Alumni Profile: Christina Vanderwel '02
When a little girl says she likes math and physics, you know she’s headed for great things in life! The secret is to recognize that passion, then gently guide the child in the right direction, keeping her focused and interested.
Clearly, Christina Vanderwel found that guidance in her teachers at LCC. She loved both subjects and excelled in them, participating in as many math and computer science competitions as possible.
She is now a lecturer and Marie Curie Research Fellow in the Aerodynamics and Flight Mechanics Research Group at the University of Southampton in England. Christina is the first female academic in this research group, which is no mean feat given that in the UK only 8% of women are professional engineers.
By the time she had finished her studies at LCC, Christina knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. She focused on a degree in engineering when she headed off to university. But she had a revelation during her first year there. “I first started a degree in engineering physics but after a year I realized I preferred more hands-on engineering, so I switched into mechanical engineering and have been very happy since.”
She recognizes LCC as instrumental in nurturing her interests and, in particular, the grade 12 program as great preparation for university. Indeed, her first semester of university was largely a review for her, especially in math.
“My physics teacher, Mr. Armstrong, was very inspirational. He served as a great role model and influenced my decision to go into engineering at university. I also remember getting lots of support from teachers when I was writing my university applications, from advice to proofreading, that helped me get into the program I wanted.”
Learning at LCC goes beyond the academe. Christina says that playing on the girls’ basketball team (grades 8-12) taught her how to be a team player, which became one of the personal strengths she now depends on in her career. She also played touch football and subbed as goalie for the soccer team one season. Her commitment to the school didn’t end for the summer holidays. She was a camp counsellor for the LCC Summer Day Camp for three years. “It was tons of fun playing games and sports with the summer camp kids, having barbecues every Friday out in the field and being in charge of the school!”
Memories of school time can be so important for the spirit when looking back years later. Christina’s memories of LCC are warm, loving and ‘fuzzy’. “I remember our homeroom group was great. I have happy memories of the lunches and getting excited for apple crumble day. One year we had our lockers in the new tunnel under Royal Avenue. We loved hanging out in the student lounges and on the lawn during lunch breaks and spares.”
After graduation, there was no end to the opportunities for Christina, culminating in a bachelor’s degree (honours) from Queen’s University, a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Ottawa, all in mechanical engineering. Aerodynamics and wind tunnels drew her to Ottawa and it is that on which she has built her career.
Her choice of Southampton University was also due to wind tunnels. “It is one of the world leaders in aerodynamics research and has a selection of wind tunnels which I can use for my research,” says Christina. Her work there has had her conducting weekly tutorials for the first-year engineering course in thermo-fluids. The group consisted of 57 students, five of whom were women. In the long term, she hopes to create an established laboratory at the university, with several PhD students working on exciting research in aerodynamics and turbulence.
Christina may have changed countries but her life is made up of many of the experiences she enjoyed in Montreal. She plays netball in a community league two nights a week. What little time off she has will probably be spent shopping at Mothercare, as Christina and her partner will be welcoming a baby into their lives this fall. Balancing her career and her family may give her added stress but if anyone can do it…LCC’s Christina Vanderwel can.