Civil engineering student turns perfect grades into prime opportunities

Joel Carlson made no secret of the fact that he was working hard while studying civil engineering at the University of Alberta; what he did keep under wraps was the fact that he earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average.

He planned to surprise his family when he was presented with the Governor General’s Silver Medal and an $11,000 Right Honourable C. D. Howe Memorial Fellowship during the June 7 convocation ceremony.

“I hope they’ll be pleasantly surprised,” he said, prior to the ceremony. “I was just trying to do my best.”

Interestingly, neither award was a goal: Carlson simply set out to do his very best. And if there is any evidence needed to support the adage that you get out of something what you put into it, consider this as well: later this year Carlson begins graduate studies in transportation engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Taking a strategic approach to his studies, Carlson recopied old notes and communicated with professors to keep on top of course material throughout the entire term, making a point of avoiding any panicked, last-minute study sessions.

“In my first year, I was just trying to do my best to keep up with the course material.  As I grew more experienced and learned what study habits worked best for me, I was able to better understand what effort was required to do well in my courses.”

Having good friends to work and study with kept him going. “There were many times during a semester when I found it difficult to stay motivated,” he said. “They helped make those moments much more enjoyable.”

Born to a family of carpenters, mechanics and engineers, Carlson admits that it was an easy, natural choice to study engineering. The draw, aside from an outlet for his abilities in math and science, is the ability for engineers to provide visible, tangible benefits. “There’s definitely an appeal in working on projects that can benefit society as a whole,” he said.

While working through his first year of engineering at the University of Alberta’s French-language Faculty, Campus Saint-Jean, Carlson took his time considering which discipline to follow. “I really thought I wanted to be a structural engineer—I still quite enjoy it,” said Carlson. “But, it was the interdisciplinary element of transportation engineering… when you first think of civil engineering, you think of buildings and bridges, but there’s so much more to it.”

Carlson’s co-op placements with the Prince Rupert Port Authority, Stantec and CN were the main draw into the transportation engineering field, while the growing University of Alberta transportation faculty members provided guidance and insight into the community of transportation engineers.

“Transportation is a pretty interesting topic; it’s a good mix which involves engineering but is very interdisciplinary. I think that’s what appeals to me in the end. It brings so many skill sets and different perspectives together into planning a project.”

While looking for graduate programs, Joel read the guidebooks and did research, but it was meeting in person that had the most influence on his decision. Carlson met with several professors from MIT who were happy to discuss their projects. Their insight motivated him, not to mention the current efforts which include high level research into major subway extensions and high-speed rail projects around the world.  In the fall, he will step into MIT’s two-year Master of Science in Transportation, with a focus on rail and transit operations.

“MIT has a very strong basis in coursework, but it was the projects that ultimately appealed to me to go there,” he said. “It certainly crossed my mind to stay here, but I made a choice based on the people there and what I could be working on.”

Carlson notes that building a career in academia is a consideration, but it’s not in the plans at the moment. “At least in the short term, I’d like to go back into industry and operations positions with a rail or transit agency,” he said. “Ideally, it would be an organization that doesn’t consult but instead operates the system. A group that can try new things and see what fits to make it better.”

While Carlson makes the transition to Massachusetts and the level of collaboration that graduate study offers, he’ll be leaving the University of Alberta with no regrets. “The course work and quality of the program here was excellent. I’m embarking on something a bit different from where I started. The foundation I have here will help me succeed anywhere else I go.”

“I don’t think I could be enthusiastic enough. Engineering has been a great program. I really like my friends, I’ve enjoyed my teams. It’s a great program for meeting people. With group work and everything else, you don’t ever really feel like you’re in this alone. Somebody’s always helping you along one way or another.”