By Emma Harrison and the CIC Energy Division

April 2022

I had the pleasure of talking with Marianna Trujillo, Program Lead for the Renewable Liquid Fuels team at Suncor, to learn about her professional journey. From undergrad, through grad school, and into her current position, Marianna’s story provides practical advice for students and recent grads, while also serving as inspiration for anyone seeking to launch a new career.

Undergrad – Follow your Passions and Interests

Marianna completed both a BSc in Chemistry and MSc in Chemical Engineering at the University of Calgary. Initially she began her undergraduate studies in a general engineering program, however, upon completing her first semester she paused to consider whether engineering truly aligned with her career goals. Faced with uncertainty, she turned to her mentors, one a Chemical Engineer with a passion for Chemistry, and two others, Chemists with knowledge and expertise in Engineering. They advised her to follow her passions and interests. With this advice in mind, Marianna ultimately decided to pursue a BSc in Chemistry, complemented by summer internships with an Engineering Research Group. Reflecting back, Marianna feels that she made the right decision choosing Chemistry as a stepping-stone to her career aspirations. In her Chemistry program she developed close friendships and built a supportive peer network – Marianna considers her peers as key contributors to her academic success.

After completing her BSc in Chemistry, Marianna was once again at a crossroads. Most of her classmates were pursuing positions in different industries that she felt no personal connection with. Reflecting once again on her career aspirations, Marianna realized that she had developed a keen interest in research and innovation, particularly clean energy technology solutions, and decided to pursue graduate studies in this area.

Grad School – Skills Can Be Taught, Passion Cannot

During her undergrad, Marianna conducted research in an engineering lab which facilitated her transition to this same lab as a graduate student. At the time, her Principal Investigator was searching for a graduate student to take on an industry project related to waste-derived bio-oil. Although Marianna did not have a formal engineering background, she embraced the challenge and took advantage of the unique perspective provided by her background in Chemistry. Her mentor and supervisor also supported her interests and believed in her abilities. His advice left a lasting impression; he emphasized that while skills could be taught, passion could not.

Through hard work and dedication, and with the support of her supervisor, Marianna mastered the engineering concepts required to execute her thesis project. This experience provided her with opportunities to learn about engineering processes and design, while continuing to apply the knowledge from her Chemistry degree. Marianna looked at a catalytic upgrading process for ligno-cellulosic derived bio-oil. She applied her Chemistry knowledge and Engineering training to investigate a pioneer process design to upgrade biomass-derived crude oil into a petroleum equivalent and also helped to design and operate a bench-scale pilot plant. All valuable experiences that she would soon leverage in her early career.

Making the transition to industry – Take a Chance and Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone

After completing her master’s, Marianna turned her attention to her next goal; pursuing a career in the energy industry. As a new grad, landing your first job can be a daunting and difficult task. Marianna recognized the magnitude of this challenge but emphasized that staying true to her career aspirations and passion for clean energy and technology, as well as networking with professionals in this field, were pivotal in breaking into the industry.

At the time, biofuels-related technology and innovation roles required multiple years of industry experience. Although Marianna did not have this experience per se, she was confident in her drive, passion, and her willingness to learn. She took a chance in applying for that “dream job” and was awarded the opportunity to interview for the position. She knew it was a long shot, but she approached the opportunity with the mindset that she would try her best and learn from the experience.

The interview was challenging, but she was prepared and focused on explaining the relevance of the experience she had and how it would support her success in the role. Impressed by her passion and determination, Marianna was selected for the position. Four years later, Marianna continues to thrive in this position.

Through networking, being willing to step outside of her comfort zone, and putting her best foot forward, Marianna succeeded in breaking into the energy industry and landing her dream job.

Final reflection – Passion and Happiness are the Key to Success

During our conversation, Marianna shared several insightful recommendations to inspire students, graduates, and early-career workers. The advice she emphasized most was to pursue what you’re most passionate about. Being enthusiastic, and showing that enthusiasm, will help you develop strong connections within your network and with potential employers. She also emphasized the importance of expanding your network and seeking new opportunities — even if it feels uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to extend an invitation for coffee or to ask others for their help and guidance. Most people are willing to help if you take the time to ask.

While building a general network is important, Marianna also suggests connecting deeply with one person; someone that both inspires you and is in a role that you aspire to. Find a mentor that you can build a friendship with. Someone with whom you can comfortably have open, honest discussions about the day-to-day, managing your work-life balance, and dealing with difficult situations. A meaningful relationship can provide invaluable support, especially when navigating uncertainty early in your career.

As for those seeking to break into the energy industry, Marianna believes there will be a growing number of opportunities in renewable energy and technology development, particularly as energy companies seek to contribute to a low-carbon economy and invest in sustainable energy solutions. The development of these solutions will require innovative, creative, and young professionals.

While there are many directions and technologies to pursue, Marianna stressed the importance of taking time to reflect on your career aspirations and personal values. Find an organization that provides the best match for you and one that will support the growth and development you’re seeking. Consider your definition of success and whether the organization will help you achieve it. Finally, remember that happiness also plays an integral part in your success. Always ensure that the positions and opportunities you pursue support your happiness, as this holds the greatest importance of all.