NSERC Chair for
Women in Science & Engineering

Dr. Dena McMartin

Many of the men I work with are supportive of their female colleagues and students. They are amazing friends and allies.

Professor of Environmental Engineering
Assistant Vice President of Research and Director of Research Services
University of Saskatchewan

Dr. Dena McMartin joined the University of Saskatchewan in 2017 after serving as Professor in engineering and the Associate Vice-President (Academic and Research) at University of Regina. She serves on national committees of Engineers Canada and the Canadian Coalition for Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology and was named a Fellow of Engineers Canada (FEC) in 2013 in recognition of her contributions to the engineering profession. Dena’s research program focuses on rural water quality and quantity needs in Canada and abroad, impacts of climate extremes on water availability and rural livelihoods, characterization and remediation of oilsands process water contamination, and best practices in agriculture for improved water quality and quantity management.

As an academic, what is your favourite part of your job?

My favourite part of being an academic is working with students, whether that's in the classroom or research laboratory. Students bring new ideas and perspectives to how I look at problem solving and innovation in engineering. They stretch my way of seeing the world to include more diversity and opportunity.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

One of the current research projects I'm working on is focused on how rural communities respond to flood and drought (we're thinking about adding wildfires, too). My students and I are learning about the infrastructure communities and farmers use to limit consequences of flood and drought. We're trying to understand why infrastructure fails or doesn't perform as expected - and even sometimes makes the problem worse. From there, we can offer solutions for better designs, new technologies, or different ways of responding to flood and drought.

What types of professions can students graduating in your field enter?

Graduating students can work for government or private industry, not-for-profit and charitable organizations, and even start their own company. In government, environmental engineers are regulators and project managers; in private industry they design, build and operate everything from oil and gas plants to water treatment facilities. Many choose to work internationally and in developing countries to identify and implement solutions to environmental problems that we take for granted in Canada, like where the sewers drain.

Is your workplace male-dominated? If so, how do you negotiate being a woman in a male-dominated workplace and/or field?

My workplace is about 85% men. What I've found is that many of the men I work with are supportive of their female colleagues and students. They are amazing friends and allies. Wherever you are, find great people to work with and support each other.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I'm working on a national program with Engineers Canada to have 30% of new engineers as women by 2030. We have a similar program for improving engagement of Indigenous engineers. I think that one of the keys for encouraging diversity is to talk about it and remind everyone how privileged we are to help and support others.

What kinds of systemic support could institutions provide to help encourage girls and women to pursue careers in science and engineering?

I think that support needs to start well before universities are part of the picture. Improved stories and images of strong women in elementary school. Examples of amazing women need to be shared more often and more deliberately so that girls never question whether or not they can pursue careers in science and engineering.

What advice would you give to girls or young women who are interested in careers in science or engineering?

Just do it. And once you do, make good friends (male and female), get to know your professors, and look into ways of meeting women who are scientists and engineers to build your network.

As a professional in science or engineering, who are your role models and mentors?

I have several fabulous male and female role models and mentors who offer wonderful advice about career decisions and challenges. I met one important role model, Dr. Roberta Bondar, a few years ago and she lived up to every expectation I had. She's incredibly intelligent and accomplished, and she's broken barriers in everything she's done. And on top of all that, she was friendly and welcoming. When I met Dr Bondar, my mom was with me. That was particularly important to me since my mom is also an important lifelong mentor who set a strong example of women in leadership.