Speak with Cassandra Tomas for just a few moments and it’s immediately evident how purely passionate she is about mentoring students in capstone projects in the world of materials engineering.
“I’m a junkie,” the Stream-Flo Materials Engineer readily confesses.
While that’s part of the reason behind her having mentored roughly 50 engineering students through 10 capstone projects over the years, a much more visceral reason provides the true motivation behind why she has spent so many hours guiding the next generation.
“I’ve been an engineering undergraduate before and I know how challenging that last year is,” Tomas said over Teams recently. “That time in my life was really hard, I wish I could have had a mentor like I am a mentor now. It’s basically a bit of self-healing; If I mentor people younger than me like I wish I had been mentored, it helps complete the circle for me.”
In her latest mentorship role, Tomas was once again able to help a group of University of Alberta Materials Engineering students come away with the big prize from the local American Society for Metals (ASM) Edmonton Chapter. Marking back-to-back victories for Tomas and her third win overall while guiding a capstone project group.
“I’ve been doing this often enough that I see patterns and what kind of student groups I work well with,” said Tomas. “I call them ‘super groups’ when it’s a group of students where you can tell they have been study buddies their entire undergrad; they’ve already got a rapport with each other, they have a good healthy balance between the group members. The first time I met (this year’s group) I’m like ‘I got a super group.’”
The students — or “Super group” as Tomas likes to call them — consisted of Luke Dumicz-Carson, Jacob Barron, Natasha Arthur, Ajay Talbot, and David Liu.
And the project they were given by Tomas is actually one of important interest to Stream-Flo.
“At Stream-Flo we have SF110, which is a material of our own devising,” said Tomas. “It usually passes this one particular Sulfide Stress Cracking (SSC) test, but it doesn’t always, and it’s an intensive process, so we’d like it to pass 100 per cent of the time.”
So Tomas outsourced her work. Or gave them an interesting project — depending on how one looks at these things. But she also somewhat pulled a bait and switch on the students.
“I told them to create a 110-ksi yield strength low alloy carbon steel that could be used for sour service applications,” said Tomas. “Then I told them that the SSC test mentioned earlier is the one they need to pass. I didn’t want our material to influence their decision-making process.”
Not until the students were well under way with the project did Tomas fill them in on the fact that Stream-Flo has already created such a material.
The students were somewhat worried that if they replicated such results then that would mean a failure on their part for the project. On the contrary, Tomas told them.
“I wanted to see if they could invent a better one and they asked, ‘If we create something exactly the same, does that mean we failed the project?’ and I said ‘No, that means we’re (Stream-Flo) doing it as well as we can’, so it’s affirming.”
The award the group won, which was based on technical competency, was also heavily dependent on the project Tomas schemed up. Or developed, depending again on how you view things.
“Projects that are more difficult are going to have an advantage over simpler projects,” she said. “This project was not simple, and they did a good job. That’s why they got the big prize.”
With mentors playing such a significant role in how these projects turn out, Tomas also knows it’s incumbent on her to do a good job. Let’s just say she doesn’t lack the chutzpah it takes to recognize some of the strong traits of hers that she brings to the table.
“Something I do is I’m very responsive,” she said. “I’m going to toot my own horn here and say that sometimes people volunteer to be these industry mentors and then they don’t reply to their students promptly or they don’t give complete information. No, you need, like, day of turnaround, because the semester is only three months long and these courses go so fast.”
That means Tomas typically sets up an instant messenger group for her mentees, ready and willing to respond to any questions they may have, even if it does come in at 3 pm on a Saturday.
She also tries to teach them the difference between what happens in the real world, compared to the problems they’ve been solving primarily in textbooks up to this point in their engineering journey.
“With this group of students, I emphasized that codebooks are very important, they rule the day. For engineers, these specs rule our world, we always have to play nice with them. That’s not something that’s really emphasized in school, so I try and talk them through it and say ‘There’s going to be these codebooks that are going to cramp your style, but you need to listen to them.’”
Tomas admits that at this point in the story, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is all one big elaborate ploy for her to score a promotion. She swears it's not. We're happy to believe her, due in large part to the sheer genuine nature she possesses as the next quote demonstrates.
“I really like growing people; I like investing in people in general. I really do enjoy taking an interest in what people are up to and what they need to grow and what they need to succeed and live their best life, to be corny about it. You get that in spades with these projects.”
Soft and squishiness (to steal a term from Tomas) aside, it isn’t all benevolent.
“Then of course, they get to do some of my work, too. Because I know they’re going to look at the problem differently than I am in industry.”
Those different lenses the students provided during the project and the conclusions they came up with have actually resulted in concrete next steps for Tomas to try and improve SF110.
“They suggested some tweaks to the composition that would be worth exploring,” she said. “They also looked into some of the heat treatment temperatures, which I think our vendors might be doing already, but if not it’s at least something I can suggest to them.”
Easy to see why the budding engineers came away winners, isn’t it? After all, it’s not every day that students get the opportunity to work on a real-world project and potentially contribute to its betterment.
Thanks to Tomas, it was an opportunity they didn’t pass up.