SWE Ambassador Spotlight: Karen Chan – From Aspiring Astronaut to Engineer

How Karen Chan's dream of colonizing Mars led her to pioneer the Society of Women Engineers' entrance into Canada as a SWE Ambassador.
SWE Ambassador Spotlight: Karen Chan – From Aspiring Astronaut to Engineer


SWE Ambassador Spotlight: Karen Chan – From Aspiring Astronaut to Engineer
Karen Chan

Most kids growing up would say they want to be an astronaut and travel to space. SWE Canada Ambassador Karen Chan wanted to take that dream one step further and be part of an initiative to colonize territories – like Mars – in space.

Chan’s first step for her journey to space was when she was 17 and got an opportunity to attend the Canada 125 Young Space Ambassadors program. During her five days learning about space, she heard from Canadian astronaut and engineer Julie Payette.

“I told her I wanted to be a space colonist one day and that I wanted to study architecture so I could build structures,” explained Chan. “She told me that to achieve my dream within the Canadian space program, I needed to speak French and have a science degree, and that architecture didn’t count. The closest thing to that was engineering….so I went into engineering because I wanted to be an astronaut.”

Chan started at the University of Western Ontario (later renamed to Western University). There, she majored in mechanical engineering by default because none of the other courses sounded intriguing. While studying mechanical engineering, she took an English literature class as an elective. She realized that English literature was a different way to apply critical thinking and really enjoyed it, so she delayed graduating by a year to finish her degree double majoring in mechanical engineering and English.

After graduating from university, Chan had a very important decision to make about her dream of going into space.

“When I graduated university, I was at a crossroads,” said Chan. "I had completed five years of school and had two degrees. My original dream was to become an astronaut. Most astronauts took two career paths to ultimately achieve that dream – staying in school to perform cutting edge research or going into the military and becoming pilots."

Chan ultimately decided that she didn’t want to be an astronaut badly enough to take either of these routes.

So, she started off her career as a sales and application engineer, selling automated manufacturing equipment at an engineering group for two years. She then went to General Motors of Canada starting in the manufacturing plants, then getting promoted to design and senior project engineer.

Chan worked at GMCL for 10 years before moving on to various other roles, including media, consulting, and coaching. Chan attributes her ability to perform sales and communications roles to her English major which taught her how to present herself professionally, carry out written and oral presentations, and build proposals and case studies. Chan is currently a Managing Agile Coach at TD in Toronto, Canada.

In 2004, Chan heard about SWE. GM, a major supporter and sponsor of SWE, asked Chan to be a delegate for GM Canada at the SWE national conference in Milwaukee. Without any prior research, Chan headed to SWE’s annual conference.

“I was blown away by the scale of the conference and how organized it was,” said Chan. “I was coming from Canada where the number of engineers is smaller than in the U.S.; and even smaller for women, specifically, in engineering.”

When she returned home, she wanted to become part of SWE, but the organization was just starting to expand internationally so it didn’t make sense to join as an official member. So, Chan joined the board of directors for Professional Engineers of Ontario Lake Ontario Chapter (PEO). She was then recruited to the BOD for the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE). While being elected by her peers to be the Vice Chair, and subsequent Chair and President, of OSPE, SWE reached out to OSPE about hosting a brunch with Chan as a guest panelist. This sparked her interest again in SWE, and she started investigating what it would take to be a member, and ultimately, an Ambassador or Affiliate.

As an Ambassador of SWE, Chan’s goal is to introduce SWE to Canada as a relevant and valuable partner organization. There are approximately 1,700 engineering associations across Ontario and Canada. As an organization based in the U.S., it would be hard for SWE to compete with that saturation. But, as a partner, SWE can find synergies with existing Canadian organizations and supplement their offerings.

In particular, Chan finds SWE’s professional development opportunities to be very unique for women engineers, including access to webinars and content.

“People are hungry for this content,” said Chan. “Many people don’t know what engineering is, and even if you’re in school studying engineering, it can be hard to understand. There’s so many different types of engineering out there. Access to content that can educate is so valuable.”

Chan is currently focused on growing awareness of SWE and partnerships with similar organizations. As an Ambassador, and as the Founder of the SWE Durham Affiliate, she has worked with local universities in the area doing volunteer work and discovering where SWE Affiliates could be valuable within schools.

“What I enjoy most about SWE is it brings a different perspective about women in engineering,” said Chan. “For SWE to look at things at a broader, more international level, I’ve really enjoyed that.”

While Chan isn’t colonizing Mars today as she anticipated back in high school, she is working hard to help bring SWE awareness to Canada and starting her own colony of women of engineers there.

For more information about becoming a SWE Global Ambassador or Affiliate, visit swe.org/international-member.