Women in STEM: Sara Flanagan, Integrated Engineering

Sara Flanagan

“Continuous learning keeps your mind active and keeps you relevant and dynamic. Time spent learning is always time well invested.”

Original Feature


Why did you choose to pursue engineering as a career?

I’d always leaned towards math and science in high school, but ultimately I wanted to invest my university time in something that would open doors. I like flexibility and versatility, the freedom to try different industries, work on different projects, move to new cities… an engineering program in university seemed most suited to this. In retrospect there was no better way I could have spent my time at UBC. Not only did I work on expanding my technical skillset, I was surrounded by brilliant peers who motivated me to define and go after what I wanted. I learned the art of brevity, the power of clear communication, the importance of time management and the subtle necessities of a good team dynamic.

Ultimately, I think an engineering degree allows you the technical skills to remain relevant in an increasingly technical workplace while still building up the soft skills necessary to being a productive team member. The challenges change daily, demanding creative problem solving and analytical critical thinking.

Why did you decide to choose UBC for your degree?

I studied in the hierarchical, private American education system where titles and names are often valued above hard work and individual accomplishment. I liked that Canada trusted in the public university system. This democratic structure contributes to the rich variety of people, cultures, and research on campus. For me, UBC was a great place to learn from some of the best  with less of the pretentiousness of an American university.

The geographical and social context of the university were critical for me, and Vancouver was hugely attractive. Vancouver is an accessible and richly varied outdoor playground. Great art shows are just minutes away from beautiful beaches. People hike and ski after work. Productive community gardens are increasingly present in urban neighborhoods. It’s all so wonderful, and I fell in love. So much of what I learned during my five years in Vancouver came from the city. Plus the sushi is delicious.

What are some of the most memorable moments from your time in the program?

I was fortunate enough to do co-op terms with Devon Energy in Calgary and GableCraft Homes in Vancouver after my second academic year. I loved the time I spent in both terms. I would recommend a long work term (beyond just the four month summer internship) to any university student that wants to further sculpt the direction of their academics. Because I was in these positions for long amounts of time, I was able to add substantial value to the projects I worked on. Realizing that stuck with me, and now I strive to add daily value to whatever project I’m involved in. My supervisors and coworkers were examples of the energetic, respectful, productive professional that I wanted to become. It was an invaluable opportunity to ask them how they had gotten to where they were and what they had learned along the way. Furthermore, co-op served as a constructive way to take a break from school and get to know Calgary, a city I didn’t know well.

What are the most valuable things you have learned?

Recurring observations. Excuse the cheesiness.

  1. Continuous learning keeps your mind active and keeps you relevant and dynamic. Time spent learning is always time well invested.
  2. You are not simply the title of your accomplishments, so don’t let titles speak for you. Instead of introducing yourself by your title or alma mater, describe yourself by how you spend your time or what you’re passionate about. Letting an institution or title describe you is a disservice to all of the complexities and interesting quips that connect humans with other humans.
  3. Integrity is valuable and difficult to regain.
  4. Ask lots of questions. You may sound stupid for a few sweaty seconds but after you’ll be so much more comfortable.
  5. Team dynamics are fascinating. The best teams position each member in a way that allows them to thrive and add value in the way that’s most natural to them. Synergies are created naturally. A good manager is actively cognizant of this.
  6. Be thankful. You are where you are because you worked hard and got lucky.

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

One of the salient characteristics of an integrated engineering degree is the bridging between theoretical and practical solutions. Where in other classes a final deliverable is a theoretical solution on paper, the project courses in the integrated program require a physical solution to be built and presented at the end of the year. Each person is required to take their part of the work to completion. They are held accountable to deliver results. For me, taking numbers off a page and translating them into physical solutions was an invaluable learning experience.

After my co-op terms, I realized that I was interested in building sciences. Because no formal building science program exists at UBC, I combined the mechanical department’s heat transfer, acoustics, and HVAC classes with the civil department’s building envelope and fluid mechanics classes to create a custom curriculum that aligned with my interests. In other words, integrated engineering allowed me to study what I wanted – an opportunity I wouldn’t have had in any other discipline.

Because of integrated engineering´s small group size and relatively young age, the group is really tight-knit. IGEN attracts self-directed people who have a vast array of interests outside of school. Students know the program director, Daan Maijer, personally – a rare connection in the bigger disciplines.

What are your goals for the future?

My short term work goal is to focus and make the most of the project I’m involved in now. After finals in April 2016, I moved to Barcelona, Spain to work on FCBarcelona’s Espai Barça project. The project deals with converting the storied but outdated Barça campus (arena, stadium, mini stadium, urbanization) into a campus that is as excellent as the players it is meant to serve. I’m excited about the challenges ahead: understanding the politics behind the club, navigating the Catalan culture in Spain and learning to speak Catalan, among others. The Espai Barça team is immensely talented and I’m excited to learn from how they respond to the immense technical challenges.

My long term goals include completing an architecture program and continuing to immerse myself in places outside of my comfort zone. I enjoy sustainable building design and urbanization, so perhaps I’ll delve into that more deeply. I am comfortable not having the exact details nailed down- I like being flexible enough to snag whatever sweet opportunity life may throw my way.