Claire Deschênes, a mechanical engineering professor at Université Laval, co-founded three non-profit organizations that support and promote women in science and engineering. Courtesy of Claire Deschênes.

Claire Deschênes is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Université Laval. She was the first female professor of engineering hired at the institution. A world-renowned expert in hydraulic turbine technology, hydrodynamics, and fluid mechanics, she founded the Laboratoire de Machines Hydrauliques (LAMH) in 1989, an internationally-recognized centre that conducts hydraulic turbines research. Claire was made a fellow of Engineers Canada in 2015 and has twice been named a Le Soleil and Radio-Canada laureate in the science and research category in recognition of her distinguished contributions.

Claire is also a dedicated promoter of women in science and engineering. She served as NSERC/Alcan Chair for Women in Science and Engineering from 1997 to 2006 and co-founded three non-profit organizations that support and promote women in science and engineering - the International Network for Women Engineers and Scientists (INWES), the Association de la francophonie à propos des femmes en sciences, technologies, ingénierie et mathématiques (AFFESTIM), and the INWES Educational and Research Institute (ERI). In 1999, Claire was named the first YWCA woman of distinction laureate for the Quebec region in the science, technology, and health category, and in 2002, The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers gave her the award for support of women in engineering. Last year, she was granted an honourary doctorate from the University of Ottawa. 

What factors influenced your decision to pursue engineering? I was strong in mathematics and physics, but not only in those subjects because I am the sort of person that is interested in many things — I considered going to university to study music or psychology, but life brought me to engineering. My father passed away when I was in CEGEP and my mother was sick in bed with multiple sclerosis. I completed my first two years of CEGEP in psychology and then I had to stay home because it was my turn to take care of my mother. I thought, “Okay, I’ll do one year at home while taking another year at CEGEP.” I took the mathematics, physics, and biology stream that I needed to go into science and engineering in university. I loved it. When it came time to choose a career, I realized it was important to me to not depend on anyone else in life. I needed a stable career. I thought I might need to help my siblings one day. That’s why I said, “Okay, maybe I will go into science.” I was deciding between physics, mathematics, and engineering and I decided on mechanical engineering for various reasons. One was that I thought it would be nice to have a “man’s” job and wear the “white hat!” I was really at ease with mechanical physics.

How would you characterize your experience as an undergraduate student? I was surprised on my first day to be the only woman in the room. I’ll never forget it. Everybody stared at me, the professor and the students. I went red. I spotted an empty chair and I went to it. They were probably thinking, “What is she doing here?” The first two months were very difficult because I was away from home for the first time and was the only girl. I failed my first exam. I thought, “No, I’m not in the right place.” But then it started to improve. I developed friendships with colleagues and with some of their girlfriends or with the secretaries to increase the feminine presence in my life. It was strange for many professors. They were always aware that I was in their class. Once a professor told me not to put my name on an exam sheet, to put my student number, because he didn’t want to spot me, but I was the only one with a number! At the time, I was not that aware that there could be a bias against women. Today, after reading so much about women in STEM, I realize the difference with which I could be treated. In my family, women were quite dominant, they ran the house. My mother said I could do anything that I wanted. That built my confidence. I felt special and privileged to be in engineering. Confidence comes as well from discovering that everybody feels a little insecure.

What factors influenced your decision to pursue your Ph.D.? I had a scholarship from Université Laval to go do a Ph.D. abroad with the promise of having a professor position when I came back. It was an encouraging program; at thirty, I would otherwise never have considered becoming a professor. I was not sure I wanted to go abroad for four to five years. I finally said to myself, “Okay, maybe I can give it a try.” My master’s was in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) applied to flows within hydraulic turbines. France and Switzerland are traditional developers of the hydro energy sector and had related university laboratories. It was easier for a Quebecer to study in France — less scholarships to pay, free health care insurance — so I went to the Institut National Politechnique de Grenoble. It was a wonderful location for learning and exploring Europe.

Were you intimidated being the first female professor of engineering at Université Laval? I was indeed intimidated being a very young professor and it being in 1989, before I completed my Ph.D. I was in charge of a very large class of 200 students in fluid mechanics. It was tough. The Polytechnique massacre happened on December 6, 1989. I am still very emotional when I think about that tragic day and the one that followed. I recognized immediately the attack on women in STEM, an attack that I felt personally and profoundly. However, that event and the Ph.D. I defended in early January 1990 became part of an important “rite of passage” to prepare myself for an academic career. Afterwards, I felt comfortable. I was proud to be a woman professor of engineering. I knew I could do the job and I was hoping to help the women who followed.

Can you talk about the founding and growth of the LAMH? It is a long story. At Laval, I replaced a professor who went into retirement. I took over his research niche and his laboratory. I rebuilt the lab almost from scratch. Because I had worked with Hydro-Québec, I knew the hydro industry very well. The large hydro manufacturing industry is traditional and very important in the province of Quebec. They develop software for their own needs and fabricate large turbines and install them worldwide. I was hoping to get their support to build a test stand like those I had seen in France and Switzerland. At this suggestion, however, they answered, “No, no, no, it’s too expensive, you will not succeed. Why do that in Quebec? We are satisfied with model tests in Switzerland.” But I was very patient and built my case. In the nineties, the federal government wanted to sustain the development of small hydro, wind, and solar energies. The LAMH became part of the Natural Resources Canada network. They helped me develop the main test stand and provided projects for Canadian inventors to test small turbines. It was a nice learning period for me.

Then another chance came when the faculty undertook renovations of the engineering building. I worked with the department designer and we started to imagine how we could build a test stand respecting international standards. We visited a few installations in Europe. With the renovation, we added the second floor and completed the main test stand in 2004. Two manufacturers brought models of large turbines with known performances obtained in another lab. These projects' goals were to improve the aeration of the water going through turbines for environmental considerations. During their realisation, we retested the turbine main performances and obtained similar results. That was seen as a lab validation that built their confidence. No better certification was possible. The scientific goal I had in mind was to perform CFD validations with experimental data obtained on models of real turbines. I went back to the large hydro industry to see if they would now be interested in working with the LAMH, not so much to get turbine performances but to perform R&D projects.

I then considered building a collaborative research group in the hydro sector involving major Canadian constructors and utilities. I told these companies, “I want to develop a research project around data collection and validation. Are you interested? What are your technical problems? Do you need well-done validation data?” Hydro-Québec, playing a key role, was thrilled by the idea, as were some major companies. The Consortium on hydraulic machines was created after two or three years of discussions. With support from the industry, the Consortium got Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grants to acquire advanced laser-based laser doppler velocimetry (LDV) and particle image velocimetry (PIV) systems to measure flows within the model turbines and obtained NSERC Collaborative Research and Development grants to perform collaborative R&D projects. I was finally where I had wanted to be since my Ph.D.

What are you most proud of in your career? I believe that I made a difference in the hydro industry. I helped the Canadian industry be more competitive. Nowadays, turbine design and operation must be adjusted to the introduction of less stable sources of energy into electrical grids, such as wind and solar. I like to think that my research led to a better understanding of turbine behaviour far from their best efficiency point, where it is necessary to have them run more often nowadays. I hope my work helped improve the turbine operations in these extended operating modes, for which they were not traditionally designed until recently.

You were the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering from 1997 to 2005. How has your work promoting women in STEM impacted your career? Promoting women in STEM is part of my social and volunteer activities. It is not difficult for me to find the motivation to work on this issue because I really believe that women in STEM will help build a better world and I am fascinated by the interactions between the promotion of women in STEM and the social change and hard science issues. I hope my work on these issues has been and is still useful. The chair has been very important for the development of my career. It helped me develop leadership skills and build a network of women for guidance and support. I acquired a better understanding of social and historical issues for women. It gave me a way to interpret day-to-day  situations, and therefore it increased my self-confidence. I had the chance to participate in many committees. I learned how the research and academic worlds function. I am still well-known and recognised, and know many people in universities and government. These elements have all been very important to build my scientific career.

How do you view yourself as an innovator? Recently, the Consortium on hydraulic machines put together a new research proposal. We were asked where it stands in the chain of innovation. We are working at level three in a chain that contains seven levels. We are not providing new prototypes, but we are testing early concepts to improve the behaviour of turbines and their lifetime, based on the understanding of the underlying physics. We are working on the early part of the path to innovation or improvement. This is also called precompetitive research, a kind of research that makes possible working with many competitors. I apply this level to many of my activities on women in STEM issues as well: I create research structures, get information and understanding, and test action efficiency. This is where I like to work.

Where do you believe you have been most innovative in your research? At the LAMH we are measuring the flows within models of turbines and modeling them with sophisticated CFD software. We’re putting turbines in situations where they don’t function perfectly or in situations where potentially damaging vibrations and deformations may occur and then we’re trying to understand what is happening by analyzing the data. In fact, the main LAMH test stand, its equipment, and the software tools have been evolving in time to provide deeper and deeper understanding. The LAMH team collect the data and develop fundamental knowledge. This knowledge is then used by the industry to identify how they can improve their turbines or improve their useful lifetime. They use the database information to validate their own software. It is very rewarding for me to think that I developed a research model that functions specifically for the Canadian hydro industry and that takes into account its realities. Even if my research addresses an apparently old technology, innovations are still needed to adjust this energy production to our
changing world.

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

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