Grad Profile: Girl on fire

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Grad Profile: Girl on fire

Posted by Allison Auld on May 29, 2019 in Student news
Chemical Engineering grad Cathleen Lupien
Chemical Engineering grad Cathleen Lupien

Cathleen Lupien’s energy practically reverberates off the walls around her as she describes her life at the moment.

The soon-to-be Chemical Engineering grad has some pretty great things to be excited about. Eagerly anticipating her upcoming convocation, she shares her still to-be-determined summer plan options, and the continued disbelief of having been awarded a full international scholarship to pursue her masters dreams of studying fire safety.

“It doesn’t feel real,” she says, holding up her hand, motioning to the iron ring she now wears on her little finger. “How do I even ‘human’ without studying all the time?” she questions, with a laugh.

For now, Cathleen’s been spending her spare time watching her final grades roll in, preparing for a move to Europe this fall, and — maybe most importantly in this very moment — binge-reading the book she’s just finally found after a six-year search. The hours of research she pored into its chase offer a glimpse into her personality and the way she handles other aspects of her life.

Finding her way

“The co-op program is what brought me here,” she says of her decision to come to Dal. “Getting experience is everything.”

But the path to Dalhousie and an engineering degree wasn’t exactly a cake walk. 

While she always excelled at math and science, Cathleen says her first love was the kitchen, and she had dreams of pursuing a career in baking. Engineering wasn’t even on her radar until she started to take notice how the profession kept popping-up on job quiz results she took in high school.

Growing up in a tiny village in Saskatchewan presented a different kind of high school environment to get the specific credits she needed to pursue engineering.

“I graduated top of my class in high school,” she says with a smirk, adding “…of seven.” With so few classmates, Cathleen had no choice but to take some of her courses online, as she was often the only student in her school taking particular courses. The process forced her to learn how to teach herself, and to start developing the research skills that would carry through with her to university.

A burning passion

Through co-op, Cathleen began piecing together the framework of her career interests. Thanks to her work term experiences, a passion for fire safety (and particularly understanding the human behaviours surrounding it), emerged. Without co-op, she says she’d have never found her career calling.

Cathleen used all three work terms to test-drive her interest in fire safety. Her first co-op experience allowed her to get experience working in a lab, diving into research methodology. It was through this experience that she became a published author. In her second work term, she worked for a small fire protection consulting firm conducting first-hand experimental work. It was in her third work term when she decided to try something different, testing herself and her interests by working at large manufacturing plant. The experience taught her a lot, but mostly reaffirmed her appreciation for fire safety.

“I want to make a difference in the world. With engineering, you don’t always see the benefit [of your work] right away. You can immediately make a difference with fire safety. This is what I want to do.”

Cathleen’s enthusiasm for fire safety is hard to contain. She can’t help but delve into describing the way it affects all of us, particularly when we’re not aware of it. Noting the space around her — a local coffee shop — Cathleen provides a detailed explanation on how the number on the wall’s capacity sign is calculated, an assessment of nearby sprinkler placements, and a brief lesson on the behavioural reasons behind the shift from the red exit sign to the green running man with which we’ve become so familiar — “it makes sense, you know, if you have to get out quickly.” 

The next chapter

This September, Cathleen will embark on an International Master of Science in Fire Safety Engineering with three different partner schools in Belgium, Edinburgh, and Sweden. The two-year program will have her diving deep into advanced learning, studying at different partner universities throughout the UK, Europe, Switzerland and Australia each term. 

To find the right masters program for her, Cathleen did what comes most naturally to her: extensive research (and she has a thick notebook of handwritten notes to prove it). The European program made the final cut given its extensive range of fire safety courses, but the costs associated with studying, living, and moving around Europe every four months seemed completely out of reach. A little more research led her to discover a scholarship that, were she successful, would make it all that much more accessible. Cathleen was eventually offered one of the just 12 available scholarships (and only a smaller fraction of those were available to international students like Cathleen), covering her full tuition, travel costs each term, and monthly stipends for living expenses. Without the scholarship, Cathleen says she’d have had to put her plans on hold for a year so she could reapply again — she was not giving up on this dream.

For now, Cathleen is keeping busy by planning out her next two years of study (all thoughtfully researched in that same notebook). Understandably nervous about leaving the safety net of her friends and family back in Canada, she’s eager to dive into this brand new form of experiential learning.