Shout!: Tell us a little bit about yourself: what are you studying currently?
Sarah Mitchell: I’m studying Bioresource Engineering at McGill’s MacDonald Campus in St Anne (although I live in downtown Montreal). Because I’m at Mac I’m in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Science instead of the Faculty of Engineering.
SH!: Have you always been in bioresource engineering?
SM: In my first year at McGill (U0 – for students entering from outside of Quebec, so those who haven’t done Cégep), I was in a general engineering first year program (in the Faculty of Engineering), in which I would declare an engineering major at the end of first year. However, after hearing about bioresource engineering, I was very interested in the program so I switched faculties to major in bioresource engineering.
SH!: When did you know that you wanted to be an engineer?
SM: Honestly… I don’t know if even right now I know that I want to be an engineer. I don’t know what I want in most aspects of life! But I knew in grade 11 and 12 that I enjoyed math and science, and I was good at math and science, and I wanted in some way to harness these skills and work towards combatting climate change, which is an issue I care about. This led me to pursue engineering, specifically bioresource. Having been in the program for three years, I am finding that as classes get more specific and I see what projects people are working on, I get more and more excited about the idea of being an engineer.
SH!: I know university is busy, but outside of academics, are you involved in anything else?
SM: Yep! I’ve been involved in a few areas, last year I was the environment commissioner at the student union, and since my first year I’ve been involved with Divest McGill. I also have done some theatre here and there, in first year I directed a play at the McGill Drama Festival and this past year I performed in two plays: “What the Fuck am I Doing Here?” and “When Five Years Pass”, both with McGill’s Tuesday Night Café theatre.
SH!: What have your experiences been like as a woman in STEM?
SM: My experiences have been varied, thankfully I have some great rad/feminist friends in engineering who I can talk to and share support with. Bioresource engineering is a little different than other programs, since the gender divide is about 50/50, which I’m super grateful for. In my downtown classes, though, there is definitely a more prevalent male presence. All my downtown engineering classes have had male teachers, who often only use the pronoun “he” which is infuriating. Boys often talk over women-identifying folks in group projects, and although I personally try to be very outspoken, it is hard for shyer women to have their voices heard. Additionally, the drinking culture of engineering, although fun, is very problematic in that one often hears homophobic/racist/sexist/transphobic and ablest slurs and chants. I do sometimes feel pressure to come up with better ideas and smarter comments than my male peers, to assert that I have a right to be here. It can be a tough fight, but I know that it is tougher for others that may experience other forms of oppression and who may not be as outspoken as I am. Sharing my experience with my peers who have had similar experiences though is always worth it, and also reminding the boys who say they are feminists to call out offensive behaviour and give space for women to speak. I also think one of the most important steps to be taken is hiring more women-identifying staff, because listening to old men all day can be pretty tiring especially when they bring their old sexist attitudes to the classroom.
SH!: I remember you mentioning that you’re a research assistant at McGill - can you talk about what your experience doing that? What were you researching, what was your role as an assistant?
SM: Yeah! Last summer I was working in the environmental engineering laboratory with Professor Dominic Frigon. In wastewater treatment, the effluent sludge can be anaerobically digested to produce biogas, however it requires high temperatures to do this effectively. Because of Montreal’s cold environment, I was studying the effects of using ozonation as a pre-treatment to the sludge to digest it in lower temperatures, while still harnessing the same amount of biogas. My role was to design and construct four bench top size digesters (my supervisor had already completed the project on a smaller scale) and compare the effects of different levels of ozone pre-treatment and temperature on the digestion of the sludge and production of biogas.
My experience really gave me a more accurate perspective on how research is carried out, and what is currently being developed in the global wastewater treatment community. I was working very independently over the summer, which I liked sometimes and was challenging sometimes. Because the project was in my hands, it was up to me to make sure things got done, although I found that I was lacking some of the background chemistry and biology knowledge. My experience did teach me a lot though, mostly in that it opened my eyes to what is possible and what I can actually accomplish, since before beginning my work I had mostly been told directly how to do any project or assignment, whereas in the research assistant environment I had to figure out the steps.
SH!: Are you continuing to work as a research assistant over the summer?
SM: No actually, this summer I decided to take a break from engineering and I’m working a bar which has been fun! I’ve also had some other side projects this summer: I’ve been taking a summer class, I was costume designing for a play, and I’ve been planning and fundraising for the bike trip.
SH!: THE bike trip? What are you referring to?
SM: We're biking across Canada to raise money for the Tsleil-Waututh, Coldwater, and Squamish First Nations to take Kinder Morgan to court.
SH!: Excuse me, what? Who even are you? That is so amazing?! What prompted you to do this? Why are you doing this? Sarah, I NEED ANSWERS.
SM: But we're biking for SO. MANY. REASONS, but most importantly: to raise money for indigenous resistance against the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
Canada is so often idealized as this “perfect” nation - we’ve got a sexy prime minister who is into youth and weed and multiculturalism, and a lot less fascism then the average western nation at the moment. BUT as we “celebrate” #Canada150, we must must MUST take a critical look at the behind the scenes of this country and the ongoing colonialism. Climate change means that pipelines can NOT be built, and to be honest, I think it’s pretty ridiculous that the same government can make all the parks free in celebrating nature, and in the next breath sign onto a destructive oil pipeline.
This summer, I want to spend a butt-ton of time thinking about these things the way I know best: biking for long hours and spending day after day outside in the (hopefully) sunshine. I'm super excited (and slightly terrified) for this trip, to challenge me physically and mentally, raise awareness of the ongoing inequalities and injustice within our country, and tangibly raise funds to stop a harmful pipeline, all while celebrating the beauty of Canada’s natural environment.
We’re biking from Ottawa→ Sudbury, taking the train from Sudbury → Winnipeg, then biking from Winnipeg → Vancouver. Check out our detailed itinerary here:
SH!: That is AMAZING and I’m so excited to follow along with your trip! How are you funding this? I’m super on board with this. Do you need any help in any capacity?
SM: YOU CAN HELP!!! (and please do…)
- Alison is an AMAZING photographer and is sending 100% of the proceeds to the Pull Together campaign, giving you some absotootly gorgeous photos of our trip in return. Click on the website above to check them out! You can also donate directly to the campaign here.
- Let us borrow supplies! We are currently in need of camping gear, bike tools, and other bike touring related supplies! Check out our list here (highlighted is stuff we’re trying to crowdsource)
- Give us a shower and a warm place to sleep if we travel through your city! If you’ve got a home anywhere from Ottawa to Burnaby and we can try and coordinate something!
Sarah Mitchell and Alison Gu depart for their trip across Canada on June 24.