Women in STEM: Cynthia Ni, Chemical and Biological Engineering

"What I find most valuable is the lesson that there is no right or best solution – everything has a trade-off; every resolution is a balance of compromises; systems are complex and everything is interconnected."

“What I find most valuable is the lesson that there is no right or best solution – everything has a trade-off; every resolution is a balance of compromises; systems are complex and everything is interconnected.”

Original Feature


Why did you choose to pursue engineering as a career?

I chose engineering because I really like science, technology, and mathematics. I wanted to not only study them, but to one day apply them to real world problems, and I think engineering offers a wonderful marriage between the sciences and practical applications. The Faculty of ‘Applied Science’ is well named.

Why did you decide to choose UBC for your degree?

In addition to being a great school, UBC is surrounded by ocean, forests and mountains. I could not ask for a more beautiful place to get a degree. Plus, I grew up in Portland, Oregon, so I’m very much a west coast girl.

What are some of the most memorable moments from your time in the program (academic or otherwise)?

Academically, my most memorable moment was being introduced to the field of metabolic engineering by Dr. Vikram Yadav, who became my supervisor in my last year in CHBE. It is a field that I find both exciting, in and of itself, and promising in the potential of utilizing microorganisms to tackle problems such as environmental remediation, synthesis of pharmaceuticals and development of biosensors. My interest in metabolic engineering fueled my desire to continue on to graduate school; I am thrilled to be doing so at MIT in the fall.

More generally, it’s been such a pleasure meeting students and faculty at UBC and learning about their perspectives on the world. There are so many people from places I’ve never been, whose experiences enrich my own understanding of things. I love meeting people who are passionate about an issue; it‘s even better when they have an idea for, or are working towards, a solution to that issue. I have met such people in abundance here.

Recreationally, one of my most rewarding experiences at UBC was my involvement with the UBC Brewing Club. Winning the last two Hops Connect Cups was definitely a highlight of my time here.

Making biodiesel with waste vegetable oil from restaurants on campus with Engineers for a Sustainable World was a really wonderful project to be a part of as well – it was personally rewarding, introduced me to very bright, environmentally conscious people, and unites the technical and social sides of sustainability and closing resource loops.

What are the most valuable things you have learned?

What I find most valuable is the lesson that there is no right or best solution – everything has a trade-off; every resolution is a balance of compromises; systems are complex and everything is interconnected. This is a lesson I value in both technology and in my life, in such areas as politics, economics, and personal relationships. In engineering, we learn to handle the complexity so that we can begin to solve problems, which in itself is a valuable skill. Our solutions, however, are often oversimplified. This drives me to further my education so that I may develop solutions that take into account more complexity, making them more effective in the real world.

How do you feel a degree in engineering has benefitted (or will benefit) you compared to other fields of study?

I think there’s really incredible science being discovered all over the world and what excites me about my engineering degree is that it allows me to use that science as a tool to build something that can help to alleviate a problem in the world.

What are your goals for the future?

In the fall, I start my PhD in Chemical Engineering at MIT. It is absolutely a dream come true and completing the program is my most prevalent immediate goal. Long-term: world domination, solving some kind of large-scale problem, who knows.