Innovator Spotlight: Ilana Young

Ilana Young is at the helm of this year’s Community Leader Award-winning STEM program.


As the director of DiscoverE — the largest STEM outreach program in Western Canada — Ilana Young is at the forefront of getting kids stoked on the possibilities of engineering and science.

Nearly 500,000 students have participated in DiscoverE’s programs and camps since 1993. They have continued to reach students during the pandemic, too — this spring, Ilana’s team sent kits containing activities usually used in classrooms to remote and rural communities and as far as Nova Scotia.

Earlier this month, DiscoverE received the U of A’s Community Leader Award in recognition of their work helping young students from all backgrounds imagine futures for themselves in innovative fields. 

In this week’s Innovator Spotlight, Ilana told us what makes DiscoverE, as she calls it, “the best job ever.” 

How do you describe your work to people who don’t work in your field?

I have the best job ever. We run engineering programs for kids across western Canada and we employ more than 80 undergraduate students each year (with the exception of the past year during the pandemic). If you have been on campus in the summer, you have seen DiscoverE campers playing in the Quad during lunch or touring spaces around campus, but we also run camps off-campus and have programs running year-round. Every day is different and that makes this job so much fun. 

What’s one big problem you want to solve through your work?

I want to show what it means to be an engineer and help increase diversity in engineering. I find that so many people, adults and kids alike don't really know what options there are aside from buildings, cars and bridges. Engineering is so much more! We want to show youth in Edmonton, but also in places that typically do not have access to programs like ours, that they too could be an engineer and make a difference. To encourage diversity, we run all-girl programming, we try to hire a staff that is at least 50 per cent women, and we work hard to showcase diverse mentors throughout our programs.   

What does the word “innovation” mean to you?

Innovation means to me that you are constantly evolving, growing and trying to make the world and yourself better. Everything changes so rapidly — you have to keep up but also anticipate what might work well in the future. 

What’s been your biggest a-ha moment — in life or work — so far?

When I started working at the University of Alberta in 2012. It felt like coming home. I was working in the private industry and was not connected to the work I was doing day-to-day. It was a huge leap of faith, but it was the best decision I could have made for myself and my career. I love working on campus. I get to work with amazing people every day who are all working towards making a positive impact. I also really like working with our undergraduate staff. They are just at the beginning of their careers, and it gives me such hope for the future.

Do you have a role model at the U of A? How have they influenced you?

I would say I have quite a few! There are so many folks that I am constantly learning from across campus. If I have to narrow it down to one, I would say most recently is my current supervisor, Jessica Vandenberghe. I have learned more from her in the last year about being a supervisor, and how to run a business than I could have by taking many years of courses! She is a very calm person, and is great at being direct and logical.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Innovator Spotlight is a weekly feature that introduces you to a faculty or staff member whose big ideas are making a big difference.

Do you know someone who’s breaking boundaries at the U of A? (Maybe it’s you!) We’re interested in hearing from people who are creating new solutions to make our world better. We want to feature people working across all disciplines, whether they’re championing bold ways of thinkingdriving discovery or translating insights from the lab into the market

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