My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

“The Lady Who Drives the Great Big Truck”!

Throughout my travels across Canada – purposed to interview veterans of the mining, metallurgy and petroleum sectors, one of the questions I asked was: How present (or absent) were women in the workplace? To which I would get the recurring answer: essentially none. Most rather seasoned interviewees would tell me that at the time, there were simply no women in engineering schools. Howbeit, many women found administration jobs within the natural resources world.

“… when I go to schools to talk to the kids, they don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to the lady who drives the great big truck!”

In recent history, several companies have made efforts to increase the number of women in skilled labour positions. Eric Newell, former CEO of Syncrude, explains how the company implemented the Bridges program in the mid-90s, a program that encouraged female employees to transition from their administrative roles to the male dominated workplace. “They had two weeks to learn about the technical trades, then they would job shadow and finally, they would work a 28 day work cycle. […] None ever asked to go back. In the end, 25% of our 400 tonne truck drivers were women (as opposed to 4-5% before). And we won employer of the year award (Maclean’s) […] Now, when I go to schools to talk to the kids, they don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to the lady who drives the great big truck!”


Ground-level perspective of a heavy hauler and a shovel at Syncrude. Courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Today, women comprise 25% of the heavy truck driver workforce at Syncrude. Courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Nowadays, women represent the majority of young university graduates, and although engineering programs are still renowned for seldom having women, registration has considerably risen. That said, women remain less likely to choose or find employment in any STEM areas. This stands in contrast to nearly all other fields of study, where women now make up the majority of graduates. What explains this phenomenon? Why are women more reluctant and less likely to find a job in natural resources?

Parents, teachers, mentors all play very important roles for a young woman.

“Somehow in the mining world, we haven’t succeeded… women have not found it very appealing,” says Dr. Samuel Marcuson, former Vice President at Vale. “When I started working in the 1970s and 1980s, in the work place you would find lots of pinup girls, naked women, pictures on the wall. And the women who joined the workforce at that time, clearly had to put up with that.” Although these kinds of actions have virtually been banned from the workplace, Marcuson explains that it took several decades for most companies to condemn it.


My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

Today the workplace makes an effort to be much more inviting, but issues can still arise. Dr. Mary Wells, Associate Dean and Professor of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, explains that women can be subject to micro-aggressions. The latter are short, verbal or behavioral indignities, at times unintentional, that translate into slights. For instance, “a subtle example could be of a woman always getting a surprised reaction from others when she tells people in her field that she is an engineer,” explains Wells. “It can have a negative, eroding impact over time.” The work schedule of many jobs in the natural resources industry can also make it very difficult for any women to spend time with her family. In fact, “the drop off rate of women is much higher midway through their career […] as the work schedule is less flexible,” says Wells. On the brighter side, there are companies who offer mentorships and have become more flexible to the needs of families. “C E Zinc for example, has a company policy that all meetings must end by 4:30pm,” explains Wells. She has high hopes for the future as it has become much more common for men to be as involved as women in raising the family. As a result, responsibilities such as paternity leave or finishing work earlier to pick up the kids, have educated employers of the difficulties traditionally encountered by women.

Time will tell, but positive influence starts much earlier, says Wells. “Parents, teachers, mentors all play very important roles for a young woman.”


Photo courtesy of MiHR.

Photo courtesy of MiHR.


Many thanks to Eric Newell, Sam Marcuson, Mary Wells and all other interviewees for your thoroughness and candor. A special mention to my dear friend Cloé, who is an exemplar in the field.

Header photo courtesy of the Mining Industry Human Resources Council


Catalyst. Catalyst Quick Take: Women in Male-Dominated Industries and Occupations in U.S. and Canada. New York: Catalyst, 2013.

Hango, Darcy. Gender differences in STEM programs at university, Statistics Canada, December 18, 2013.

Marcuson, Sam. Interview with Sam Marcuson, Mining and Metallurgy Project, July 23, 2015. Toronto, Ontario, in person (William McRae)

Natural Resources Canada. 10 Key Facts on Canada’s Natural Resources, August 2014.

Newell, Eric. Interview with Eric Newell, Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project. April 22, 2015. Edmonton, Alberta, in person (William McRae)




















Photo 5. Container with mission stamps and shipping stickers.

Field Notes: Science in Micro-Gravity

What is the nature of science as practiced in micro-gravity? The instrumentation is simple, well-designed and robust; digging below the surface, we discover that this experimental elegance derives from years of preparation, design, equipment construction, and testing. How do we find (and collect!) science within this prodigious enterprise?

Photo 1

Photo 1. Historian of space Jordan Bimm (York STS) sifts through an instrument container at the CSA Warehouse.

In the last two years, Michel Labrecque and I have made several trips to the warehouse of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. We are collecting scientific instruments that span the Shuttle era, 1981-2011 as well as Canadian experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). We have sifted through numerous containers of surviving equipment, supplies, documents and instruments. Throughout this process and collaboration, we have gained a deeper appreciation for the practice of science in space, and scientific processes in general.

Photo 2: Dozens of Zebra fish containers and aquaria built for the Aquatic Research Facility (ARF) 1996.

Photo 2: Dozens of Zebra fish containers and aquaria built for the Aquatic Research Facility (ARF) 1996.

Photo 3: Log books for ARF

Photo 3: Log books for ARF

The instruments acquired by the museum represent several disciplines from botany to material science to physiology, but they all relate to each other through one key variable – they were designed to operate in microgravity conditions. Taking advantage of this unusual experimental resource requires years of testing and design, precision construction, duplication of equipment, large amounts of conformance and verification, good funding and… a spacecraft.

Photo 4. H-Reflex Experiment

Photo 4. H-Reflex Experiment

Amidst all these preparations, one finds basic scientific research. When I asked McGill Scientist Doug Watt about his work in space, he emphasized the need to “keep it [the experiment] as simple as humanly possible. Do an awful lot of testing in all kinds of circumstances.” Watt, a lead scientist for many successful Canadian experiments in space, was aware that not everyone could get time and space on the Shuttle or ISS. Whereas many scientific teams suffered failure of equipment, Watt succeeded in getting data from each of his experiments. In space, he said, “no matter what you get, it will be new.” But, one must ensure that the equipment works, which is not easy. One of his more successful experiments related to H-Reflex (Hoffman Reflex) that studied spinal cord excitability related to human adaption from earth to space and back.

 Photo 5. Container with mission stamps and shipping stickers.

Photo 5. Container with mission stamps and shipping stickers.

When I contacted Walter Kucharski, the maker of many of the instruments for Watt’s program at McGill, he remarked immediately that he appreciated Watt’s ability to ‘’keep experiments simple” and ask “simple questions.” The resulting instruments reflected this principle. It took years to plan, test and produce one set of instruments. Surprisingly, for space instruments, many of the instruments have a rather non-cutting-edge look. Kucharski preferred older generation technologies that were often “one step back,” but with proven performance. For Kucharski, a large part of the success of the Watt team came from working closely with the astronauts to train them, and listening carefully to their feedback.

The instruments and well-worn containers display mission stamps, transportation logistics and inscriptions, extensive safety procedures, material and parts audits, supply chains, mission numbers, and calibration and quality control labels. The materials are space age circa 1970 to 2010 with foils, Velcro and plastics. The boxes and instruments have the smell of overly packaged instrumentation and supplies.

 Photo 6. Buried deep in a box of parts, Luc Lefebvre finds a bag with a small, but important piece from Doug Watt’s Space Adaptation Syndrome Experiment (SASE) from 1992.

Photo 6. Buried deep in a box of parts, Luc Lefebvre finds a bag with a small, but important piece from Doug Watt’s Space Adaptation Syndrome Experiment (SASE) from 1992.

One of my guides in the CSA warehouse was Luc Lefebvre, a veteran project engineer at the Canadian Space Agency who was part of the Watt team on their experiments prior to taking a position at St-Hubert. We talked about how equipment design reflected unique conditions of science in space. One must “plan for science to be performed while you or your grad student are not there,” Lefebvre stated. It is science in an “expeditionary mode.” The instruments and their whole operation have to be incredibly resilient. “You may not get a second kick at the can.”

The designers of the experiments and instruments are not just shaping equipment; they are masters of time, safety, and space management. For Lefebvre “crew time was a precious commodity.” They had to design equipment that minimized complications and took into consideration launch delays and other time problems. This is especially important for life sciences experiments such as the Aquatic Research Facility (ARF) experiments that relied on dozens of micro-aquaria with developing organisms.

Photo 7: H-Reflex equipment tray (2001) designed for efficient interaction and execution by astronauts

Photo 7: H-Reflex equipment tray (2001) designed for efficient interaction and execution by astronauts

Some of the equipment trays have an Ikea meets Apple packaging look and feel. Simple, design equated to flawless execution. Lefebvre comments: “You have to use imagination to try to visualize how crew would interact with the equipment.” Even operations such as opening or sliding a lock could be complicated in micro-gravity. Latches, for example, may have to be designed to operate with one hand using a pinching motion. Relying on a typical push/pull application of force would require that the crewmember hold on with the other hand on supporting structure.


Many thanks for the people who hosted myself and Michel Labrecque during several research and preparatory visits to the CSA warehouse. Thank you to Luc Lefebvre for being our primary guide in researching this collection. Thank you to Patrice Alary, Jean-Denis Bisson and Réjean Lemieux for their time and help at the CSA warehouse. Thank you to Jordan Bimm of the York STS program for joining me for on a warehouse visit, and providing invaluable historical guidance. Thank you to Doug Watt and Walter Kucharski for sharing their memories and insights on the instruments and equipment.

The Manitoba II , Physics Department, University of Manitoba

Field Notes: Mass Spectrometry at the University of Manitoba

On the 1st and 2nd of October, I visited the Physics Department at the University of Manitoba to learn more about their program in mass spectrometry. It has been over one hundred years since British scientists developed methods to deflect ions (charged particles) of different mass in order to study the constituents of materials. Scientists at U of M have since become masters of these effects, making significant contributions in two areas of mass spectrometry – the determination of fundamental mass units, and the analysis of large biological molecules. Researchers, engineers and instrument makers around the world use U of M findings and technologies in physics, chemistry, health sciences and industry.

Why Winnipeg? I found answers in some of the original instruments, and of course, the people who made, developed and used them.

The “Manitoba II” is a central instrument in Mass Spec studies at U of M. It is a room-sized, high-resolution mass spectrometer that has set international standards for determining atomic masses. Ions are deflected and detected after racing through a curved one-meter radius electromagnetic track. Physicist R.C. Barber designed the Manitoba II with many small, precision parts built in the departmental machine shop headed up by Bob Batten, a British-trained technician. It replaced the “Manitoba I” that came to U of M in the early 1960s from McMaster University with H.E. Duckworth.

The Manitoba II , Physics Department, University of Manitoba

The Manitoba II , Physics Department, University of Manitoba

The room and instrument document over forty years of toil and triumph – there are shelves of log books, abandoned parts, tools, signs, layers of black board sessions, trade literature, texts and aged off-prints. The instrument shows countless modifications, inscriptions, warnings, heat streaks, and tape – lots of tape. “It really is built from scratch,” says Physics Chair, Kumar Sharma who was a student of Barber’s in the early 1970s when the instrument was built. The Manitoba team constructed the parts for the electrostatic analyser (ESA)  in collaboration with Canadian Westinghouse in Hamilton. The stainless steel for the case was cut and bent there with the actual welding done by a workshop in King Township, Ontario.

Sharma remembers the Manitoba II being covered in black welding soot when it first arrived in the lab. They had to electro polish it to prevent unwanted contaminants from entering the high-vacuum chamber. “It was the best vacuum I had ever worked with,” recalls Sharma, “made possible by the homemade metal to metal seals.” The vacuum chamber had to be machined, annealed with some surfaces ground flat.

Manitoba II laboratory

Many careers such as Sharma’s have been built (and shaped) around this instrument. Barber had trained under H.E Duckworth, who had trained in Chicago under A.J, Dempster (of Toronto bakery fame). Sharma is now working on the next generation of MS instrument at the Canadian Penning Trap at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.

In the late 1970s ion deflection turned into straight flight when Ken Standing and his post doc, Brian Chait, developed a way to analyse big organic molecules using Time of Flight (TOF) mass spectrometry. TOF had been invented earlier, but Standing and Chait developed a method for accurately timing the flight of the big molecules produced by ion bombardment. Werner Ens joined Standing as a PhD student just as this instrument began to work, and with contributions from many others, there followed a succession of advances that lead to major patents and spin-offs in industry. Their work is now a fundamental part of the emerging field of proteomics, the study of protein quantity and structure in life forms. Ens joined the faculty in 1987, and in 2010, Standing and Ens won the Manning Innovation award for their achievements.

Standing attributes his success to good students. “I tend to leave my students alone,” he says. In fact, Ens recalls that his first job was to re-build a filament (for a surface ionization ion source) from scratch. On one of his first days in the lab he burned out a filament that Chait had spent weeks preparing and testing. “I was about as green as graduate student could be,” he recalls. Standing came by this pedagogical approach honestly; In the early 1950s his supervisor, Princeton physicist Rubby Sherr went on leave and left him alone in one of the best nuclear labs in the world. “I was lucky to think of something to do, and I did it.”

The first U of Manitoba TOF instrument from 1979. “It’s just a pipe” says Ken Standing in jest. Photo: Storage room, Physics Department, University of Manitoba.

The beauty of collecting physics is that the most abstract of variables such as time and space become concrete, local and sensory. In the TOF labs, I surveyed a vast landscape of electronic equipment that transformed molecular flight times into accessible digitized data. In the early 1980s Ens had spent much energy building software to interface with time-to-digital converters – a pivotal part of their innovations in precision timing.

Ken Standing with TOF2

Ken Standing with TOF2 representing key developments in TOF mass spectrometry at the University of Manitoba.

Precise vacuum production is basic to the TOF enterprise. When visiting the laboratory, one experiences a constant drone of vacuum pumps for precisely managing experimental vacuum conditions. Ken Standing took me into a backroom of their laboratory to see the original TOF 1979 instrument. I could barely hear (record) him through the clamour of vacuum pumps, each connected to different machines in the lab.

TOF 3 Mass Spectrometer, built at the University of Manitoba, Physics Department c. 1990.

Part of TOF 3 Mass Spectrometer, built at the University of Manitoba, Physics Department c. 1994. The TOF3 combined three innovations – orthogonal injection, MALDI techniques and collisional cooling.

Many factors contributed to the development of Mass Spec at the U of M – post-WWII research in several areas at the department ( e.g. nuclear) drew top faculty and students (local and international); there were good instrument makers – “at one time, you heard many British accents in the machine shops,” Standing recalled; there were connections to the Chicago physics scene through Duckworth and Dempster; there were pivotal Russian (Soviet) influences brought in by Standing as a result of a fortuitous tour he made in preparation for a possible conference; and there was an entrepreneurial leaning that opened the door to successful commercial collaborations (AB SCIEX)

And, there were local questions deriving from agriculture. In the mid 1970s Standing and Chait used the new U of M cyclotron to analyse protein levels in kernels of grain. “They were looking for new applications for the cyclotron,” Ens said. “That’s what gave them the connection to the biological world, and they began to see that maybe mass spectrometry was a better way to look for those proteins.”


Connor, R. D. and University of Manitoba. Dept. of Physics and Astronomy. (2004). The expanding world of physics at Manitoba: a hundred years of progress: Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manitoba. Winnipeg, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manitoba.

Hughes, Jeff. “Making Isotopes Matter: Francis Aston and the Mass-Spectrograph,” Dynamis: Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientiatumque Historiam Illustrandam 29, (2009), 131–166

Nier, Keith A. “A History of the Mass Spectrometer,” Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia. Robert Bud and Deborah Jean Warner, editors. 1998. New York & London: The Science Museum, London, and The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, in association with Garland Publishing, Inc. Pages 552-56.

Sharma, K. S. (2013). “Mass spectrometry—The early years.” International Journal of Mass Spectrometry 349–350(0): 3-8.

Standing, K. G. (2000). “Timing the flight of biomolecules: a personal perspective.” International Journal of Mass Spectrometry 200(1): 597-610.