Today I’m happy to bring you another interview for the Engineering Emily Interview Series. This week’s interview is with a chemical engineer and mom, Ameli Pereira-Cota.

ameli p cota

EE: How and when did you decide to become an engineer?

APC: Well this is a long story, but I’ll try to make it short. It started in a small town in Venezuela around 1994, I was in grade 10. My mom and my dad both have a PhD in Chemistry. My mom was a professor in a University and my dad was a researcher in the oil and gas industry. I was good in all my science classes, but my passion was mostly theatre and dance. In Venezuela it is hard to live off an artistic career, this is true of most of the world, but in a third world country it is even worse. 

So, I started to look at different science careers (instead of art), all looked very hard, but what made me think about engineering was the math involved (little did I know what I was getting into). My favorite topics were math and chemistry, so naturally I thought engineering looked interesting. After a careful consideration on many engineering careers and lots of discussion with my mother and father, I went with chemical engineering. 

EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student? What GPA did you have at graduation?

APC: I started to study chemical engineering in Venezuela, and did four years out of five. It was really hard, and also lots of fun. For the first three years I was able to continue with theatre and study at the same time. In Venezuela it takes 5 years to get an engineering degree, if you are lucky, and there are no strikes (which I wasn’t). When I was starting my fourth year I had to stop there and immigrated to Canada with my family. 

Once in Canada I had to work hard, but was able to start chemical engineering at the University of Calgary. Adapting was hard, I had to redo a bunch of courses, it was worth it at the end.  I graduated in 2007 at the University of Calgary with a GPA of 3.1. I’ve met wonderful people in Canada, especially in my classroom…

EE: Did you do any internships in engineering?

APC: I did an internship at a civil engineering lab at the University of Calgary. It was mostly doing research on asphalt, it was very interesting, it paid the bills, and allowed me to stay in Calgary.  

I also worked as a research assistant for three summers in a chemical engineering lab at the University of Calgary. Now this was very exciting since I was able to assist in the design, procurement, building, and operation of a couple of bench scale units.

EE: How did you get your first job?

APC: A friend of my husband told him they were looking for a junior in an engineering company. I applied, they interviewed me, and offered me a position on the same day.  

EE: What industry do you work in?

APC: Oil and Gas

EE: What has been your career path?

APC: I did 5 years in an engineering company doing plant design in Oil Sand and a little bit of project management. In the last 3 years I’ve been still doing plant design but in a smaller scale. I am in a small company that creates different process, test them in bench scale, and then scale them up into pilot plants for field test. I basically, do the last step and take processes to the next step of testing in the field. Since this is a small company I wear a couple of hats in the company. I manage projects, and process engineering at the same time. 

EE: Have you had to move for work? Have you travelled for work, and if so where?

APC: With my current job in the small company, I’ve had to travel to Toronto and Mexico City. I’m still in Calgary, and not planning on relocating.

EE: What has been your best experience as an engineer?

APC: I’ve had a few good experiences, but the best was when I had to go to Mexico City. Not only because of Mexico (which is already awesome) but because of the experience of dealing with other engineers with a different culture. I am currently working on a project with Mexico, and last year we had to go there for some meetings. These people have a ton of experience on their fields and it was rewarding to learn so much from them, and at the same time it was very interesting to learn about their culture and how is engraved in the way they work. Also, I was able to feed my ego a bit, by noticing that I am becoming a mature engineer and my experience was also very valuable when dealing with them.

EE: What has been your worst experience as an engineer?

APC: When I was pregnant with my second kid I was forced to take a medical leave in the middle of a project. There was so much I had to leave unfinished, it was hard knowing that I left so much in the shoulders of my fellow engineers. They even had to pack my office and brought everything to my house, they were very supportive, but I felt horrible about leaving them like that. The company and my supervisors were awesome though, I will always be grateful to them.

EE: Do you have a family? How do you balance career and family?

APC: Yes, I do have a family. It is very hard to balance everything, but somehow it seems to be working out. I workout early in the morning, then get things ready for the day and my husband usually takes the kids to school/day care, I go to work until 4:30pm, pick-up the kids, and make dinner. If they have activities my husband usually takes them while I clean the house. I usually take a few hours on the weekends to cook for the week and sometimes hire a person to come and clean the house. My mom is now living with me (for the last few months) and she does most of the house work which is amazing!!! In summary, having a family and a career is hard work, is actually the hardest thing I have ever done, but is worth it. Wouldn’t change a bit of it. 

EE: What advice do you have for someone interested in engineering/working moms?

APC: Engineering can be a very rewarding career – if you are interested in it do it, but you do have to think in a couple of things. School is going to be hard, there is no doubt about that, you will probably have to sacrifice a few things. Also, If you like to party a lot while in school, you can do it, but you will be tired (a lot) and you will have to balance, and sacrifice a few parties. But, if you really like engineering, all the effort will be worth it at the end. 

Working moms, just don’t forget that your kids are kids just a few years in their lives. If you take too many responsibilities at a time you may miss important moments that are never coming back. On the other hand, you don’t have to lose yourself to enjoy your kids, I actually think that if I had them all the time, I wouldn’t enjoy so much the time I spend with them in the evenings and/or the weekends. But I don’t work in the evening or the weekends, I am actually not available for work. In summary is all about finding a balance, I really hope it will be worth it at the end!!!

EE: Any other information or stories you’d like to share?

APC: Just so you know, I didn’t leave art behind. I just turned it into a hobby. I perform and do dance choreographies with a Venezuela Dance group in Calgary. We are usually in the latin festivals around Calgary. I have also performed in a couple of plays in Spanish around Calgary, just a few lines, but enough to make me happy and not take too much of my time. 

Thank you for sharing your story in this interview, Ameli! She’s had to overcome some major obstacles (like moving to a new country!) while pursuing her chemical engineering degree, but she managed to preserve and now has a great career. As most people I’ve interviewed have agreed, engineering school is very challenging (even without the obstacles Ameli faced), but if you’re dedicated and willing to work hard you can do it.

Ameli has also managed to maintain her full-time career while having several children, being a mom, and also still staying involved in her passion for arts.  I love how Ameli has such a great attitude about everything – she loves spending time with her kids in the evening and weekends and knows how to prioritize time with them, especially while they’re young. And also she has stayed involved in the arts that make her happy by pursuing them as a hobby in her free time. Ameli, you are a great example to us on how to balance everything and stay happy in your work and personal life.

If Ameli’s story inspired you to want to share your own story on the blog, please comment below or send me an email to emily@engineeringemily.com and you could be the next person featured here!

 

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