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Jacinta McNairn, BEng Scty '96

Civil Engineering & Society | Pivoting in Search of a New Challenge

Aside from the engineering degree, she earned at McMaster in 1996, Jacinta McNairn’s resume boasts a diploma from a helicopter piloting program and a master’s degree in earth and space sciences.

And she’s currently enrolled in medical school at the University of Calgary, in the quest to add medical doctor to her list of credentials.

Those seemingly disparate achievements are tied together by a few themes, says McNairn, a 1996 Engineering & Society grad attracted to that program because of its recognition of “the connection between engineering and its context.”

“I also chose engineering and society because it allowed me to pursue my love of languages and circumpolar studies,” she adds. “I’ve always taken a ‘you can do anything’ approach to life, which translates for me to ‘you can do everything.’”

That approach led her to launch her career on Ellesmere Island.

“It was geography that first drew me,” she admits. “The opportunity to work in the world’s most northern permanent human settlement was too good to pass up.

“I would have taken a job peeling potatoes or mopping floors to visit Ellesmere Island, but I was lucky to get an air quality monitoring position instead.  That started me on the path of atmospheric chemistry and meteorology, leading to a commercial helicopter pilot license, then an MSc in Earth and space sciences.”

A craving for variety led to more than a decade of work as an environmental engineering consultant, working on wind power and a variety of projects she describes as “X-Files.”

“I enjoy working on projects with complex problems, new technologies, uncertain regulatory regimes, or challenging geographies,” says McNairn.

“But with the downturn in the economy in Alberta, industry appeared less inclined to invest in X-Files. The work became more routine, and more focused on profit (i.e., keeping the team employed) than engagement.

“ I needed to reignite my idealism, to reconnect with people,” she added, as the explanation for her latest pivot, her decision to start medical school and join the Canadian Armed Forces.

“I am training to be a family doctor, looking forward to engaging with patients and their families, and hopefully one-day providing medical relief to parts of the world that are suffering from war, natural disaster, and/or famine.”