Sue Evison: Ready to Follow New Paths
By Nordahl Flakstad
APEGGA’s 81st President Sue Evison, P.Eng.,
With a grandmother who was one of the first female physicians in New Zealand and a mountaineering engineer uncle who joined Sir Edmund Hillary in conquering Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, Sue Evison, P.Eng., comes from a family used to scaling new heights.
That she’s done by becoming the first woman President
in APEGGA’s 80 year history. It’s not an office, she notes, that she set
out with any long-term goal of achieving. No more so than she envisioned
a career in engineering while growing up on New Zealand’s South Island,
the eldest of four children of a doctor father and a teacher mother. Her
first home town, Alexandra (pop. 6,000), lies in the Clutha River Valley,
a dry, fruit-growing region not unlike the Okanagan and unusual for New
Zealand in that it sometimes freezes (often enough to let young Sue learn
to skate). Later, she moved to Ashburton, nearer the coast. There, she
attended high school and displayed her penchant for mathematics. She found
herself as one of two girls in the physics class, in which at least one
classmate planned to enter engineering. But given the prevailing attitudes,
Ms. Evison recalls, "I decided I couldn’t enter engineering, because
I was a woman."
A Future in Engineering
A light did, however, go on for Sue Evison. She determined there was a future for her in engineering. She was encouraged by skiing friends who were engineers and by her mountaineering uncle, Norman.
The dean of engineering at Christchurch’s Canterbury University not only offered an encouraging "we’d love to have you" but agreed to credit two years in engineering because of her math degree. Again, female company was scarce and of approximately 100 in her graduating civil engineering class, only three were women.
A Passion for Golf
While studying, Sue pursued another passion -- golf. From practising chipshots in her backyard as a 15-year-old to hours spent year-round on courses and driving ranges, by her own admission, she "ate and slept golf, and schemed to get on the golf team" at school and university. Persistence paid off and she not only made various provincials team, she represented New Zealand as a junior woman abroad and also captured the country’s under-23 women’s championship.
Degree in hand, her first full-time engineering job was
with Halliday, O’Laughlin and Taylor, a forward-thinking structural design
company. Even so, she recalls the job interview in which she was asked
if she sewed. "That was good," she was told, "it means
you can read blueprints."
Like many New Zealanders, she got that antipodal urge to see the world. "It was the thing to do," Ms. Evison says. New Zealand’s slumping economy of the early 1980s made Canada attractive.
Her first job in Canada was in Edmonton with a precast concrete fabricating firm, but she also felt it was time to add to her educational credentials by pursuing a master’s degree. She amused University of Alberta administrators when she expected to enrol in February (after all, that’s what’s done in New Zealand!).
Master’s From U of A
The master’s degree was put on hold with the arrival of her elder daughter, Tisha, but fortunately Sue was given a U of A research post by Professor Jim MacGregor, P.Eng., PhD. She began in earnest to pursue her master’s in 1984 and obtained her M.Sc. in geotechnical engineering in 1988. Juggling studies and research with caring for two young children (a second daughter, Rhiannon, was born) wasn’t easy. However, the girls proved co-operative, sometimes enticed by candies, delivered daily like chocolates in an advent calendar, along with the added prospect of baking cookies together "when Mummy has finished her exams".
After moving to Calgary, she honed her geotechnical skills with several firms (including a seven-year stint with AGRA Earth and Environmental) and developed particular expertise in seepage analysis on how water moves through structures and embankments.
It led to a variety of assignments, including serving as a geotechnical adviser for the defence counsel in a lengthy court case involving Calgary’s Bankers Hall. While with Jacques Whitford and Associates, she worked on seepage analysis as part of the remediation of sinkholes at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. Last year, she became manager of business development with Klohn Crippen, a multi-disciplinary firm now linked to the U.S.-based Louis Berger Group Ltd.
Volunteering with APEGGA began as a graduate student, after a friend suggested she observe a committee meeting. Soon she was a full-fledged committee member and discovered that committees provided a good way for a grad student to stay in touch with people and industry. She went on to chair the Publications and Editorial Advisory Committee, and the Public and Member Relations Committee in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Both committees carried heavy work loads as, through various measures -- redesigning The PEGG, development of a proactive advertising campaign and standardizing logos -- the Association sought to raise its profile and increase professional pride among members.
Beside volunteering with the Canadian Ski Patrol and Ski Friends at Lake Louise, she has been active in the Calgary Branch of the Canadian Geotechnical Society and its national body; the Tunnelling Association of Canada; the North American Society of Trenchless Technology; and the Canadian Dam Association.
Such participation not only helped stay on top of technical developments, it also cultivated people skills.
"Nobody’s clamouring to do the people side of things," observes APEGGA’s new President. "The popular perception of the engineers is almost that they have no personality --- that we’re fundamentally a boring bunch of people."
If that’s the case, get ready as Sue Evison shatters some preconceptions.
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