When Audrey Roy-Poirier started her undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of Ottawa, she thought she wanted to design bridges. But after a co-op work term with a consulting firm, she changed her mind. "I found out that I didn't really enjoy it," she explains, "because once you've done it once, it's always the same thing, it's always the same procedure."
So when she was exposed to environmental engineering, Audrey knew she'd found her niche. "I found it more exciting because there are always new problems and new solutions," she explains, "and you always have to take the local context into account."
It was while pursuing a second work term at a consulting firm that did work in water issues that she first found herself interested in hydrotechnical engineering. "I did drinking water distribution, storm water drainage... all the aspects of bringing water in and taking water away," she says of the experience, "and I just liked it."
That's why when she came to Queen's to pursue a Master's degree in civil engineering, Audrey, who grew up on the south shore of Montreal, knew her work would involve water. In the end, her research focused on storm water -- specifically on the development of a numerical model that could be used to predict the removal of phosphorus in bioretention systems. "Bioretention systems use plants and soil to infiltrate storm -- or drainage -- water to remove pollutants from it," she explains. "Phosphorus can stimulate the excessive growth of algae when it's discharged in bodies of water, so removing it from storm water is critical." Roy-Poirier's numerical model can be used to predict the fate of phosphorus during a storm.
Audrey's work was selected as the "Engineering and Applied Sciences Outstanding Thesis" for 2010. She also won the prestigious CSCE Hydrotechnical Engineering Student Award, which is presented to the best Masters' thesis in Canada related to hydrotechnical disciplines. "It was pretty exciting," says Roy-Poirier, "and it was a good confidence booster. I mean, it's difficult when you're writing a thesis, and you're spending so much time on it, cramming to get it together -- sometimes it's hard to know how well you're doing. You lose perspective. All you see are the flaws and the things that you didn't have a chance to improve!"
In October, Audrey started a PhD on a Commonwealth scholarship at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. Her current research looks at Lake Kivu, a lake on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that contains high concentrations of both carbon dioxide and methane. The latter can be used to produce energy - but extracting it from the lake without disturbing the lake's stability is a puzzle that Audrey will be helping to solve.
"I really enjoyed Queen's," she says, thinking back on her time on-campus. "I think it's a great school because of the atmosphere. There's always something going on." Involved with Engineers Without Borders as an undergraduate, Audrey helped start up a chapter at Queen's while she was here. "We had more people showing up to our meetings - even though it had only been running for 3 months - than we ever had at U of O!" she laughs. "People are excited to do things at Queen's, even if they are busy with their studies."
Though Audrey says she hasn't "officially decided" what she wants to do when she's finished her PhD, she says she'll probably look for a post-doctoral position or something similar. "I really enjoy research," she says, "so I might like to be a university professor or do work at a research institute." For now, she's enjoying her new life in Edinburgh. "It's a beautiful city," she says with a smile.