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Imshun Je

How did you decide on pursuing your degree(s)? Did you know about geology before you entered university?

Before entering university, I had no idea about geology as being a possible career path. At first, I thought I would try to get into medical school, as strongly suggested (or instructed) by my parents. In my second year, I stumbled upon geology by accident when I could not get into a course that I wanted and needed to fill my course load. I ended up enjoying that introductory course so much that I decided to completely switch my degree program and go full bore into geology (excuse the pun!)

How has your career progressed since you finished your undergrad?

I went onto graduate school right after I finished by undergrad and earned a Master of Science degree in geology with a focus on environmental geology and hydrogeology.

After I finished my Master’s degree, I was able to get a job at a small environmental company as a junior hydrogeologist. There, I learned all about collecting samples, analyzing and reporting on groundwater quality for residential and commercial properties. However, in less than a year, the company had to lay me off due to the economic situation. It was the first major setback in my career, and it was very upsetting to me at the time with a large school loan to pay off.

This setback was really a launching pad for me and I landed a good job in the Chicago area that took me on a grand adventure that I will never forget! Not only was it great for my career, but it also turned out to be an incredible life experience and I have met amazing friends, some of whom I still keep in touch with today. It was also a massive jump for me in learning a whole new skillset in overseeing more complex intrusive investigations and reporting under Illinois state environmental laws and program requirements. I strongly encourage young people to try living and working in another country. It provides a whole new perspective and you learn a lot about yourself and others by being outside of your literal comfort zone. In the U.S., I had the opportunity to work on “Superfund Sites” with massive remediation programs on a multi-million dollar scale and learned different low-flow groundwater sampling techniques, which are very different from the ball-valve tube method commonly used in Ontario at that time.

After nearly four years working there, I ended up getting laid off a second time. This coincided with the election of George W. Bush, who decided to cut funding to federal environmental programs. This didn’t hit me nearly as hard as the first time, because I had built up confidence in the level of experience that I had and could likely get another comparable job back home in Ontario.

Sure enough, I managed to land a job as a hydrogeologist at the Ministry of the Environment in the 2000s, soon after the Walkerton Inquiry that investigated the causes leading up to the death of 6 people from E. coli poisoning in their drinking water supply. I spent five years in this role but I wanted to do more In the public service, it can be hard to progress further in your career because there are very limited higher level roles available. I did not see a viable career path for me there, so when a former colleague told me about an opportunity available at Ontario Realty Corporation (Infrastructure Ontario), a government agency that looked after the government’s land assets and facilities, I went for it.

Altogether, I worked there for 8 years starting out as an Environmental Specialist, then I was eventually to a manager of the environmental team. Progressing from being a technical employee to becoming a manager responsible for other people was the biggest jump for me. Before I became a manager, I realized that a stumbling block in my career was the need to be a more effective communicator with non-technical people and to become more comfortable with doing presentations and public speaking. This was something that I dreaded! I had previously believed that becoming a technical expert at what you do would automatically make you a good candidate for promotion. This is not true and it was a hard lesson for me to learn and overcome.

On my own time, I took courses in effective communication, negotiation, psychology of influence and I also joined a Toastmaster’s club to practice public speaking. I also read a lot of books and articles from Harvard Business Review about what it really means to be a good and effective manager of people. This is not something that I was naturally good at, but I worked conscientiously to learn and master. I had observed examples of poor managers and the negative effects that has on staff. So I did the opposite to avoid those negative behaviors.

By 2015, I felt that I had reached a plateau in my role and needed something more. I was contacted by a head-hunter on behalf of a small environmental consulting firm that needed a new General Manager. This was a very big and risky decision for me to leave a job with a good pension and benefits plan for one that did not offer nearly the same, but would give higher pay and a higher level position. It took a while for me to weigh the pros and cons before I made the decision to join them. Being the General Manager of a consulting firm in charge of its operations, staff, administration, and financial profitability was definitely way outside of my comfort zone. I had doubts, but I also believed that I had enough of the fundamentals to do it. To me it felt like I was taking a huge leap in faith that it would turn out all right. Indeed it was. The people there were all wonderful and enjoyable to work with.

There were times when I felt I was out of my depth, but I kept pushing on. Being at the top of a firm is a lonely place. I realized that I didn’t have colleagues anymore, everyone except the owner, were my staff. It’s very different when you become a leader.

You can’t become friends with a few people, otherwise it may look like favoritism. Everyone needs and deserves to be treated as equals. I also felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders to keep the company’s financials in the black. There were some lean times during the winter months.

After two years of leading that firm, an opportunity opened up at the City of Mississauga to lead the environmental team there. My husband had been working there for over 10 years, so I knew several people who worked there. They wanted me to apply and I did. When I was offered the position, I felt very mixed emotions. Although I was happy about getting the job, I was also very sad and felt guilty about leaving the people at the other company after having made a strong connection there. I did not intend to leave that role so soon. I felt I should stay longer to make sure everything was on a strong foundation. I had made a breakthrough with gaining a new major client and was gradually getting the hang of business development. However, I knew that this opportunity at the City of Mississauga is a rare one and may never come again for a very long time.

If you could go back to your first year in undergrad, would you pick the same degree and career trajectory? Why/why not?

YES! In a heartbeat! In fact, I wish I had started earlier in geology instead of stumbling along on other paths that ended up nowhere. I loved studying geology above all else. It is in my bones. Nothing else draws my curiosity or passion more than this.

If you’re not strongly interested in studying geology, if it just seems like a chore, then don’t go into it. Stop, think, and deeply search your heart about what it is you truly care about and what really gets you excited or curious.

What are the three best things about your job/career? What are three things you would change?

The three best things:

  1. Doing field work when I was younger. I loved being outdoors and I do miss field work now that I work solely in the office nowadays.

  2. Traveling as part of my job was fun for me in my youth before I had any serious relationship. I got to see a lot of different and interesting places that was mostly paid for.

  3. Meeting amazing and fun people along the way. Having enjoyable people around you on the job makes a huge difference.

Three things I would change:

  1. Maybe trying out a job in mining for a while up in the Yukon right after graduating.

  2. I wish I could have been more confident in myself when I was much younger. There were times when I should have stood up for myself more strongly, but I was afraid to speak out. I now know there was nothing to be afraid of.

  3. Realizing much sooner that learning how to effectively communicate with others and connecting with other people is equally if not more important than being a technical expert in order to progress in my career.

Why is gender balance in geoscience important to you?

Because women have as much to offer as men and perhaps offer different perspectives and contribute to a positive work environment.

When there is a balanced and diverse workforce, there tends to be more of a discussion of different ideas, different approaches, and suggestions that might not otherwise happen.

If everyone is the same, then there is a tendency towards “group think” where everyone will end up agreeing with the predominant idea with little discussion and that leads towards a lack of innovation.

Why should it be important for everyone?

Women can be just as technically competent and hard-working as men and can offer a different way of looking at the world and challenge long-held assumptions and conventions that may be holding more traditional and conservative organizations back. The world is gradually changing with the next generation coming of age, who seem to want to break down the unnecessary, invisible barriers that divide us and instead want to create greater harmony and celebrate everyone’s differences and uniqueness. This is heartwarming to see, and I have strong hope for the future with what the next generation will bring to the world!

What advice would you give to young women starting a career in geoscience?

Be confident in your intelligence and don’t be afraid to put forward your unique ideas out into the world. Age and experience don’t matter when you know you have a good idea to make things better. You are all stronger than you realize and you all deserve a seat at the table for your voice to be heard. If anyone tries to put you down, double-down and assert your voice. Believe in yourself even if no one else does. Eventually, you will come out on top if you are doing all the right things and can stand behind the facts and science. And above all else remember this: There is no other person in the universe more deserving of compassion and respect than you yourself.

What motivates you and keeps you busy outside of geoscience?

Traveling and enjoying the outdoors as much as possible! My husband and I bought a campervan RV just before COVID hit and we have been enjoying going camping in comfort all over the province. I try to find places with beautiful exposed bedrock because I truly love being among big rock formations. This is my happy place!

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