1st June 2012
In the overlap between academy and industry, Nik Wootton has found his strength. Now just a little less than halfway through his M.A.Sc in civil engineering, the variety of skills required by Wootton’s thesis project has revealed project management as an unexpected professional passion for the young researcher. With his co-supervisors, Dr. Mark Green and Dr. Amir Fam, Wootton is part of a team exploring the advantages and disadvantages of reinforcing concrete with fiber reinforced polymers (FRP) as an alternative to rebar (steel-reinforced concrete) in the construction of a new monorail test track in Kingston. Queen’s collaboration with transportation industry leader Bombardier Transportation has meant a unique educational opportunity for Wootton. “Most students’ research projects are done more in-house, or if they involve partnerships, the student’s interaction with industry can be limited” says Wootton, “But in this case, I’m learning what it’s like to work with businesses in the community.” In addition to cooperating with Bombardier, these structural engineering researchers have been working closely with Anchor Concrete. “Queen’s Department of Civil Engineering has always been concerned with its students’ professional development, but it is truly a unique experience to be gaining such good industry experience and to have it all so integrated,” Wootton reflects appreciatively.
What led Wootton down this path into industry and experimentation? The answer, in large part, had to do with knowing where he wanted to be rather than knowing what he wanted to research. “I did my undergrad here and I made the decision to stay at Queen’s because I couldn’t picture myself going anywhere else,” explains Wootton with a relaxed certainty. The native Albertan enjoys the “student town” feel of Kingston and the environment of the Queen’s community. You’d be surprised, he insists, how tight-knit a large group of engineering grad students can be. As for the cutting edge structural technologies his research is helping to shape, Wootton recalls: “I had experimented a little with fiber reinforced polymers on a design team in undergrad. I didn’t fully understand its potential back then, but now it seems I’m finding out something new about this technology every month.”
When I ask him what it’s like stepping from the campus lab into the middle of a high profile business world – and if it meant getting a new power suit – Wootton laughs and explains that “everybody is very professional” but when most of your meetings are in construction settings, ‘work appropriate’ still means steel toed boots. “There was a period of time when I was working closely with Anchor at their production facility. They set me up near the concrete beams they were building for our guideway so I could do some instrumenting and preliminary testing. Most of the ‘business’ stuff happens electronically,” he describes.
In the longstanding relationship between Queen’s and Bombardier, academy and industry are also learning from each other by incorporating each others’ most effective strategies. “Aside from other research, I do reporting to Bombardier, site testing, and research design. All of this being done by the same person is typical of scholarly work. But in this context it’s a matter of integrating research with exacting levels of corporate quality assurance,” elaborates Wootton. “That means there’s nothing left to chance. It also means that you create archives more so than you might as an individual researcher, which is good for accountability and continuity.”
In the coming months, Wootton anticipates rising to more practical challenges because the scope of the project is up to him. “It’s not a traditional internship and it’s not just like being an employee. It’s more like being a contracted researcher.” After the monorail is built this winter and testing is done, Wootton expects he’ll move on in the working world. “I was excited to do my Master’s in engineering because Queen’s is so research intensive and I saw as an undergrad that there was a strong research base among the faculty; I wanted to be on the grad side of things. After my thesis is done, though, I’m looking forward to going back out West and getting a job.” Wootton envisions himself doing project management for just about any firm in Canada. For the time being, Wootton’s collaborative research with Bombardier is proving to be an integrated learning experience beyond anything he expected. “I haven’t anticipated every challenge, but it’s been great. And that’s a testament to good organization and a good partnership.”