
Jessica Vandenberghe’s engineering career has come full circle. Once a high school student who discovered her future career upon hearing a presentation on engineering, she now regularly stands in front of classrooms, helping kids to recognize their potential.
“Growing up, I wanted to be an artist,” says Vandenberghe, 28. “Until one day, in Grade 10 or 11 in high school, this person came in and told us all about engineering. I had never even heard of the profession before, but it all sounded very interesting. I was a fairly smart, a straight-A student, and realized that I could make a much better living in the field of science.”
Vandenberghe did her undergraduate studies and later, completed a Masters degree at the University of Alberta. Since 2003, she has worked as a Research Engineer at the Syncrude Research Centre based in Edmonton, in the industry of oil sands.
“One of the things I like most about research is that the projects are smaller scale and you are able to carry things out from beginning to end. When you’re a process engineer at a plant, your work involves more day-to-day troubleshooting. You don’t always get to see things through to the end because there are so many things coming at you,” she says.
Vandenberghe works in the bitumen production group, which focuses on the process areas from mining through to the end of extraction, before the oil is sent to upgrading to be refined.
“Our group looks at new technology and different technology that we could possibly apply to oil sands; we start testing it, either at a fundamental level or on a bench scale level, then slowly scale it up. As it goes along, we dismiss it or figure out different ways to make it work, then we move to a full scale project and finally, implement it into the plant.”
Vandenberghe is a big advocate of mentorship, both inside and outside of the workplace. In her department, she is currently working to implement a new mentorship program that will be underway within the next few months. Outside of work, she is an active volunteer for Alberta Women’s Science Network (AWSN), Women in Scholarship, Engineering Science and Technology (WISEST) and the Edmonton Science Outreach Network (ESON) – which sponsors her classroom visits to teach students and their teachers about the science of the oil sands.
“The last presentation I gave was for a Grade 5 class – that fun, inquisitive age,” she chuckles. “Some of them have heard of engineering but most have no idea of what an engineer does.”
As part of her classroom presentation, Vandenberghe conducts interactive experiments about scientific properties using everyday ingredients ranging from pop cans to popcorn kernels. She also does jar test demonstrations with real oil sand.
“We put a bit of oil sand in a jar with some water, shake it and then watch the bitumen float off. It’s very easy for the students to watch what’s happening as you explain that this is what our processes are based on; how the oil floats while the sand sinks,” Vandenberghe explains, adding that by the expression on her captive audience’s young faces, she can see that she is getting her message through to them.
In Grades 4 and 5, they think the sky is the limit, but maybe they don’t know how far that limit can go. Based on the questions that students of all ages tend to ask, they really don’t know what’s out there for them. So, having someone to tell them what’s out there and what they’ve experienced is helpful.
Vandenberghe says she feels fortunate that she did not feel any discrimination or gender barrier as she pursued her career, and that her teachers, family and friends were very supportive.
“I did my first year of college in Grand Prairie, Alberta and made friends with the only other girl in the engineering class. We both went into chemical engineering and the two of us kind of stuck together,” she recalls. “By university, we had a pretty good core group; six of us who studied and helped each other. We kind of felt our way together along the way.”
Vandenberghe, who is Aboriginal but grew up in an adoptive German family, says that her post-secondary education and career path towards becoming the professional she is today, has brought her closer to her biological roots. In university, she volunteered in Native Students Services and later tutored at Edmonton’s Amiskwaciy Academy. At the CCWESTT Conference last summer, she met Senator Lillian Dyck, a strong advocate of women and of Aboriginals, who has since become Vandenberghe’s personal mentor.
“Lillian is half Native and half Chinese, so I thought her influence would help me get more in touch with my Aboriginal culture, since I grew up playing the accordion and eating sauerkraut,” she laughs.
As much an eager mentee as she is a passionate mentor, Vandenberghe says she often relies on the advice and experience of her trusted professional advisors.
“I do have some really good mentors right now. My team leader here at Syncrude is enthusiastic and helps me to visualize my future. He says, ‘Well, here’s where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.’ That excitement really motivates me.”