Convocation ‘22: Kaelyn Nicolson, BSc, Materials Engineering Co-op

Donna McKinnon - 06 June 2022

Creating a more inclusive space for engineering students

Indentifying as non-binary, Kaelyn Nicolson faced many challenges on their journey through the materials engineering program and even within the engineering community as a whole. Using their own experiences and those of their peers to advocate for change, Kaelyn took on various leadership and advocacy roles, determined to make the engineering community a place where everyone feels like they belong and can thrive.

Among numerous advocacy initiatives, Kaelyn joined the Diversity in Engineering (DivE) student group, and soon after, co-founded the Inclusivity Project to help promote the importance of inclusivity, respect and professional behaviour in engineering.

In 2021, for their work to reduce gender discrimination and harrassment in the engineering community, Kaelyn received the Leaders in Equality Award of Distinction - Persons Case Scholarship from the Government of Alberta and the Faculty of Engineering’s William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award.

This fall, they will begin a PhD program at the University of Oxford in engineering science, researching 3D bioprinting of skin grafts for burn injuries — a project that has professional and personal relevance for Kaelyn as someone who experienced a serious burn injury as a teenager.

Congratulations Kaelyn!

What led you to pick the U of A for your studies?
I grew up in Edmonton, so I always thought I would attend U of A for my undergraduate studies. I chose materials engineering because we get to look at materials and see how the micro-scale structures affect macro-scale properties. I am particularly interested in biomaterials for use in tissue engineering applications.

What is one of your favourite memories from your time at the U of A?
One of my favourite experiences during my time at the U of A was attending a materials engineering conference in San Diego in February 2020. I went with three other U of A materials students and we learned about cutting edge materials science and engineering in so many different fields like metallurgy, nano-scale and biomaterials. We also explored the city together and ran into the ocean on Coronado Beach during sunset. This was one of my last normal moments before everything changed with the pandemic and I'm forever grateful that I got to experience it with my fellow materials engineering students.

Did you take on any leadership roles while you were a student?
I have been involved with the Materials Engineering Students Society (MESS) as the VP Academic from 2018-2020 and Co-President from 2020-2022. My primary focus was looking after materials students. I developed an upper year facilitated study group program to help second and third year materials students get help understanding materials engineering concepts. During online learning I organized 20 events to connect materials’ students and help them to combat the isolation of learning from home. I've also been involved with Diversity in Engineering (DivE) and co-founded the Inclusivity Project to help promote the importance of inclusivity, respect and professional behaviour in engineering.

Over the past year, the Inclusivity Project successfully added a statement about expectations of respectful and professional behaviour in all Faculty of Engineering course syllabi. We developed an educational poster and social media campaign that has collaborated with seven engineering discipline clubs and student groups. And now we are working with the faculty to develop easy to understand behavioural expectations to make engineering a more inclusive and welcoming place.

Did you face any significant obstacles or challenges during your program?
I came out as non-binary in my fourth year and it has been a challenging experience. Many people don't understand what being non-binary means and I have dealt with being misgendered in class, at work and even during award ceremonies. I have used these experiences to try and make change within the community to make it a more accepting and inclusive place. The Inclusivity Project is one of the more impactful things I have started. My willingness to speak up and share my experiences has also started larger conversations in the Faculty of Engineering and resulted in changes in the selection process, like unconscious bias training, for the faculty's top award - the William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award - which I received last year.

What advice do you have for current and future students?
Make time for things you enjoy. University is a crazy time with endless assignments, projects and exams. I had a really hard time finding a balance between school and looking after my mental health. I felt guilty for taking breaks because I had so much work to do, but I realized that the quality of my work was slipping because I was burnt out. I love to read. It is my escape and recharging activity. I forced myself to make time for reading and I felt so much better. It was hard and I still struggle with feelings of guilt because I want to be productive all the time, but I've learned that resting allows me to perform better when I pick up my tasks again. Your health is more important than any assignment or grade.

How do you plan on celebrating convocation?
I will be celebrating with family and others from my graduating class!

What's next after graduation?
I'm starting a PhD in Engineering Science at the University of Oxford in the fall! I will be researching the 3D bioprinting of skin for skin grafts which is a special project because I was seriously burned in a cooking accident when I was 15.