Interview with Sara Dolatshahi

Interview with Sara Dolatshahi

This 2014 interview was conducted with Sarah Dolatshahi by Kostas Mandilaris for his blog.

Sara Dolatshahi is professional Engineer and licensed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to be in charge of operating four 600 MW CANDU reactors at the Pickering Nuclear Power Plant.

Please introduce yourself

My name is Sara Dolatshahi and I believe that we are put in this world to do extraordinary work, to be unique and push ourselves to learn and do more each day. I am young enough to still believe in the power of dreams but old enough to know that it is through hard work and focus that I can realize any of my dreams.

I have a bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering and a Master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering from McMaster University. I am a professional Engineer and I have a license from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to be in charge of operating four 600 MW CANDU reactors at the Pickering Nuclear Power Plant. I am in charge of Units 5-8, which produce electricity for millions of people in Ontario, Canada.

My career is not only technically challenging and rewarding but has also allowed me to have a very comfortable lifestyle. I have the opportunity to travel at least twice a year with my husband and 8 year old daughter, who are a big part of my life. Being able to travel allows me to learn more about the world and at the same time to rejuvenate and refocus on my dreams.

Aside from my work and family, I like to present the nuclear power and engineering profession to schools and professional organizations. I also like to mentor both on-line (i.e. Engineer girl) as well as at work (to junior staff or as a part of leadership academies).

My life passion is to combine my technical knowledge and leadership skills to inspire the younger generation to do more with their life. We must all dream big and not be afraid of achieving extraordinary results.

“Mistakes and failures will happen, that is just part of being human, but you need to learn from your mistakes and correct your path along the way to align yourself with your goals.

What made you pick such a difficult career, one that is dominated by men?

What is difficult is in the eyes of the beholder. I have always believed that everything can seem difficult at first; however, taking the first step and not giving up can make it easier and makes you get better at it. So I don’t really consider my career any more difficult than any other profession. However, here is my story…

My father has a Physics background and used to work for a refinery when I was growing up and so from an early age I was fascinated by plants and complex processes that work to make people’s lives easier. My curiosity in this area taught me that understanding math and sciences were the foundation for an easier life. In high school, I decided to pursue a career in Engineering and went on to graduate from McMaster University with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. I had hopes of working either in the petrochemical industry (similar to my father) or in the biomedical industry to develop medical tools and devices to help people. However, in my final year at McMaster, the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) gave a presentation on campus regarding careers in the nuclear industry and I found splitting the nucleus of an atom to harness its massive amount of energy for the betterment of communities to be really intriguing.

I applied, got accepted and started working for OPG right after graduation in May 1999. OPG is one of the largest power companies in North America, producing safe and reliable power for homes, schools, hospitals and businesses in Ontario, Canada.

I started in the Regulatory Affairs and Reactor Safety as a Junior Engineer and worked with the Nuclear Regulator (CNSC) to implement the new Act and Regulations and their requirements in our nuclear power plant. Although, this job was very exciting, it lacked the technical detail that I liked on how a nuclear plant actually produces electricity.

To fulfill this gap I completed my Masters in Nuclear Engineering on my spare time and weekends while I was still progressing through my career and taking on higher level of responsibilities. Although the Masters program taught me how a power plant operates it was not practical enough to me and so in 2004, I accepted a project leadership role in another department within the company. This role involved developing tools to repair systems and components in the nuclear power plant. It required research and collaboration with outside agencies to develop innovative, one-of-a-kind repair techniques. These advanced ideas not only required understanding of sciences and engineering principles but also strong leadership skills. Again, although this position was groundbreaking and educational, it lacked active involvement in the production of electricity. I wanted to be directly responsible for the production of electricity as well as growing professionally to be a part of the senior leadership team. As such I decided to apply for my current position within the company as a Control Room Shift Supervisor (CRSS).

This position is a non-traditional role for me (for example, very few females, shift work and a non-desk job), however, I am glad that I chose the path least travelled as I find my job very rewarding. It challenges me to learn something new every day, be it technical or leadership skills, including decision-making, problem solving, communication and time management skills.

What was your greatest motivation in succeeding and overcoming the obstacles you encountered?

Doing things that others can’t or won’t, or only dream of doing has been my inspiration to tackle challenging work.

I am a goal-oriented individual. Once I set a goal I don’t quit until I achieve it. This does not mean that I do not adjust or correct my course along the way, but it means that once I set my mind to something, I take however many paths required to persist until I succeed. My goal for wanting to be a part of the senior management team of my company has helped me overcome a lot of obstacles that I’ll discuss later regarding how I got to be where I am in my career.

In addition, wanting to be an inspiration to those starting after me and showing that great achievements are possible with hard work and smarts has been another motivation for me to set high goals and not give up on them. This is why I really appreciate people like you that help the next generation of students to be great leaders.

You mention that this is a rewarding career, would you recommend it to aspiring young students?

Absolutely. A career in nuclear engineering is one of the best careers out there and is well respected. The role of CRSS is not only technically challenging and financially rewarding, but also makes you feel that you are actually contributing to the well-being of people. At the end of your work day, you can be happy to know that you and your crew were responsible for the safe generation of electricity for millions of people, including power for hospitals, schools, and businesses – not many people can say that. The value of your work is especially amplified when a black out happens and millions of people are left without life essentials or conveniences (power for lighting, heating, phones, computers, medical devices etc.). Life would be pretty difficult and dull were it not for the electricity generated by the people who sacrifice their days, nights and weekends to providing a lot of life necessities.

“I find my job very rewarding. It challenges me to learn something new every day...”

Is the satisfaction and the salary worth it, adequate for the hard work?

Yes. CRSS pay is commensurate with the level of responsibility associated with this role as well as the job and training demands. As a result, CRSSs are highly paid, receiving satisfying wages, guaranteed monthly bonuses and annual performance bonuses contingent on the overall performance of their crew. A typical CRSS can make between 180-250K (Canadian) per year. However, as mentioned earlier, it is the personal satisfaction at the end of the day that makes it really worthwhile.

Which are the 3 most important trait/perks for a person that wants to succeed in life and this engineering path?

  1. Passionate curiosity and staying hungry for knowledge. By that, I mean wanting to learn and do more each day, not being satisfied with mediocrity and pushing yourself each day to learn something new or be better than the day before.
  2. Perseverance. By that, I mean not giving up at the first sight of difficulty or a failure. I learned a while ago that failure is just a type of feedback and makes you grow and learn.
  3. Having goals and dreams. This is especially important to help you with the two points above. Once you have a goal, you need to learn everything you can to find ways to achieve your goal. Have a “never give up” attitude to achieve it, as goals keep you focused and give you a sense of purpose.

Which were the toughest challenges you encountered during your studies/career?

I would say that the toughest challenge that I encountered during my career was obtaining my license as a Control Room Shift Supervisor (CRSS). The CRSS role is an authorized position requiring a license from the Federal government and the process for getting accepted into the program and licensed is very challenging. It required overcoming a number of obstacles and hurdles along the way.

I had to complete an essay, an aptitude test, a behavior-based oral interview and have the recommendation of upper management. After being accepted into the program, I had to receive an additional 4 years of intense training and testing, in order to fully understand how electricity is produced safely and demonstrate my knowledge of the operation of the nuclear power plant. The training program is very heavy and requires learning and retaining a substantial amount of technical material in a relatively short timeframe. A commitment of 8 hours of training per day and additional study time in the evenings and the weekends was necessary.

The training program is intense, requiring a high level of attention to detail and precision involving the application of various diagnostic and decision making skills. In addition to paper based examinations, I had to demonstrate analytical and decision making skills under high pressure during high fidelity simulation exercises. During these exercises, I was evaluated frequently and received direct critiques of my performance. Performances that would not meet a certain standard would result in remedial action or removal from the program. As a result, the failure rate of this program is high and some of my colleagues were not successful in completing the program. The ongoing stress associated with the program or the workload can be demoralizing for those remaining in the program, adding further stress to the workload.

I found the practical simulation exams to be especially challenging as I was not used to them. All my life, I was used to completing written exams where you have time to re-read your answers and change them as you see fit. However, a practical exam forces you to think on your feet and does not allow you to change your answers. Each practical exam required you to respond to them in a calm manner while maintaining command and control of the situation. For me, the hardest part of all this was overcoming the fear of failure, not wanting to make a mistake that would result in remediation. At the beginning, all of the constant criticism left me feeling like a failure, until one day one of my instructors said something that really resonated with me. He told me that failure is just a feedback and I need to take it and correct my ways to reach my goal. Once I stopped being afraid of making mistakes and started to think of the best way to respond, the training became much easier for me. Throughout this journey however, there were times that I thought of quitting, but what kept me motivated was my goals and the clear vision I had for where I wanted to go.

The Control Room Shift Supervisor (CRSS) is a key leadership position in a nuclear power plant and holds a lot of prestige within the industry. For career oriented people like myself with aspirations of advancing to greater leadership roles and increased responsibilities, it was a requirement to be able to advance in my career. My goal of wanting to be part of the senior leadership team as well as the desire for a sense of personal and professional achievement that only select few ever get to achieve (first female in the history of Pickering Nuclear units 5 to 8) helped me overcome my obstacles.

“Setting goals will give clarity on what you want and ensures that you spend your efforts on things that matter.”

I admire your determination and hunger for success. I see loads of people that are either unambitious or do not have a career goal. What’s your suggestion to them?

I would say that a person without a goal is like a docked boat without a destination. Even if the boat left the harbor by chance, it would end up either going in circles or not going very far, out of fear of not knowing where it’s going. We all need to have goals in life, and although we may not know how to get there, our intentions will help find the path to it.

Setting goals will give clarity on what you want and ensures that you spend your efforts on things that matter. For instance, my goal for wanting to be a part of the senior management team of my company has helped me spend a lot of my weekends and nights studying, as opposed to just watching TV or doing other low value activities.

Goals keep you motivated and give you a sense of purpose. I find that even if I don’t achieve all my goals (at least in the timeframe I have set for myself), I learn so much along the way that it’s worth setting the goals alone. Do remember that once you achieve your goals, you shouldn’t be satisfied by just that – set higher goals and work towards achieving your next level of goals.

Help us bust the myth about nuclear power and its misuses. I think it has load of potential.

Nuclear energy has been used safely for more than 50 years in many countries. It continues to be one of the cleanest and cheapest forms of energy. Just one of the nuclear reactors that I am in charge of can power approximately 3 million homes and is equivalent to 600 wind turbine generators.

Nuclear energy is very clean because when the nuclear plant is safely operated, it produces no harmful chemicals such as heavy metal toxins, carbon dioxide or methane, which are largely responsible for greenhouse effects in the environment. Nuclear energy is also very efficient and requires very little fuel since the amount of energy released from the splitting of uranium is about 60 million times as much as when a carbon atom burns. Nuclear energy is also reliable and does not rely on external factors such as weather (i.e., wind or sun).

Another benefit of the nuclear energy is that some of its byproducts are used for other useful purposes. For instance, the EXIT signs that glow in the dark, often contain a radioactive gas called tritium, which is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen produced from neutron interaction with heavy water used in a nuclear power plant, such as the one I work at. These signs do not require electricity or batteries and can be used wherever it’s hard to install electric signs. They form an important safety function during power outages and pose little or no threat to public health or safety. In addition, during safe production of electricity using nuclear energy, we can also produce isotopes that can be used for radiation therapy or diagnosis of cancer.

Finally, nuclear power plants provide quality long-lasting jobs and a higher than average quality of life for their employees. Nuclear energy is clean and powerful and has tremendous benefits. However, like any other form of energy, if not used responsibly, it has the potential to harm. Take fire for example, if used carelessly, it can burn down your house but when used cautiously it will warm up your home and food to a point that you cannot imagine your life without it.

How easy is it for a woman to climb up the ladder in a male dominated world?

Easy, if you are willing to put the effort into it. Like anything else in life, nothing comes easy. You need to really want to climb up the ladder and be willing to work hard at it. As a woman, because of people’s perception or background, sometimes you may have to work harder to prove yourself. However, once you have proven that you are knowledgeable and hardworking, as a woman you may even have some advantages over men. Traditionally feminine traits of being more passionate, caring, and collaborative, in combination with your capability to multi task and being observant will help you be a better leader. You are also better recognized and remembered by senior management if your work speaks for itself. Of course, if your work is sub-standard or just mediocre, it will be remembered more as well. That has really motivated me to not only do my best, but to do a little bit more than my colleagues and that extra effort has never gone unnoticed.

What is the most interesting part of your job and what is the hardest?

The most interesting part of my job is being responsible for aligning all the different work groups in the organization and providing direction to them to work toward a common goal. Achieving goals such as bringing a unit on line and producing electricity after being shut down for a while is very rewarding. It is rewarding to know that you have control over what gets done in the station and what would be deferred. It is also satisfying to be in charge of a group of highly trained nuclear professionals and to effectively exercise my powers to influence key decisions for the benefit of the organization.

The hardest part of the job is dealing with substandard performance of individuals. However, over the years, I have learned that to be a caring boss, I need to be a coach and not a critic to my staff. Hence, if I approach the individuals as a coach and from a point of view of wanting to improve their performance because I care, the coaching becomes much easier.

“You need to persist in doing little things, consistently. It takes some time to change people’s mindset, however, every movement in the world started with only one or two people.”

Would you give us advice on how to improve our university, potentially making it more eco-friendly/sustainable?

You need to persist in doing little things, consistently. It takes some time to change people’s mindset, however, every movement in the world started with only one or two people. What you need to do is to create a club and set some goals or you could join one if it already exists for this purpose. Then you need to create an environment where people want to become more eco-friendly as well as model good behavior and not just educate. I find that educating people to be more environmentally conscience is not enough. People are often more influenced by social norms than common sense. So for instance, if you could encourage your school to install more fountains or filtered water taps then you create an environment where it would be much easier to drink from those means rather than by buying plastic water bottles. Also, you and your club members would have to model those behaviors to get the first followers to do the rest for you.

Another small change could be going paperless in the university. That means using no hard books, notes or physical paper copies for assignments. This may already be the norm among students, however, some of the professors being from a different generation may have a different view point. Encouraging the professors towards this approach and letting the university know how much money they are losing by providing paper copies instead of electronic notes could help. One other simple technique for becoming more eco-friendly at school is using less carbon emitting forms of transportation. For instance, you could convince your school to establish a free bus service from the school to anywhere in the city or have a bike rental/sharing program.

There are many other ways of having an eco-friendly school, however, as I’ve said before, the first step is to establish a goal and then surround yourself with like-minded people willing to go out there with you and make small changes. Then slowly build on your successes and set new goals as a collective, and go out there and achieve those too!

A short epilogue/suggestion/conclusion of your choice to close

Life is about learning and realizing that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Once you realize that, everything will come easier to you. Your fears will disappear and you can take steady steps towards your dreams. At the same time, mistakes and failures will happen, that is just part of being human, but you need to learn from your mistakes and correct your path along the way to align yourself with your goals. As the saying goes, sometimes the wind is against you – but remember, although you cannot change the wind, you can adjust your sail and as long as you persist you will succeed.

I wish you and your readers all the best in your studies and your future endeavors.