Sept/Oct 2010

Women in Mining

Up to the challenge: Syncrude’s Kim Farwell takes on new role

By Heather Ednie

Kim FarwellSyncrude’s Kim Farwell likes a challenge. Currently an advisor with the company’s Organizational Effectiveness Team, she says her primary motivation is derived from surmounting the hurdles she faces on the job. “Oil sands isn’t a broad industry, so we do a lot of troubleshooting ourselves and with experts from other organizations, such as the University of Alberta and the Alberta Research Council,” she explains. “We also do a lot of grassroots engineering. I’ve stayed here because the challenge never stops.”

Soaking it all up

Farwell’s search for a stimulating career is what brought her west to Syncrude Canada Ltd. Since joining the company 15 years ago as a chemical engineering co-op student from the University of Waterloo, Farwell has benefited from many opportunities, including working on projects and in operations, research and management.

Although she has gained experience in many aspects of oil sands mining and extraction, Farwell has chosen to spend the better part of her career in the extraction plant. There, she works closely with the mining and geology departments, focusing on how to blend ore and control the mine plan. She has also been the technical leader of the tailings and hydroprocessing areas, giving her a broad understanding of the overall operation.

One of the key challenges she enjoys tackling is her role in the extraction plant’s role as the link between the mine operation and processing; however, the two have very different time horizons. “In processing, you talk in minutes and days, while in the mine and tailings planning process, minutes are weeks and days are years,” she says. “The two have very different philosophies that need to be combined to be successful. In the extraction plant, we’re the meat in the sandwich between the two, acting as a buffer. It leads to some very unique moments.”

Playing a leading role

This past June, Farwell became the 91st president of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA), and, with Syncrude’s support, she dedicates 50 per cent of her time to the one-year term. As president, she heads the Council and works on projects and events, while adjusting her schedule to accommodate a number of speaking opportunities.

As a regulatory body, APEGGA is at arm’s length from the government and helps maintain a strong worldwide reputation for the professions it represents. However, the organization is struggling in terms of its communications and, as such, Farwell has made improving communications with members a priority for the coming year. “As a regulatory organization, we need to focus on how to communicate our role to our members,” she says. “Some members may not see how we support them — it takes communications; we need to explain why we’re here.”

Passing of the torch

In her youth, Farwell thought it would have been fun to have taken part in the gold rush. “Well, it’s the same level of excitement and challenge here [Fort McMurray, Alberta] — developing the technology, the community,” she laughs. “It’s the modern day boom town.”

It is this sense of excitement and adventure that Farwell wishes to pass on to the next generation entering the industry. Mentorship has played a fundamental role throughout her career. “I had the fortune of having some very good mentors who drew me in at an early stage,” she recalls. “I was invited to get involved in things early on in my career, such as APEGGA, where I joined the local branch and was then asked to run for Council in 2002. It created a lot of contacts.”

Farwell now strives to provide mentorship to young engineers entering the industry. “We all need role models to be able to picture ourselves doing new things,” she adds. “Unfortunately, women in senior management positions are not there in great numbers, so we need to promote women role models and coaches much more to lead the way for the younger women joining industry’s ranks.”

Ready for the next new opportunity

This year, APEGGA is demanding most of Farwell’s time, and while the challenge is greatly rewarding, she is looking forward to next year when she will be back full time at Syncrude. What else will fill her schedule remains to be seen.

“At each turn in your career path, new opportunities to get involved in different ways present themselves,” she explains. “Life is all about choices, and you choose how you respond. I enjoy change — it’s exciting. New opportunities will be opened to me that weren’t there before this year — we’ll see what they look like.”

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