“I would come to the line knowing that if I had a bad race, a bad day, it would feel like I’d wasted the last four years. Grad school is somewhat more forgiving than that.”
Most grad students feel the pressure at times, as deadlines loom and assignments pile up, but master’s student Anna Ringsred has a rather different perspective on pressure than most of her classmates. In her first career as a world class speed skater, the margins between success and failure quite literally rested on a knife’s edge. In her races for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics she reached speeds of 30 mph with only 1.1 millimetres of carbon tempered steel to connect her to the ice.
You would imagine that a world where training is planned to the last detail in the search for any advantage (something Anna confesses she misses on occasion) has little in common with the life of a graduate student. Anna sees things differently.
“I learnt to be persistent and never give up. I’m small for a speed skater and there were always people who were more talented than me, but they dropped by the wayside and I kept with it, even through times of failure. Even after I walked away from the sport in 2010, I felt compelled to give it one last shot to make the Olympic team.
As a grad student there have also been times when it felt like a grind, when I wasn’t enjoying things as much as I had hoped, frustrated by the lack of support. But I could always fall back on that stubbornness and not give up until I’d achieved my goal of defending my thesis.”
Volunteering with the GSS
Getting involved with the GSS was one way that Anna found to make life on campus more enjoyable.
“I started to get involved with the GSS as a way of trying to get to know people. The different parts of UBC are very separate and there aren’t many meeting points for grad students. I’d also never got involved in student government before and I wanted to see what it was all about, what actually goes on.”
The GSS always needs students who are willing to take on projects and Anna soon found something that attracted her interest.
“I’d begun going to council. They needed someone to be the elections coordinator and I thought it would be an interesting project and good professional development, so I volunteered.”
Elections coordinator is no small job. It involves organising the pre-election debates, setting up the voting and verifying the results. There is also a more personal side to the role, assisting the candidates through the process and it was this that proved most rewarding for Anna.
“I really enjoyed getting to know the candidates during the build up to the elections and then seeing them grow as Executives over the year. It’s impressive to see the skills and professionalism they’ve developed in the role.
I think when I started out I was a little intimidated. I felt like you might need five years experience in student politics to be involved in the committees or to speak out in council, but I soon realised that wasn’t true. These are all just normal graduate students who want to work to improve things for their peers.”
A New Direction
It was a desire to develop her professional experience that brought Anna back to school at UBC. After completing a degree in Chemical Engineering, she worked for two years in industry without ever finding a role that fitted her aspirations. “Most of the jobs were in the oil and gas industry and I got into engineering wanting to work on sustainability and improving the environment. So I decided to go back to school to try and get a more specialist qualification.”
Anna settled on a MASc (Master of Applied Science) in the Faculty of Forestry where she is part of a large research team looking at biotech and biofuels. Anna’s particular project is examining the lifecycle of biofuels – that is, trying to measure what the real environmental impact of producing a biofuel is.
“All biofuels are not made alike and it’s not enough to only look at whether the end product has low emissions to assess the environmental impact. You have to understand everything that goes into the production method. That means accounting for the emissions from cultivation and transport of the bio-material to the processing plant. Then you need to look at the emissions from breaking down the bio-material into a sugar slurry that can be turned into ethanol or other biofuels.”
“For example, I’ve found that ‘the feedstack’, that’s the type of material you use to make the biofuel, has a big impact on emissions. Forest waste is more efficient than algae, for example.”
There are still some formidable challenges to be overcome before biofuel-powered cars or aeroplanes become a common sight, but Anna is encouraged by recent steps the Province has taken to encourage this technology.
“It’s something of a chicken and egg situation: you need vehicles to make a network of fuel stations viable, but it’s difficult to get people to buy a biofuel vehicle without the network of fuel stations. BC is starting to tackle some of these problems by giving companies credits so that while they work on biofuels they can develop the infrastructure to go alongside, which is exciting for me as a researcher.”
Earlier this month Anna proved again the power of persistence and successfully defended her thesis, meaning she is set to graduate in September. Anna’s background is unusual and not something that every student could follow even if they wanted, but what lessons from her training programme does she have for other graduate students?
“Training taught me that proper rest and diet are incredibly important if you want to perform at your best level. That’s something I took with me into my graduate studies. However busy I am, I try to do 3 or 4 bits of exercise a week and get a good amount of sleep. That’s something that I think would help all grad students.”
With her thesis complete, Anna has just started work at BC’s Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources, working in the Low Carbon Fuel Branch of the Electricity and Alternative Energy Division. Not only does the new job use the skills Anna learned during her Masters but she admits that the insights into government from working with the GSS have helped her ‘feel more confident’ in the new job. One thing is certain Anna will bring the same sense of purpose and persistence that propelled an undersized speed skater to the Olympics to her new role.