Meagan Olive has learned that the technical skills you learn as an engineer will only take you so far.
Finding the root cause of why equipment has failed…. that is being an engineer
To be a better engineer, you must get your boots on the ground,
… gap between engineers and boots on ground and seeing your design at work …that gap has a potential to grow even bigger now with remote working options.
talk to the trades,
trades people are like this untapped resource that engineers don’t use
learn from mentors,
the engineers that are going to improve and change the world are going to be the ones that build a network
and just… get out there and see it for yourself.
If we want engineers to be innovative and creative, to be better designers, then they need to see these problems firsthand.
Extra discussions during the episode
Advice: Be honest, ask for help… engineering is hard work
Engineer Meagan admires: Her husband
he’s a really innovative guy and so incredibly strong technically
About Meagan Olive
Meagan joins us from Canada and is Process Engineer at Albert Capital Region Wastewater Commission. She earned her undergrad degree in Chemisty, further gaining a Masters of Science in Chemical Engineering.
She has worked in aquaculture, mineral processing, oil and gas, and now wastewater. She is passionate about her work and absorbing all the information there is to gain in an industry that provides an essential public service and protects the environment
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 3 Episode 3
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Meagan Olive
Mel De Gioia 0:26
Hi, welcome to season three, episode three of Engineering Heroes, a podcast that presents incredible engineers that are shaping our society and battling out challenging issues. Today’s episode is about engineers having boots on the ground. Essentially, our guest is concerned that engineers are getting complacent and aren’t going out to the site to see what is really there. She even tells us a little story about how she made just such a mistake and how she’s grown from that experience. My name is Melanie. My co host and resident engineer speaking to us from the trenches is Dominic.
Our guest today joins us from Canada and is a process engineer at Alberta Capital Region Wastewater Commission. She earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry, further gaining a master’s in science and chemical engineering. She has worked in agriculture, mineral processing, oil and gas and now wastewater. She’s passionate about her work and absorbing all the information there is to gain in an industry that provides an essential public service and protects the environment. Today on our show, we are speaking with Meagan Olive.
Meagan grew up in a crafty household. Her mom was always making things. Dad was very hands on with his own business where her mum would also help out. She has many memories growing up and helping out at the plumbing store and became very familiar with plumbing parts. Growing up in a very small town, she had no idea what engineering was. She started her degree in general science and it wasn’t until she was in some classes that she realised that engineering was actually a thing. And because she wanted to see her knowledge in action, she moved across to engineering.
And it was my father back then when I started my graduate degree that said, you need to get a job in water and water is such a stable field. You need to work in water. And I didn’t listen to him until about three years ago…. to where I’m at now.
Mel De Gioia 2:30
So do you want to cover off, where are you at now?
So currently, I work at a company called Alberta Capital Region Wastewater Commission. So I moved from Prince Edward Island, Canada, which is the smallest province in Canada. Yes, it is. That’s we’re well known for Anne of Green Gables, potatoes and lobster. And I was a few years into my career when I moved to Edmonton, Alberta, which is the economy’s heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry, they’re oil sands north of Edmonton that are rich in bitumen. It was sort of the promised land as an engineer, but the economy started to slide especially in that industry in 2014. And then in 2016, I left oil and gas and went to Alberta capital region,
Mel De Gioia 3:19
And that’s when you got into water?
That’s when I got into wastewater. So a little different. It’s at the other end of the of the tap, we process mainly municipal sewage, but we also process a little bit of industrial wastewater. The Alberta Capital Region Wastewater Commission, which is often referred to as ACRWC is the third largest wastewater treatment facility in Alberta. We treat the sewage for 13 municipalities that surround the Edmonton area. We have five large capacity pump stations and about 200 kilometres of transmission pipeline that works so about 50% of our equipment is remote from our plant site.
Mel De Gioia 3:59
As a process engineer, what sort of things do you do there?
I wear a lot of different hats. I am the only process engineer that works at the ACRWC right now. There are other engineers that work there that play different roles. I do process engineering related tasks. So I do mass balances, look at the operation of the plant, but I’m heavily involved in supporting the operators and maintenance staff on a daily basis. So that’s things like approving and reviewing management of change requests. So if someone wanted to make a change to the process, that paperwork typically goes through me to review before they can make the change. I’m involved in asset management, failure of equipment analysis, so finding the root cause of why equipment has failed.
Mel De Gioia 4:49
It’s very important and that’s the meat of it. That is being an engineer. That is, to me, such a valuable job for me to learn from So I guess by most standards, you would say I’m not a process engineer. But I, I do a lot more than that, I would say, but in my opinion, I kind of support the entire process. It’s all encompassing, and I really like it.
That infrastructure side is such a massive component of daily life that people just don’t even realise, that they dont even think about because it’s one of those things that if, if there’s a failure in the network, then that has huge consequences. It’s a horrible thing to say, I’m probably going to get in trouble from a lot of other engineers out there. But you know, building if the, if the air conditioning system goes down, yes, it’s hot, and you might need to open the windows and what have you. But if you lose your plumbing systems, then you can’t use that building. It becomes a problem. So yeah, I think people don’t realise just the, the massive impact that it has on people’s lives.
Oh, yeah, you’re you’re 100%, and it’s something I took for granted for many, many years until I started to work in it. And another way to think about it is is this is the public’s tax dollars at work you are paying for this infrastructure.
Mel De Gioia 6:12
So what was the first project that you worked on as an engineer?
My first project as an engineer, actually, it was a pretty cool job. My first job in engineering was at a small consulting firm. There was about six or seven employees. It was called TBO and Associates and we were in Fredericton, New Brunswick. My first day as an engineer at that job, I made India metal. I cemented it on to zinc powder. India metal is like this malleable metal that’s used in touch screens. It’s conductive. Yeah, we design mineral processing systems. Basically what that job was or mineral processing is, is taking a valuable resource like an ore and processing it and ending up with a refined metal or product at the end of the day. So in this case, it was a zinc India mine with a bulk sulfite concentrate. We had a mini pilot set up in the lab, where it had a leaching process, two solvent extraction loops, and an electro winning cell. It was really interesting.
And how long did you stay with that company for?
I stayed with that company for three years. I learned when I was working in mining that it sees the fluctuations of the stock market and the economy quite drastically. And it was scary for me in the first part of my career, although it was very interesting. I was looking for something more stable, which brought me into oil and gas.
Mel De Gioia 7:40
Okay, take a little pause there. Up next, Megan will be talking to us about a challenge for the engineering community that’s very close to her heart. But for now, Dom and I are so looking forward to the fourth of March 2020. And not just because it’s really close to my birthday. The fourth of March this year will be the very first World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development. It’s going to be a day to highlight the achievements of engineers and all their engineering works in our modern world. It has the goal of improving the public understanding of how engineering and technology is central to modern life and sustainable development. A little bit like this podcast in a way. And to prepare all our listeners for this momentous day, Engineering Heroes has been asked by the World Federation of Engineering Organisations to create a mini series which will highlight each of the UN sustainable development goals, and an engineer who is working in that space. So running all of February, Engineering Heroes will be releasing 17 mini episodes from our talks with engineers from around the globe, as they highlight their plans to help the world achieve the UN’s SDGs you can check out more on our website www.engineeringheroes.com.au. For now, let’s get back to Megan as she speaks to us about the disconnect between engineers and designs.
And it’s sort of this figurative disconnect between engineering and specifically designer systems and then the operation of systems and equipment. So I mentioned I work in oil and gas in midstream. So basically designing pipelines and pump stations for three years. Not once did I step foot on the ground on site. Exactly my master’s degree, I did a computational fluid dynamics model on salmon tanks for aquaculture firms, the Atlantic salmon farming. I worked on that for close to I think three years and I didn’t model the salmon in the tank.
Mel De Gioia 9:39
Oh, no. Okay.
So I’ll be the first to admit I failed this challenge over and over again, and sometimes I still do. But luckily now my boots are seconds away from being on the ground at my current job. But it’s given me this broader outlook where the opportunity for this gap between engineers and boots on ground and seeing your design at work, that gap has a potential to grow even bigger now with remote working options. I mean, we’re lucky to be able to have this information at our fingertips. But engineers have to get out there and put their hands on to the things that they design and check into designs the systems that they’ve developed years down the road. How are things running five to 10 years later?
Mel De Gioia 10:25
I think it’s important for engineers to get out there and see how things are progressing or wearing down years down the road. One thing in the wastewater industry especially is how, how are these quote unquote flushable products clogging our sewers, our control systems. Can they keep up with that sort of thing? It might be designed, fine, right and it but we just miss that one little thing or there’s a new substance introduced into the waste streams or the process streams that we we just don’t think about.
Mel De Gioia 11:03
And that would only get picked up when you’re actually visiting the site.
100% or went through communication with whoever has their boots on the ground on site.
It’s amazing the knowledge you get just from actually stepping foot on site as well, because I, even with some of the projects that we’ve done at my company, sending people out so they can physically stand on the site, even when you’ve got the you’ve got plans and you’ve got surveys and you can look at it but it’s not until you stand on site, you kind of go okay, all right now I it’s, it’s sort of in your mind, and then when you’re designing, you can refer back to it and sort of think well, that the box slopes like that over there, so I need to take that into consideration and need to sort of keep these things in mind. And it really is. It’s that physical, tangible connection, which makes it so much better.
Mel De Gioia 11:54
So you’re seeing this as a progress to your career. Is this a personal issue for you?
It is no longer a personal issue for me. I’m lucky that I it’s not anymore. Even in the area I’m in now in Edmonton, Alberta, the vast majority of the engineers are located in office towers downtown.
Mel De Gioia 12:13
Yeah, yeah. And then, and they’re given the opportunities to go out to various sites.
That’s right. And I understand that engineers, they are busy, and time is booked up to the gills when especially when you’re a young engineer, I see it as a an issue for young engineers, especially engineers that are just coming out of school and they have this option to work remote from site. It’s becoming more and more common.
Are there’s some solutions, you think that would be good to be implemented that can sort of work around this?
I do. And it’s this is based on personal experience. One thing that I have identified is that we we need to find engineers that are willing to fit into this gap. So we do have a lot of plant engineers. So just having engineers that are willing to get up from their desk, go to site get their hands dirty, and then also to build a bridge for lack of a better word with trades people and operators. To me trades people are like this untapped resource that engineers don’t use.
And these men and women are taking apart equipment and finding the problems. But they’re also creating band aids to fix the problem. Because sometimes the communication isn’t there to go back to the, engineering and designer to fix them. So if we want engineers to be innovative and creative, to be better designers, then they need to see these problems firsthand. But I don’t even think that’s enough. I think that engineers need to fully understand the equipment and they can’t understand absolutely everything. And that brings into the light, the importance of trades people and their knowledge.
Yeah, just going back to what you were saying earlier in regards to being on site, I think that’s something that’s really critical that the senior engineers need to spend more time taking the junior engineers to site. Because what we are finding as well is that they don’t really understand what’s going on or the installations sort of after the fact. So they’ll pick up on the very obvious things. But they won’t understand the subtle things that are there that could cause major problems, you know, some way down the track. Yeah. And it really needs to be something like that someone with a lot more experience pointing out to them at a much earlier stage in their engineering career, to make sure that it’s something that they can then expand on and then pass on as well as this time goes by. And they have junior engineers, that are working under them. But it’s hard because a lot of people don’t give junior engineers enough time to take them out and show them what’s going on. And it’s really critical for the evolution of engineers in general.
Unknown Speaker 14:48
Yeah, I agree. I actually think that the engineers that are going to improve and change the world are going to be the ones that build a network with, of course senior and well established engineers that goes without question. All engineers know that but also a network with operators and, trades people that are using this equipment daily.
Mel De Gioia 15:08
And what would you say, what are your thoughts on the future of engineering, then?
You have to be willing to wear a number of different hats. If you’re going to be an engineer, that is especially in in that type of role, you know, believe it or not, I’ve met trades people and operators that don’t like engineers.
Seems to be such an us and them thing that goes on with a lot of engineers. It’s really unfortunate, as you said, there’s so much knowledge that sits with the trades people who on site who’ve done it before,
From my point of view, and you know, especially being new with my boots on the ground in the last couple of years, and I’ve been laughed at many times when I asked questions like, when I think they may seem silly, they probably are and, you know, I think engineers they need to stay humble, laugh at themselves. When I ask these questions I usually follow it up with “Hey, are you glad I asked it though?”
You’re better of asking the question so the next project, you know exactly what the parameters are.
Mel De Gioia 16:08
You’ve got that in your toolkit.
But you do have to be willing to go out on that limb and I try to, in my daily work I always try to remember because I deal with a lot of people that are from my father’s demographic. And I try to keep in mind that these trades people are professionals too. They deserve respect, even if I don’t get it in return. And I always just try to speak to them the same way I’d want someone to speak to my father.
Yeah, that’s a good point. So what would you say to people just starting out in engineering?
Be honest, is probably my number one, I guess piece of advice to someone just starting out in engineering. If you don’t understand something, seek help. Tell your supervisor. It means so much more for your supervisor to help you through something not to leave a poor piece of work. And then the next item would be to work hard. Engineers work really really hard. That is part of the job. That’s why it’s so well respected. But with that you also get to have a lot of pride in your work. It means taking home extra work at night sometimes and then at the very least, you’ll sleep well knowing that you earned every dollar.
Mel De Gioia 17:15
Definitely I like I like those. Be honest. And it’s not easy. It’s not easy. It’s not it’s not a walk in the park.
I suppose it’s always that thing. We think things that are hard, are also rewarding. So it’s a case of all the hard work once you’ve finished a project or design or whatever you can sort of stand back and have a look at as while we spend our lives pointing stuff out. It’s so much work that we need to do in the first place.
Mel De Gioia 17:46
Dom’s always walking past buildings or hydrants or something going I built that or I did this. He has a personal connection.
I have this quote on my desk and I have a couple of good quotes but this one is from Lou Holtz, a former American football coach for a team that my husband absolutely despises. But anyway, it’s a great quote. And he says, I follow three rules, do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care.
It’s very good rules to live by actually.
Mel De Gioia 18:17
What’s the piece of engineering that has impressed you?
Actually, Mel, I’m going to pull you back to Anne’s land to Prince Edward Island, Canada. As I mentioned, Prince Edward Island is the smallest province in Canada, and it’s showing some tremendous advancement in green energy. In 2007, the province had an occurrence where their wind power generators produced more energy than the province needed.
Mel De Gioia 18:42
Wow, just from wind?
Just from wind alone. So they’re showing leaps and bounds to become the first carbon neutral province in Canada.
Wow. That’s awesome.
Mel De Gioia 18:53
Yeah, just the ability of these little islands to lead and to prove the point that they can be a hundred percent renewable energy. It’s brilliant.
It’s really, really cool. It’s neat because I actually went to one of these dig sites for the windmills in PEI back when I was, it must have been 20 years ago. And I can remember seeing all of these plastic shopping bags from stores that were closed even before I was born. And actually in the last year, Prince Edward Island has gotten rid of plastic shopping bags as well. Lots of little steps but putting them to good work.
Mel De Gioia 19:28
I love how Megan saying Prince Edward Island is implementing all these changes. So it must be an amazing place to either visit, I know because Anna Green Gables is from there. So it must be an amazing place to visit but to actually see these technologies and these challenges being put forward. Going you know, you’ve got to be like this. You got to live plastic free. We’re getting our power from wind. It must be amazing place.
And just to finish up, do you have an engineer that you admire?
I do. I mean, the list could go on here. A lot of engineers that I look up to, but I would have to say, I admire my husband Rob. He’s also an engineer. He has a PhD in chemical engineering, and he works in research and development, developing new technologies.
Yeah, he’s a really innovative guy, and so incredibly strong technically. I mean, this is the guy that never has to open up a textbook to refer to anything. He remembers every formula, every little piece of information from his schooling, so he’s a wonderful resource for me. And then beyond that, he’s a pretty great dad too.
Oh, that’s awesome.
Mel De Gioia 20:43
Yeah, no, I was thinking that as well.
One sort of bonus question I’m gonna chuck in as well is, seeing as you’re from Canada, do you get one of the rings?
Mel De Gioia 20:52
Yes. Have you got an iron ring?
I don’t have it on me right now. I wear it all the time, but you know what? I was cooking a turkey the other day because Christmas, and I threw it in the drawer, and now I can’t find it. You look at pictures of me online, it’s on there.
Mel De Gioia 21:11
That’s amazing. I think Dom wants to move to Canada just so he can get that iron ring.
I want to go over and then do whatever I need to, get the qualifications over there just so I can get the iron ring. I think some of the best things . .
You know what’s funny Dom? I’ve run into people that wear iron rings, like they’ll have a silver ring on their pinky finger. And I’ll say, Oh, are you an engineer? No.
You shouldn’t have it on unless you’ve got the qualifications!
Yes. On the pinky, that of the hand that you write with.
Mel De Gioia 21:44
Oh, that’s right. I do remember him saying that, yes. We’ve had a Canadian engineer on who explained the background of the iron ring.Yeah. And just yeah, forgotten that it was on the hand that you write with. That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us.
Great. Thankyou for having me today. It was wonderful.
Mel De Gioia 22:01
It’s an absolute pleasure. And thank you for tuning in to another episode of Engineering Heroes. If you want to know more about our podcast or the episode you’ve just heard, visit our website www.engineeringheroes.com.au. The best way to show your support for the great work we’re doing on our show is to tell people. It’s really that easy. Either in person or in a review, just spread the word. We look forward to you and your friends joining us next week when we bring you another interview with our Engineering Heroes.