Catherine Mulligan is the Concordia Research Chair in Geoenvironmental Sustainability and director of the Concordia Institute of Water, Energy and Sustainable Systems. Courtesy of Catherine Mulligan.

Catherine Mulligan has a background in chemical engineering and is a world leader and pioneer in research and new solutions for geoenvironmental engineering. In particular, she is a recognized expert in the areas of the decontamination of water, sediments and soils, and bioenergy. Catherine is currently a professor in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering at Concordia University and the Concordia Research Chair in Geoenvironmental Sustainability. She is also the director of the Concordia Institute of Water, Energy and Sustainable Systems. 

Catherine contributes actively to external communities in her field at the local and international levels. She is a member of numerous technical and scientific committees, including serving in leadership roles with the Canadian Society of Civil Engineering and the Canadian Geotechnical Society. Additionally, Catherine has twice won the Pero-Canada Young Innovator Award and won the Engineering Institute of Canada John B. Sterling Award this year. 

What factors influenced your decision to pursue engineering? I wasn’t interested in pure sciences; I couldn’t really see the point. My mother made an off-hand remark once, “Here’s an ad in the paper for chemical engineering. Maybe that’s something that could be of interest to you.” I looked into it. I said, “Hey, you can do math. You can do chemistry. You can do physics. It’s not pure of anything, it’s kind of a mixture of all sorts. Maybe that might be interesting.” So that is what I applied for. It was only McGill that was offering chemical engineering, so I went there.

Why did you decide to pursue your Ph.D.? I was starting to get bored in my job. There weren’t a lot of challenges. The boss that I had was not very stimulating. The pilot project that we had was for a mobile unit. We were bringing our wastewater reactor to different places. This particular project was kind of on its last legs. SNC Lavalin really did not want to spend much money on research. I was starting to think, “Where’s the challenge here?”

What obstacles did you encounter in your early career and how did you overcome them? The obstacles were in the lab itself. During my Ph.D., I was looking at the surfactant and whether it had some affinity for metal. I said to my supervisor, “Maybe this is an avenue I would like to explore for my Ph.D. Is there some way I can use these surfactants, these biological products, to actually help remediate contaminated soils and sediments?” This is what I ended up doing. I got some contaminated soil and some contaminated sediments and I used my surfactants to try to see whether there was a way we could do it. At that particular time, surfactants weren’t commercially produced so I had to produce my own. My supervisor didn’t have the nice little facility like the one I had when I was working at BRI, so I had to fabricate my own. That was the biggest challenge I had at the time.

You work with researchers in Japan and China. What benefits come with international collaborations? I’ve been going to China and doing work with biological surfactants. They have a lot of problems with contaminated soil. They don’t have the same environmental restraints as we do so there might be an opportunity to try stuff there that I might not do so easily here. I would love to be able to do more field work, especially in surfactants. China is really hungry for solutions, so they say, “Come and help us out here.”

What did it mean to you to be appointed the Concordia Research Chair in Environmental Engineering? It gives you a bit of recognition. At that time, there were very few of these research chairs. To me, it was very special and prestigious to get it.

Do you feel an obligation to mentor female students? No. I don’t favour women to men. I probably draw more female students because I am a woman. I don’t go out to recruit them. I have a reputation for being approachable. When other students have problems with their professors, they come to me for help. I do what I can. I wish I could take on more students. I had a large group at one point, around fifteen or sixteen the year before last. I’m trying to reduce that a little bit.

Can you talk about the circumstances leading to the founding of CIWESS? When I first started going to Japan, I noticed they had a school of global environment at Kyoto University. Seeing that got me thinking, “Maybe this is something that we can do.” Before I left to go on my sabbatical, some colleagues and I were discussing forming something like this. We had one person from arts and science, one from fine arts, and one from the John Molson School of Business. We formed this core group. We had a common mindset that this was something important. We talked to our provost. At the time, sustainability wasn’t really flying around as much as it is now. I came back from my sabbatical and the group was not really that active. We put it on hold.

Then this program from NSERC came along, CREATE. The whole vision for the program was to be able to train in a new way. I said, “Maybe we can do it from an engineering point of view. Try to train engineers with social and economic perspectives.” This to me was something that needed to be done. Engineers are really, really good at the technical side of their job, but they are not always good at talking to people and getting their projects going. From my point of view, engineers don’t always think about the social and economic aspects of their work. You need to be able to communicate and to sell what you’re doing. I devised this program so that they would have internships to get some experience. At the graduate level, this wasn’t something that was done. It was something that I had actually implemented when I was associate dean. I had established a course where students could take an internship. A lot of our students are international so they have no Canadian experience. I also wanted to be able to keep some of our good students. They finish their bachelor’s degree and they don’t stay for their master’s. They want to get experience, to make money. I thought maybe this would be a way to keep them.

What qualities does an innovator need? You need to be able to think outside the box, think a little bit differently, and more than tweaking things here and there, which is the most common way that people do research. You think, “Okay, there is this but maybe we can make it a little bit better.” That’s the most common form. You have to be able to break the mold and try to think in a totally different direction.

How do you view yourself as an innovator? I would call myself a problem solver. I’m very tenacious. I don’t let things go. I say, “This is going to happen one way or another.” To overcome different things, you really have to have that.

Where have you been most innovative in your work? The work that I’ve done with biological surfactants was innovative, especially the work I did when I first started, using biological surfactants to look at all the different types of positively charged metals. I was at the forefront. I think that is a good example of opening up this avenue. It created a whole field. When I started, you could count the number of people working on biological surfactants. It’s popularized a lot since then. My research has certainly had an impact. It has created a foundation for necessary knowledge that has helped create companies that are producing these things. That’s amazing. Now we are starting to do other things, like looking at negatively-charged metals. The last few years, my students and I have been looking at arsenic. It is negatively charged. Chromium has a negative charge. We’ve gotten some tailings samples from mines in Yellowknife. We’re looking at the use of surfactants for arsenic from two fronts. One, can you look at it for stabilizing? And two, can you look at it for extracting?

Can you think of someone who is particularly innovative that has inspired you? My old supervisor. He had many patents. He was a very active scientist. He had multiple degrees so he was able to look at things from different points of view. He was at the forefront of the field of geoenvironmental engineering. The whole idea of contaminant transport I attribute to him.

What advice would you give to young people considering pursuing a career in engineering? I think a lot of them probably have the mindset that engineering is very technical. In reality, it is not. There are many other skills that people can bring and there are many other things that are involved in working in engineering. People think you’re just going to sit in your lab or your office drawing and whatnot, but it’s not that. You have to sell your ideas. You have to talk to a lot of people. You have to work with different communities. You have to talk to different stakeholders. I deal with a lot of students, graduate students in particular. What I try to get across to them is this. Go for it. Work hard. Be strong. You’ve got to focus. Do what you have to do to get that project done. There are a lot of life challenges along the way, but you have to keep at it. One of my Ph.D. students just had a baby. It is hard. I told her, “Things will get better.” That’s one of my mantras. Things may be bad now, but it will get better, don’t worry. Just wait a little bit and it will get better.


To read more about Catherine and the other Women of Innovation, purchase the book here.

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