Relate Your Learning To Something That Matters To You

"There are significant opportunities for Indigenous students who want to pursue a career in engineering or other STEM fields."

Graham Smiling

Graham MacDonald

  • Degree: Bachelor of Applied Science
  • Program:
  • Campus: Vancouver
  • Year: Going into 2nd year (as of July 2023)

Why did you want to study engineering? 

I’ve always known I wanted to do engineering. As a baby, one of the first words I said after ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ was ‘airplane.’ I must have seen one flying overhead and thought it was really cool – and this is the sort of stuff that has interested me ever since. 

Why did you choose UBC?

I love off-piste skiing and UBC is the only real option if you want to ski in Canada while going to university. The proximity to Whistler makes it very appealing! The university’s Aboriginal Admission Policy also made me reasonably confident I would be admitted. UBC has all the amenities that matter to me and I knew I would be getting the best education possible. 

Aboriginal Admission Policy

How did you choose your specialization in Materials Engineering?

Although there are a lot of advances happening in engineering, the materials we can make things out of are limiting our progress in many areas. 

Being able to expand those horizons is something you can do as a materials engineer. You can identify what the right materials might be to solve a problem, assess the properties of those materials that matter and address bottlenecks in production. 

Sustainable resource extraction, energy storage and composites are among the generation-defining problems that will keep materials engineers employed for the foreseeable future and are areas where UBC hosts considerable industry-leading expertise. 

To archeologists, periods of our history are defined by the materials of our implements: be it stone, iron or bronze. Our age, an information age, has been defined through an ever-increasing mastery of silicon. Now that the limits of silicon are in sight, the door is open for innovators and their materials to lead the charge. I applied to MTRL because I knew whatever specialty I ended up focusing on, there is an abundance of problems to satisfy my curiosity. 

Materials Engineering


What are some of the highlights of your education so far?

This spring I co-founded an Indigenous student design team that will focus on building rockets. One of the reasons we founded the design team is that while UBC has very generous admission policy for Indigenous students, these students aren’t really applying in the numbers they could be. 

We thought a design team was an opportunity to provide a more compelling example for prospective Indigenous students that would amplify the efforts of all UBC departments to close the post-secondary education gap. 

With a rocket, you don't need to explain why it's interesting. At its core, a rocket is an elaborate firework and we hope that the technical challenges we overcome can inspire Indigenous people to be bolder in the face of the status quo.

Also, rockets require uniquely broad expertise that spans across engineering disciplines. They're some of the most complicated things we can make and no one can  be an expert in  every aspect. If we're going to have one Indigenous design team, this broad exposure is probably the best because people from multiple disciplines and backgrounds can contribute to a common goal.

 (Coming Soon)

Have you had a co-op or other work experience position? 

This summer I am working at MDA as a Systems Engineering Intern writing code that will automatically evaluate the performance of WildfireSAT, a mission that will measure the intensity of wildfires and will provide firefighters with the data that they need to meet the challenges of climate change.

MDA WildfireSAT 


Any reflections on what it means to be an Indigenous student pursuing engineering? 

It’s quite typical that the brightest minds in Indigenous and First Nations communities end up going into law or medicine, as these are the most visible problems our communities face. Those are important things, but there are other areas where you can have an impact. For example, the Grand Coulee Dam in the US was put into a major salmon river without a fish ladder, which was devastating for the Indigenous people who depended on the salmon runs not only for food but their way of life. We need to have engineers and Indigenous people in those decision-making conversations. 

I see this as one of the issues we need to solve as engineers in general, as finding a way to quantify these impacts. The views of Indigenous people need to be quantified and included at the concept development stage so projects don't end up – three years down the line and millions of dollars spent – locked into what the final outcome is going to be. If you can bring in that consultation earlier in the process, you can actually end up saving money and time. You can also learn from Indigenous people, who know about the land that you're building on. This is particularly pertinent for civil engineers, because the local conditions are best known by the people who have lived  there for thousands of years. A conversation with an Elder can save countless wildlife studies and completely avoidable legal anguish.

Also, while there are a lot of ways to make a difference, with engineering, you can point to products, or infrastructure in your surroundings and say ‘I had a part in making that.’ 

You don’t have that same opportunity in other professions, which makes engineering quite unique.

Any advice for students considering engineering?

One thing I learned was the importance of finding ways to relate your learning to something that matters to you. 

If you can do that, it’s a lot easier to be motivated to learn and increase your understanding. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the federal government and by extension all Canadians to close the gap in Indigenous post-secondary education in a single generation. Despite a situation where all the systemic problems are with the Canadian government, it does not mean that we cannot be a part of the solution. This call to action was as much a call on Indigenous youth as it was on the federal government. For those that can, we have not just an opportunity, but a duty to pursue higher education. If we want to ensure that the toiling of our ancestors was not in vain, we must continue their march.

Finally, there’s a lot of emphasis on Indigenization right now in Canada. It’s become a priority. Many companies are starving for Indigenous talent because most organizations receiving federal funding have quotas for Indigenous procurement, which means that they need to hire Indigenous people to remain competitive. However, because of a century of misguided federal policy, most technical fields do not have enough Indigenous people to meet the requirements, which provides an outsized opportunity for Indigenous people entering the STEM workforce. This means there are significant opportunities for Indigenous students who want to pursue a career in engineering or other STEM fields. 

UBC materials engineering student at a co-op placement at Vector Aerospace

Materials Engineering

What’s it made of and why? If you ask these questions about the products that surround you or dream about creating the building blocks for substances that haven’t yet been invented, you should explore materials engineering.

Materials Engineering

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