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From snowflakes to seashells: An engineer’s career takes flight

March 08, 2018

By Leslie Merrithew

Career planning leads to an Arctic airport design assignment—and that leads to other exciting destinations

Over the last year, I’ve worked on two large airport P3 (public/private partnership) projects. Both are located on islands, both are remote from any other community or mainland, and both have only one runway servicing their otherwise isolated communities. These airports are vitally important—not only for the people that they connect to the outside world but to the community’s sense of place, self, and independence. 

There is, however, one important difference between the two projects. One is in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, where the average winter temperature is -32°C, (-25°F) and the other is in St. George’s, Bermuda, with an average winter temperature of +18°C, (+65°F). 

Author Leslie Merrithew saws a snow block when the Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, office joins in building a community snow castle.

Challenges of the north

I was born and raised in Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories. Fun fact: my hometown is located on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, approximately 400km (250 miles) south of the Arctic Circle. Although I attended university across Canada at the University of Waterloo, I was excited to work in Stantec’s Yellowknife office in 2007 as part of my second-year co-op position.

In Yellowknife, I quickly learned that working up north is both challenging and rewarding. It’s fast-paced, and there’s always interesting work all over the Territories, especially considering the short construction season. Due to the northern and remote locations across the Territories, our construction season is limited by weather and access to construction sites. If there’s an all-weather road to a community, the typical construction season could be early June to early October. But, where no road exists, materials must be shipped in by barge after the ocean ice clears from the ports, and so the construction season can sometimes be shortened to mid-July to mid-September.

Project logistics can be convoluted, the funding is tight, and the community’s expectations are high. Whether it be a house, communication tower, bridge, water treatment plant, airport, school, or arena, the people in the community survive on the quality of your design. Other challenges to working in the north include:

  • Lack of frequent flights to the communities. For example, a two-hour inspection can turn into an entire week of travel to get there and back.
  • Limited resources in the communities. If you forget a battery for a piece of equipment, can you buy one at the general store?
  • Potential lack of personnel. Is it hunting season? Is there a cultural festival, gathering, or feast going on in a nearby community that everyone will attend—including the people you need to meet?

From breathtaking Arctic landscapes to Bermuda’s colorful sights, the Stantec airport design teams see it all.

How do you go from snowflakes to seashells?

The real answer: Through one sentence in my CDPR (Stantec’s annual career development and goal setting process). In my case, one request within this process has changed my entire career path and life. 

We’re all familiar with the annual review process. It’s that list of short-term and long-term career goals that many of us try to breeze through because it feels awkward to put words to our often-nebulous plans and half-formed dreams for our career. But, as I learned, the process can be a vehicle for valuable career and life-changing opportunities that you could never imagine.

During my 2012 review, I asked to be put on more projects in the eastern Arctic so that I could try to use my immersion-taught French in the workplace. Most contractors and many of our clients in Nunavut come from Quebec. If you’re working on projects in Nunavut, you’re in a melting pot of languages. 

That request led to my selection as a key member on the Iqaluit Airport (P3) pursuit team, winning the actual project, and learning everything I could about airports. 

Life at the airport

The north is a great place to learn something about everything. Working in a sprawling geography with sparse populations, northern engineers must be generalists (although specialized in northern construction and infrastructure), and be prepared to pull in experts to provide specialized technical support.

That’s the wonderful thing about Stantec. An expert is only a phone call away. Through those calls, I connected with both the US and Canadian Stantec aviation teams, where we have teams in a dozen offices working on airport infrastructure around the world. 

Over the four-year construction life of the Iqaluit Airport project, I fell in love with aviation infrastructure and was eventually offered a position in Ottawa with our growing Canadian aviation team. I’ve worked on aviation projects from Iqaluit, Nunavut, to Bridgetown, Barbados, and from Anchorage, Alaska, to Gander, Newfoundland.

On site at the new L.F. Wade International Airport Terminal building under construction in St. George's, Bermuda.

Where is your career taking you?

As I write, I’m on a plane coming home from St. George’s, Bermuda, my latest airport P3 project, currently underway at the L.F. Wade International Airport. During the on-site visit, I looked down at the ground and for a second I was confused. Where were the tracks of my path? Then I realized the island’s crushed shells and coralline granular material only mimic the glitter of a fresh blanket of snow and that it was +20°C (68°F), not -20°C (-4°F).

On my still-developing career path, I’ve learned to ask questions: Where is your career taking you? Are there things you want to do? Have you talked about them with anyone? Have you explored them with yourself? What are your goals this year?

You are the pilot of your own career, but you need a crew around you to get where you’re going. Set course, make your desires known, get support from your team, and take off!

  • Leslie Merrithew

    Leslie truly understands what airport design means to a community’s well-being and success, having been born and raised in Yellowknife, a geographically isolated city. She’s passionate about using civil engineering to connect communities and people.

    Contact Leslie
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