Balancing the equation: An engineer's pursuit of equity

"Don't limit your passion to the classroom; let it roam and conquer new frontiers."

Chemical and Biological Engineering student Ashley Kairu

Ashley Kairu

My name is Ashley Kairu. Originally from Kenya, I lived in Uganda and South Africa before venturing across the ocean to Vancouver for university. I am a chemical engineering graduate with a passion for clean energy and the environment. However, my truest passion is equity, diversity, and inclusion work as well as creating community. I was President of the UBC Africa Awareness Initiative that strives to improve discourse surrounding and including Africa while creating a community for Africans at UBC. I worked with the Faculty of Applied Science as an Equity Ambassador, and probably my most challenging position has been as the Founder and President of the UBC chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Learn more about NSBE 

Why did you choose to study Chemical Engineering?

Throughout school I had always enjoyed and excelled in science. I found it challenging and simultaneously rewarding. When it came to choosing my degree, engineering seemed to blend my interests in chemistry, biology, physics and math, but specifically chemical engineering allowed me to delve into some chemistry without going down the bachelor of science in chemistry route.

When I stumbled across UBC Chemical and Biological Engineering, I was excited that I could continue my chemistry and biology passions in an engineering degree and the decision to pursue it was a no-brainer.

I always had an interest in clean energy and my degree nurtured this interest perfectly. This was confirmed by my first co-op opportunity where I got to work in hydrogen fuel cells. It was honestly a dream come true and confirmed that I had made the right decision.

Chemical and Biological Engineering

What advice would you give an incoming engineering student?

Though engineering is a crazy busy degree, I would advise you to tap into your passions outside of your degree and ensure you get your co-curricular cup filled.

UBC has such a myriad of opportunities and there is something for everyone, sometimes you just need to look around a little more. Your co-curriculars could include clubs, organizations, residence life and so much more. As much as I love my engineering degree it was what I pursued alongside my learning; my work with the Applied Science Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Indigeneity office, my involvement in the Africa Awareness Initiative, and founding the National Society of Black Engineers UBC, that ensured I felt overall fulfillment.

UBC APSC EDI.I

What challenges did you face and overcome during your degree?

A collective challenge was the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point I was in my second year avidly applying for a co-op position. Once the pandemic hit it was immensely difficult to get one. The number of job listings dropped significantly and even some of my peers that were offered positions had them revoked.

I remember having no idea what the future held and desperately wanting co-op experience. Then I learned about the Applied Science Equity Ambassador program, which was hiring students to work on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) programs. Although not originally the technical engineering co-op I had expected, I applied and got the position, and this catapulted my work in EDI.

My lived experience as a Black woman played a huge part in how I approached this position. Although I had been working on diversity issues through my presidency role at the UBC Africa Awareness Initiative, through this role I learned so much more than I expected. This opportunity allowed me to be in rooms and spaces I would never have expected; from engaging with Deans and the President of UBC, to moderating panels with Vancouver’s leaders. I am so grateful that what was originally a terrifying experience of not getting the technical engineering co-op I had expected, led to something so much greater and more fulfilling.

Ashley's work in EDI

Where do you find your inspiration to use your degree to make an impact on our world?

Having grown up across Africa, the abundance of renewable energy resources, coupled with the inability to harness them, lit a passion in me to delve into clean energy. I am passionate about helping the world utilize valuable resources and I want to work on projects that work towards this narrative. After landing my first co-op position in hydrogen fuel cells, it really confirmed my desire to work in clean energy, the future seemed so much brighter. My family has always pushed me to reach for the stars, and for me that meant involving myself in cutting edge technology. I am grateful to have met incredible people along the way that have helped guide my journey.

What are your future plans to make a difference in our world?

I plan to continue to pursue my interest in clean energy and continue to work in the industry. But I also want to continue with work in equity, diversity, and inclusion, whether in a formal or in an informal role. These two paths fulfill my passions in different ways, and I’d be honoured to continue both of them.

What are some contributions you would like to make when it comes to your field?

My goal has always been to work in clean energy. Growing up in East Africa and seeing the lack of use of renewable energy resources has ensured that with the experience I gain I will eventually go back home to utilize my knowledge and expertise to create and work with entities that further clean energy at home.

UBC's Clean Energy Research

As a Black woman in engineering, I am in the minority at UBC. At UBC, we do not currently have any Black engineering faculty members at the Vancouver campus. It is important for Black students at UBC to see their reflection in the faculty hired at UBC. Having Black faculty members would not only provide academic guidance, but role models for students and present unique learning and collaborative opportunities for current faculty and UBC as a whole. I really urge UBC Engineering to take this lack of Black faculty seriously as it has detrimental effects on Black students and the general student body.

Student in a lab holding a mini Erlenmeyer flask.

Chemical and Biological Engineering

Chemical and biological engineers will be equipped to excel in a number of fast-growing and highly paid fields, including biotechnology, food, environmental services, bioenergy, forestry, biopharmaceuticals, health care and biomedical engineering.

Chemical and Biological Engineering

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