Bowinn Ma

Bowinn Ma

During her years at UBC, Bowinn Ma (BASc 2008 CIVL; MM 2009) contributed significantly to the Engineering Undergraduate Society and has since established a substantial career with the Vancouver Airport Authority. In this month’s alumni profile, learn about Ms. Ma’s role as an “Owner’s Engineer,” her memories of life as a student politician, and how engineering helped her discover her passion for inspiring and motivating the people around her.

Bowinn Ma, Project Engineer at the Vancouver Airport Authority, had a great influence on the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) during her time at UBC. The fourth female president in the EUS’s history, Ms. Ma sought to transform the role that the society played in student life. She initiated several major projects during her term, including the EUS Renewal project that restructured the EUS to better meet the needs of the student body. She was also involved in the development and championing of the Engineering Student Centre (ESC) that is now being constructed and will open in the fall of 2015.

Ms. Ma recalls her experience with engineering student politics as an opportunity to discover her own personal power to affect change in the world, contributing to her ability to shepherd the collective capacity of people towards a common goal, a skill that is no doubt very useful in her role at YVR.

Q & A with Bowinn Ma

Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of work that you do?

I am an “Owner’s Engineer” and the work I do is a lot more project management than it is engineering. I manage capital infrastructure projects on behalf of the owner, which in this case is the Vancouver Airport Authority. Generally, this means that I define project requirements with airport stakeholders when a need emerges, often in a collaborative team environment. Once the scope is defined, we tender and procure, manage contractor and consultant contracts, solve problems and resolve issues while minimizing impact to and supporting the operations of the airport – all while managing scope, schedule, and budget to project completion. 

If your work had a slogan, what would it be?

Actually, my workplace does have a slogan and it’s “Beyond, Every Day.” 

What is a fact about your work that people might find surprising?

Not everyone knows that the Vancouver Airport Authority is a community-based not-for-profit private company. Although the Airport Authority owns most of the airport infrastructure, they pay ground rent to the federal government, who owns the land. We operate like a small city with a large capital and sustaining program, which the Engineering group is largely responsible to deliver. Also interesting is that because the Airport Authority is situated on federal land, it is not subject to the jurisdiction of the City of Richmond or Province of BC. As such, it is responsible for all of its own building permits, with oversight from an independent professional. 

Do you have a personal hero, either alive or deceased? If so, who are / were they?

If I had to choose someone I guess I’d say Mulan, because she didn’t let the notion that a role could only be held by males stop her from proving them wrong.

What do you consider your greatest achievement in life so far (personal, professional, or both)?

It is interesting what hindsight will show you. It was not until after my graduation that I realized that my greatest achievements in life so far were while I was an undergraduate student politician for the Engineering Undergraduate Society. There was a series of multi-year initiatives that I championed that continue to create impact today. But, the most valuable and cherished feedback I’ve gotten is from individual students who have approached me in the years following my graduation to thank me for the positive influence I have had on their personal lives. It is an incredibly humbling and terrifying thing to realize your personal power, especially when the instances that they cite as some of the most impactful are instances of your life when you weren’t really paying attention. It makes you realize how easily we can affect our world and the people around us, in both positive and negative ways.

What is one piece of technology that you couldn’t live without, and why?

Right now it’s my phone. My work moves quickly and being connected to the project team and stakeholders is vital. In fact, I think my voicemail has been malfunctioning for the last three months but I haven’t been able to bring myself to get it repaired because then our IT department takes it out of commission for about 90 minutes.

What was your most memorable experience during your time at UBC, inside the classroom or outside?

By far my most memorable experience was my involvement in student politics and the Engineering Undergraduate Society, which spanned the seven total years I was at UBC. If I had to choose a specific moment, however, it would have to be the moment that the Engineering Undergraduate Society announced that they were initiating the “Bowinn Ma Award,” to be awarded on an annual basis in my honour. It was arranged by the other members of my Executive Team and revealed during the term transition event for elected EUS executives, during which I was stepping down as President incumbent.

What was your “light bulb moment” in engineering? In other words, what made you realize that engineering was your chosen profession?

To be honest, I’m not sure I ever had a light bulb moment that made me realize engineering, specifically, was my chosen profession. When it comes to my personal development, what I truly credit engineering with is leading me to student politics and student engagement, through which I discovered a passion for improving lives and improving the world around me by encouraging the inspiration and genius of others. Studying engineering gave me a unique vantage point from which I could observe and be connected with so many talented, amazing people. I had the incredible opportunity to lead and enable so many developing young adults and it was through this experience that I knew I wanted to continue working with them. My engineering training allows me to continue to learn how to connect with and harness the collective power of all that genius towards a common goal.

What was your favourite thing to do on campus as a UBC student?

Hanging out at the Cheeze and bartending student events. 

What are the top three things that you would recommend current engineering students do before they graduate?
  1. Take the opportunity to experiment with creating change and influencing the people around you towards greener pastures – both on a personal and organizational level. The natural cycles that the “real world” goes through happen in University as well – but more quickly. The student body has a memory that lasts only about 4-6 years and the pendulum of social change and preference swings far more frequently: After all, political terms last only one year, Deans flow with the winds, and University Presidents come and go. In the first year you arrive at UBC you come as a clueless freshman, and in four (or five or six) years you leave an expert. Never in your life will you again have another opportunity to influence so much in such little time.
  2. Don’t throw your life away rotting in classes. Now, don’t misunderstand me: This is not to say that one should not go to classes while attending University. What I mean is that if you let yourself graduate with your only memory of your time in school being of tedious classes and a long commute, you will have wasted the best opportunity in your life to be deeply engaged and in love with what you do, be it your studies or your community and club involvements.
  3. Enjoy your time there. School life is full of stress, ups, downs, drama, and coffee. Still, the one thing I wish I had done more of during my time in University was to step back and enjoy being there in that moment. Once you graduate, there’s something about the experience of being a student, especially an undergraduate student, that you can never replicate.