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Having it all: Q&A with Serena Silliker, process engineer at Lake Utopia Paper


Serena Silliker, process engineer, Lake Utopia PaperSerena Silliker, process engineer, Lake Utopia Paper

Who: Serena Silliker
Role: Process engineer
Employer: Lake Utopia Paper, JD Irving
Lives in: Saint John, NB
Years in industry: 9

A career in pulp and paper means exciting opportunities both on the job and off, says Serena Silliker, process engineer at J.D. Irving’, Limited’s Lake Utopia Paper. Silliker spends her days using her engineering and chemistry background to troubleshoot issues, drawing on the knowledge of her peers to succeed. And when she’s not at work, she’s fully immersed in life with her husband and two children.

Pulp & Paper Canada: What department are you working in as a process engineer?

Serena Silliker: I’m a process engineer for the effluent treatment system and the paper machine at Lake Utopia Paper. My day starts by reviewing the areas that I’m involved in, making sure there’s no red flags or things that have gone unnoticed. Then, I would typically work on the projects in my areas centred around process improvement.

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I also make sure I get out on the floor to talk with the operators and see the process. Every day is different. Some days you can be on the floor a lot, troubleshooting something that pops up the night before or other times it’s managing my projects that are more long term.

PPC: What is your favourite thing about working at Lake Utopia?

SS: I enjoy the variety. Sometimes, you have a plan for your workday but you walk into something completely different. It’s always exciting to troubleshoot issues, analyze trends and make correlations. This role gives you the right amount of variety in a fast-paced, changing environment.

PPC: Have you delved into any new technologies for that data analysis?

SS: All of our process parameters and control systems are pulled into PARCview [software for real-time plant analysis]. I use the PARCview tools to look at different aspects in the mill. The process changes of one department could cause issues in another department.

PPC: What’s an example of a project you’ve worked on that you’re really proud of?

SS: There’s been a couple that stand out. We had some issues around the winder producing a good quality roll. It required looking into the theoretical background and challenging beliefs about what the issue could be. At the end of the day, it was a relatively straightforward solution that we were able to validate with lab testing.

I’ve also been working on a project around optimizing our paper machine chemicals. I am leading a team of people from different departments and we’ve been able to reduce our chemical consumption by implementing a new control program and upgrading the pumps and flow meters. That project is a good example of how managing a team of people from diverse backgrounds can help drive a project forward.

PPC: What keeps you interested and engaged about the industry?

SS: The idea that nothing is ever fixed. There’s always new technology, new products, new things you could be making. I used to work in dissolving pulp that would be turned into rayon fabric, and now I’m making corrugated medium, driving towards the strongest, lightest sheet possible. The industry is very fluid and it’s exciting to see what new things happen and what technological advances develop.

There’s always new technology, new products, new things you could be making.

PPC: How did you get interested in the industry?

SS: In all honesty, I went to university for chemistry and I thought I was going to go into a healthcare field, but in my fourth year, I decided to transition to engineering. I did a master’s in engineering, focusing on water treatment. Then I got my first job, and it happened to be at a pulp mill. There were some quality concerns that were driven by the water treatment system, so I got my feet wet, using what I learned in school.

Then, I moved into the bleaching department, which is where I realized that pulp and paper was for me. I was able to use my chemistry background and apply it in engineering.

PPC: What about the industry challenged you when you were first starting out?

SS: Some of the challenges I was not aware of when leaving university was ensuring the focus was on the people side of things. Sometimes, as a junior engineer, you come fresh out of school and you’ve got all this book knowledge, but you have to apply it in the right way. If you just go into a control room and try to implement a change without knowing the past history or running it by experienced operators, you’re not going to have very much traction.

Pulp and paper is very fast paced, and it can be easy to overlook that critical part of any project. Getting feedback and buy in from the people that run the process is very important.

PPC: Is that still a challenge to this day? Or do you have other challenges?

SS: I would say that’s something that I keep in the back of my mind – ensuring I’ve investigated the change management side of things.

Another obstacle I have overcome is balancing both of my departments. Sometimes, best practices in effluent treatment can cause difficulties on the paper machine, and vice versa. Balancing the impacts of one department on the other and making sure the needs of both are met in terms of safety, environment and quality is my current focus.

PPC: You’ve been in the industry for about a decade. How has it changed?

SS: I’ve seen a lot more women in engineering, for sure. When I started out, there were only a couple of us. But now, in my department there are more women than men. We actually had a co-op group come from a nearby university and seven out of eight group members were women. I don’t know if I would have seen that 10 years ago.

The pulp and paper industry is very flexible. There are a lot of opportunities, and you can make it work with having a working family, too.

PPC: How have you seen the environment change for females working in the industry?

SS: When I entered the industry, most of the women I met were in supporting roles. Over the past few years, I have noticed an increase in the number women in leadership positions. It’s inspiring to see female technical managers and superintendents.

PPC: What would you tell a young female who is considering a career in pulp and paper?

SS: I’d tell them, you can have it all. The pulp and paper industry is very flexible. There are a lot of opportunities, and you can make it work with having a working family, too. At the end of the day, I have a great job that I’m passionate about that also allows me to balance my family responsibilities with my career aspirations. I’m not sure how many other industries can offer a career with exciting opportunities, all the while being able to raise a young family close to home.

J.D. Irving, Limited [Lake Utopia Paper] is an excellent company to work for. I have been given a lot of opportunities, and exposure to different processes. I’ve seen other co-workers who have transitioned from different roles into the pulp division and there has been so much support. It’s comforting to know that the company is going to support you wherever your career path takes you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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This post is part of CFIPulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry project celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry as well as #IWD2020 and #EachforEqual.