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Sunday Spotlight #2

This week features Professor Sarah Jane Payne, from our very own Civil Engineering Department here at Queens! This blog post is based on an interview with Dr. Payne and her efforts in increasing representation in future graduate students.


SJ Payne, PhD., P.Eng. (She/her)

Assistant Professor

Department of Civil Engineering, Queen’s University

What impressed me most about Professor Payne is the subtle ways in which she uses her role as Assistant Professor in the Civil Engineering Department to address diversity in the recruitment and retention of students pursuing graduate studies.

Professor Payne is eager to address diversity at all levels of education; however, as a professor, she finds herself in a unique position to specifically target graduate school recruitment and retention. Professor Payne finds that while teaching and discussing with undergraduate students, she can foster graduate school awareness.

Professor Sarah Jane Payne joined the Civil Department in 2019 and is currently leading the water quality research program at Queen’s, where her team focuses on drinking water quality, developing real-time sensors, and wastewater-based epidemiology for community COVID-19 surveillance.

See the following link to the Kingston data dashboard for COVID-19 in wastewater surveillance:

To name a few, she teaches CIVL 372 Water and Wastewater Engineering and CIVL 300 and 400, Professional Studies II and III.

Beginning at the University of Waterloo, Professor Payne completed her undergraduate degree in Environmental Engineering, with a chemical specialization. After graduation, she worked briefly in consulting before attending Dalhousie University to pursue her Master’s Degree. Although initially planning to only pursue her Master’s degree, Professor Payne found a passion for research and teaching and continued on to earn her doctoral degree in Civil and Resource Engineering.

Following this, she worked as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto where her research continued to focus on protecting drinking water safely by investigating microbial control and corrosion control. Prior to coming to Queen’s, she played a role in water, wastewater, and environmental regulation and policy at Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada for four and a half years.

When asked ‘Why graduate school?’ in contrast with targeting diversity and inclusion within undergraduate classes, Professor Payne recalls meeting an inspiring group of civil engineering graduate students when she began at Queen’s. The students were a part of the Gender Equity Focus Group, which aimed to identify challenges and barriers faced by undergraduate students when exploring the option to attend grad school. Through methodical and well-structured surveys, they reported that while undergrad students felt that graduate studies were promoted, 36% of them did not have a clear understanding of what graduate studies would involve. This caught Professor Payne’s attention. She realized that if recruitment and accurate exposure was limited, then as a school, Graduate schools can’t recruit from a full talent pool.

Having discovered this barrier, Professor Payne uses her role in undergraduate students' lives to accurately inform them of the opportunities available.

As a result, (prior to the pandemic) Professor Payne would invite grad students to present short presentations about grad school to her third-year water and wastewater class. She would ask the grad students to do a 5-minute presentation about their research and how it relates to the theory in the class. Finishing by leading a 1-minute discussion on life as a grad student. She finds that the presentations are more authentic, and she can see the lightbulb go off in certain undergrad students’ minds. Many students were shocked to learn that you would get paid to do research! Through one-on-one conversations with students, she also helps students understand what exactly their life could be if they were to pursue graduate studies.

To achieve diverse student populations within both undergraduate and graduate classes, Professor Payne believes that early engagement is critical, even earlier than teenage years. A strong foundation in the early years ensures that girls are aware that engineering and STEM is an option. This begins by encouraging curiosity, supporting big dreams, and giving girls a strong and broad academic foundation. It is important for young women as future engineers to create opportunities to showcase visible role models, provide mentorship, and enable personal interaction to give kids a hands-on experience.

When speaking with Professor Payne, it was clear to see that she is passionate and truly strives to help students discover if graduate studies are suitable for them. She hopes to see an increase in diversity and inclusion within the graduate school, as a result of diverse and broad exposure.

Pictured left:

Prof. Payne examining DNA from drinking water biofilms to examine the impacts of corrosion inhibitors and metals (lead and copper) on bacteria community diversity.

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