Megan Nantel, BASc '18, Engineering Physics

Megan Nantel
"Instead of being scared, I now believe that I have the ability to solve any problem I’m faced with (if given enough time!). "

I was born and raised in Vancouver and while part of me wanted to move away for university, I couldn’t be happier with my choice to pursue my undergrad at one of the most beautiful and engaging campuses in the world. While at UBC, I had opportunities to travel abroad to do a co-op term in Germany at the Max Planck Institute, as well as an exchange in Denmark. I participated in the UBC and Western Engineering Competitions, volunteered on the Engineering Physics Student Association, and pursued research in optics and photonics. All of these experiences were made even better because of the support and friendliness of my peers and friends. From my undergraduate work, I have found success and passion in the field of optical physics and advancing the frontiers of laser physics. I want to carry my passion for learning and this momentum forward to make my impact on community as a scientist and an engineer.

Why did you choose engineering?

Unlike most UBC engineering students, I didn’t plan on doing a degree in Applied Science when I first came to UBC. In my senior year of high school I became interested in microbiology research and consequently, planned to go into science. I honestly didn’t know what it meant to be an engineer and what sorts of jobs were available to someone with an engineering degree. I did Science One (a small, integrated first-year science experience at UBC) in my first year of university and as the keener I am, was looking at all my options for my second year. I wasn’t in love with any of the options in science and was beginning to realize that I enjoyed math and liked the challenge of physics. In high school, I was good at math but I told myself I was not good enough to ever do university level math. In first year, I struggled a lot with physics but I liked the difficulty. When I found engineering physics, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to keep my options open to do research and continue the math and physics that I really enjoyed.

What has made your time at UBC the most memorable?

The engineering physics community and all of the amazing friendships that have come out of my degree have truly made my time at UBC the most memorable. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my friends supporting me, building me up and challenging me to reach my full potential. Being surrounded by so many caring and inspirational people throughout my degree has made me want to be a better student and person. Doing an engineering degree means lots of long hours struggling through assignments, studying for endless midterms and being pushed outside of your comfort zone. But I’ve realized that these sorts of experiences are the ones that allowed me to grow the most. My connections and friendships were strengthened through experiences like volunteering on the Engineering Physics Student Association, where alongside three of my closest friends, I was the events coordinator for two years. We planned a lot of social events for Eng Phys which have become some of the most memorable nights of my degree! Being part of the student association allowed me to meet students in different years and helped me gain a stronger sense of community at UBC.

How do you feel a degree in engineering has benefitted you compared to a different field of study?

A key reason that I pursued engineering over another field of study is that I really appreciate the opportunity of gaining hands on experience in labs and courses. In first year, handling equipment made me kind of nervous (I didn’t want to break anything!), but by going through so many lab courses and design courses, I gained the confidence to tackle problems and use new equipment. Instead of being scared, I now believe that I have the ability to solve any problem I’m faced with (if given enough time!). Working on large design projects taught me to troubleshoot. More often than not, your code, your design, your robot or whatever engineering project you work on, will not function perfectly the first time; this can be discouraging, but having the confidence and ability to systematically troubleshoot the issue is a skill that makes an engineering degree so beneficial.

What advice would you give a student considering engineering?

I believe that an undergraduate degree provides an environment to develop skills, so think about which ones you want to develop. There isn’t one clear, direct path to reach your goals — there are so many different things you can do with an engineering degree, so focus on developing a skillset that makes you superb at troubleshooting and critical thinking. Engage in opportunities to try new things because you’ll never know the impact an experience can have on you. I didn’t think I would love optics and photonics as much as I did but once a professor offered me a summer co-op in his lab, I fell in love with the topic. Since then, I continued to take courses and do other research in similar areas and now will be attending grad school to do optics and photonics research. This experience was a clear shift in my career trajectory. I strongly advise all students to really keep an open mind to different co-op and volunteer opportunities because you never really know what the job will be like after just reading a description on paper. Further, you can’t anticipate how it will mould your life and how much you really could enjoy it! Believe in yourself: stay humble, but realize you are great! I struggled with thinking I wasn’t good enough to be doing engineering physics for the first few years of my degree. I couldn’t believe I had made it into such a demanding program. I thought I was lucky or that perhaps my acceptance had been based on other factors besides my abilities. Being around so many talented individuals on a regular basis can be both stimulating and challenging: use your peers’ ambition and motivation as inspiration to fuel the pursuit of your own path. Know that you have worked hard to get where you are today. If you feel like you don’t deserve something, accept it and take full advantage of the opportunity!

Where do you find your inspiration?

I think my inspiration comes from a sense of curiosity. I’m curious about how the world works and how we can build upon what is known now to do new things. I like solving problems and I’m driven by unsolved challenges. I’ve always enjoyed learning new skills and applying them to make or do something tangible. I admire people who are passionate about specific causes and are able to build their careers around that one thing. My interests are all over the place, so my inspiration comes from a lot of different aspects in my life. My friends, professors and the pursuit of knowledge have been the most inspiring things throughout my degree. I try to keep an open mind and just take things as they come.

What are your plans for the future?

In the fall, I will be starting a PhD in Applied Physics at Stanford. Often in industry and research, fundamental physics has been a necessary precursor to develop technologies to satisfy previously unmet needs. Applied physics is the most enticing program to me because it lies at the intersection of application and theory. I want to be developing technology with real world applications that utilize novel physics results. In the future, I hope to stay in academia or lead a research team at a national lab. I want to inspire and educate my own students as a professor or a leading researcher in the field of optical physics. My pedagogical outlook is that teaching will make me a better researcher, and researching will make me a better teacher. Throughout my undergraduate education I have only had one female professor in all of my upper year physics and mathematics courses. There is a lack of women in professor positions at research universities in STEM fields. I think my experiences and goals position me to be the change I want to see in this community.