Lucas McCartney completed his PhD in bioresource engineering in 2017, focusing on greenhouse cooling. He currently helps to run Aviculture KDEM Inc., a large commercial poultry farm, and consults for engineering and research projects.
Q: My first question is what made you interested in starting a PhD in bioresource engineering at McGill?
I did my undergrad in bioresource engineering at McGill, but graduate studies was not part of the plan at that time; I hadn’t ever been exposed to the idea of doing graduate studies. Then, through some friends, I got involved in some research projects working in labs at Macdonald campus, which led to more labs and projects, and at the end of my undergrad, one had gotten a bit of funding. So my undergraduate years on the project turned into a Master’s degree, and then evolved into a PhD.
Q: So that funding helped with financial support—did you have any other sources of support?
The initial funding was enough for a summer project for an initial prototype, and then throughout my Master’s and PhD, I got funding through different sources. Initially, it was through my supervisor, but he was very into letting his students work autonomously, and so he taught me how to apply for my own funding, which was a good learning experience, including the frustrating steps and the satisfaction of getting the funding.
Q: What were other important supports?
Definitely my supervisor and cosupervisor; they both made sure I was accomplishing certain things that might not have seemed as obvious during my PhD, but I realized afterward how important they were. And other colleagues in the department—teachers, students, postdocs, technicians, professors—they all knew little pieces of advice that all added up. Some of them, I still think of today. Macdonald Campus created a very tight-knit community. And I also travelled, spending my summers at the research centre in Barbados, the Bellairs Research Institute, so there were colleagues there that provided advice as well.
Q: So your supervisors were important mentors?
Yes, they were my main mentors. Given that I was new to grad studies, I needed full, in depth knowledge to navigate the intricacies of the Master’s and especially the PhD. My supervisor was good at that, and I was also lucky to have a great cosupervisor who was very different both in personality and methods and research. It’s good to have somebody completely different for different perspectives and ideas.
Like many supervisors, mine pushed for certain things that at the time, as a stressed PhD, you don’t understand why. But as I think back, I’m glad he made so many things seem normal. And there was always really good communication.
Q: Did you have the opportunity to mentor anyone?
Yes, and that’s really important for the PhD process as well. I TAed, and I also got the chance to teach a course, which is where I began to appreciate the preparation and understanding needed to teach a course and mentor students. And during my summers in Barbados, I mentored students who were helping me on the technical side of the project, with building stuff and collecting data and whatnot.
It definitely added work during my PhD, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything; it was really important to show me the other side of mentorship.
Q: What experiences did you have outside of your research during your PhD?
Again, because Macdonald is a smaller and tight-knit community, it helped me to get more involved. I was very involved in the athletics program, like intramural sports, and different groups over the years; there was something for everyone. And even just being able to socialize –I worked at the bar as a DJ, and it was great to have something completely different from grad studies.
Q: What were the biggest challenges during your PhD? What helped you overcome them?
The PhD is a bunch of different challenges mixed to make one big challenge. For me, I collected data in the Caribbean, and sometimes the data wasn’t exactly what I needed, but I learned from it, and returned more prepared the next year.
In my mind at the time, throwing out data or projects I had worked on felt like a waste. But now that I’m done and I think back on those projects, datasets, and papers, they may not have been immediately relevant for my PhD, but they were just as important as my thesis work, because I learned from it.
Q: Can you tell us about your current position? What do you do now?
I work on a large commercial turkey farm—a family business. During my undergrad, I had no intention of pursuing a career in agriculture, but my grad studies ended up being related to greenhouse cooling and ventilation, which I realized was tightly connected to poultry farming, which also require ventilation and cooling systems. At some point, I thought that before I pursued postdoc or more academic work, I have to go explore the possibility of being involved in the family business, and that’s where I am now. Once I finished my PhD, I worked briefly in the lab that I did my PhD in, which then transitioned to working at the family business. Because it’s a family business, it’s kind of like working for yourself, and it allows me to also remain somewhat connected to the academic and consulting worlds.
I still work on engineering jobs with different greenhouse projects and also on related work with my PhD supervisor. It’s a happy medium between industry and research. I’m a few years into working with the family business, and I’ve realized how tightly connected my PhD experience and my current position are.
Q: The last question is a big one: if you could go back to the first day of your PhD and give yourself advice, what would it be?
I would say, definitely enjoy it. I really enjoyed my time in grad school, but I’m an anxious person, so I was often stressed during my PhD. So I would tell myself to explore any opportunities and to cherish those experiences, since the next thing you know, you’re done. Enjoy those years, even if it is difficult and challenging.
Many thanks to Lucas for sharing his narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn and see more about Lucas’ technical work here.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.