Mary Wells: Leadership Through Service

Mary Wells | Dean of Engineering | University of Waterloo

Waterloo Engineering at the University of Waterloo is Canada’s largest engineering school, widely recognized as Canada’s premier school of engineering and a pipeline for top engineering talent to the world’s leading companies.

Ranked among the top 50 engineering schools in the world, its reputation for excellence is built on the foundation of co-op education, research intensity, and a bold history of innovation. The stream offers 15 bachelor’s degree programs, including degrees in emerging multidisciplinary areas such as architectural, biomedical, environmental engineering, management engineering, mechatronics, and nanotechnology.

In a discussion with Elite X, Mary Wells the Dean of Engineering expresses her thoughts about this prestigious institution which makes Waterloo a renowned place apart from Napolean Bonaparte and the Battle of Waterloo.

Elite X: It’s a pleasure to interact with you, Mary. Can you please tell us something about yourself that we are not aware of?

Mary Wells:  Certainly! I initiated my academic career as a professor in materials engineering at the University of British Columbia from 1996 to 2007, and I have worked in the steel industry in Canada and internationally.

I am the ninth dean since the University of Waterloo and Faculty was founded in 1957. From 2017-2020, I served as Dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Guelph. Before my time in Guelph, I was a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Waterloo for 10 years. I received awards for graduate supervision from both the Faculty and the University in 2017. As an accomplished materials engineer, I have served as the Associate Dean of Outreach for Waterloo Engineering between 2008 and 2017 and chaired its Women in Engineering committee for many years. I also chaired the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering from 2013 to 2018.

The co-author of two books including one on Canadian women innovators and the second on Canadian women in materials, her research focuses on the relationship between processing, structure, and properties for advanced metallic alloys used in the transportation sector.

EX:  What makes your institution stand among other institutions in the world offering the same courses?

MW: When local entrepreneurs established the University of Waterloo in 1957, with Engineering as the founding faculty, they approached the task from a business perspective, knowing creativity and innovation were the keys to problem-solving. Co-op education, as we now know it, was born.

All the undergraduate programs are 100% co-op, and more than 7,600 co-op positions are arranged for students annually. Each year, we graduate the largest number of engineers at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in Canada.

Accolades Won by Mary Wells:

– Served as the Associate Dean of Outreach for Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering from 2008 to 2017

– Chaired its Women in Engineering committee for many years, and was involved in numerous outreach programs for children, women, parents, and teachers.

– Became Chair of the Ontario Network for Women in Engineering (ONWiE) which included coordinating activities related to women in engineering for all the engineering Schools and Faculties of Applied Science in Ontario.

– Bestowed with the Faculty of Engineering and the University of Waterloo award of excellence in graduate supervision. 

– Mary Wells’ outreach activities earned her a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada Award for Science Promotion and a prestigious National award for Support of Women in the Engineering Profession Award from Engineers Canada.

– Served as the president of the Metallurgy and Materials Society of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM), and the co-author of two books on women in mining published by CIM: Women of Impact and Women of Innovation.

EX: According to statistics only 28.4% of women choose a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering Mathematics). What motivated you to choose a STEM career?

MW:   I am the eldest of four children and grew up in Montreal, Quebec. Tragically my father passed away when I was 13 years old in a traffic accident. I witnessed the resiliency my mother displayed as she became a single parent of four small children. I think this helped me to develop empathy and compassion for others as a leader knowing sometimes bad things happen in life and you need to find a way to move forward in life with pragmatic optimism, grit, and grace.

After high school, I decided to study materials engineering at McGill University for several reasons one of which I was good at math and science but also the practical side of engineering appealed to me. I also liked the fact that as engineering students we could try out an engineering job via a summer or co-op job. This made the decision less risky for me as I did not know much about what engineers did. 

I graduated from McGill in 1987 and then started a position at a steel company in Hamilton Ontario – Stelco. As a young engineer in the steel industry, I was hired by Stelco to work in their R&D facility. I was assigned to be the R&D connection for the rod and bar division to help them improve quality. I enjoyed the challenge of working in operations and quickly realized that one of the keys to gaining respect and credibility and getting my job done was to regularly spend time in operations and be seen by the plant managers and people on the floor running the plant. I used these times to speak to them and learn from them about what products they ran and the challenges they faced. I also explained what I was trying to do and how it fits into the overall vision for their plant.

This time paid off well as when I wanted to run a plant trial they were willing, able, and even keen to run one and see the results. This led to some early successes. In one case after a very successful trial, I sent a thank you note to the plant manager and my boss was so impressed he used this as an example of how we could develop some better relationships and connections with our plant colleagues.

EX: But why a shift from the corporate field to academia?

MW: When I studied engineering there were only 13% women studying engineering so although I never viewed myself in this way I dared to make an unusual choice and stick with it. This lack of women meant that I stood out in any subsequent job I took as an engineer.

After four years of working as an engineer in the steel industry, I felt bored and decided I needed a change, a challenge in my life. As I pondered what to do, serendipity played a role and I had an opportunity to meet two of the leading Canadian researchers in materials engineering from UBC. Professors Keith Brimacombe who went on to be the founding CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Indira Samarasekera who went on to be the president of the University of Alberta.

After meeting them and being inspired by their research, I decided to return to University and earn a Ph.D. in materials engineering under their supervision. Both of these people left a permanent mark on me including my love of research, what research excellence meant, and the importance of balancing the advancement of fundamental scientific knowledge against the application of our knowledge to advance our industries and create economic wealth.

As a Ph.D. student, I enjoyed thinking about ideas and how to solve them but as a Teaching Assistant, I loved working with the students. I realized I had finally found a career path that satisfied me both intellectually but also emotionally. I was hooked!

After completing my Ph.D. I was fortunate to get a position as an Assistant Professor at UBC and this was the start of my academic career which I have now pursued for over 20 years in a variety of roles and at different Universities.

EX: How has the journey been so far?

MW: The most recent opportunity I have had as an academic was to become a Dean at the University of Waterloo which I feel very proud to be today. I think this is the first career lesson I ever learned – To feel satisfied – I needed to feel like I was doing great work and to do great work I needed to feel it was important and that I could make a difference and needed to engage my whole self in it. As Albert Einstein once said “Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason, mastery commands all of a person”

Being an academic and Professor is an incredibly rewarding career. You have flexibility over your time, can pursue (to a certain extent) the questions and problems you find interesting, and have the privilege of helping to educate the next generation of students. In some ways, you see the best of the world and the impact you make is on the people you inspire, teach and interact with along the way. It is both an honor and a huge responsibility that professors have in their roles.

I never saw myself as a leader but it was mentors around me that nudged my towards leadership seeing in me something I probably did not see in myself. When I took my first leadership role I loved it and excelled at it. I recognized that to become good at something you need to be passionate about it and believe in it.  

Lessons learned – the importance of communication and developing relationships with people you work with; the importance of respecting people no matter what their titles or job functions are.

I view my relationship with the engineering profession as an arranged marriage in that I did not know much about it when I first decided to study it but I have grown to understand it and love it deeply over many years.

-Mary Wells Dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo

EX: Engineering is believed to be a male-dominated field and continues to do so. How did you overcome this most commonly endorsed gender stereotype?

MW: I have encountered barriers along the way as a woman in engineering in a discipline dominated by men and I will highlight some things that I have learned that helped to guide me in this journey.

From my earliest days as a young engineer working in a steel plant where I had to earn the respect of the men working on the plant floor as a shy and introverted person at the start of my academic career. I had to learn how to be heard especially in male-dominated spaces. This was a challenge for me. But I managed to find a way to do it that suited me.  On the plant floor, many men questioned why I was there and if I belonged. In these moments, I tried to see things from their perspective – they were not used to seeing women working in this environment, and perhaps how they felt was not directed at me specifically but more reflected the newness of the experience for them – with this in mind I found ways to adapt and cope. I let me work speak for itself and over time I earned their respect and trust.

I will give you one example – one of the managers kept referring to me as dear whenever he spoke to me whereas he never did this for the other male engineers. I did not like that he was treating me differently and making me stand out as being different. Although it bothered me, I did not want him to feel like I was overreacting so I decided that when he called me Dear I would think of it as a DEER as in the animal. The next time he said this to me I replied “OK Moose”. He quickly got the message and soon he stopped calling me DEAR but everyone else continued to call him Moose. The lesson I learned from these experiences is the importance of being able to see a situation from different perspectives.

– Mary Wells Dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo

EX: Being a dean is a quite challenging role as a leader. According to you what are the qualities required?

MW: Becoming a leader is a process of internal self-discovery.  It is a process of clarifying your values, integrity and self-awareness.  Leaders need to have courage and it order to do this you need to be authentic and display vulnerability at moments in time; understanding where you hold yourself small (and take the blame for an issue if necessary), and where you stand tall (and recognize the team that helped you reach a milestone or achievement).

To grow as a leader it is important to first define your values.  Your values are your foundation for everything.  What do you stand for?  What are your expectations for yourself?  Do you truly act, speak, think, and lead from what you stand for?  If you don’t know this and don’t know how to act from values, how can you possibly set expectations for others and engage them in action?  If you can’t see the potential within yourself, how can you recognize the potential in others?

You become a leader when you begin to understand who you are (not what you like and don’t like, do and don’t do, but WHO you are).  It is a highly personal process, but likely the most important one you’ll ever engage in.

The clarity in your values and in who you are underneath all those habits, responses, and beliefs leads to clarity of action.  Do you regularly step on your values in the decisions you make, the conversations you have, and the actions you take?  Or are you using your values as a guide to ensure that no matter what, you are truly living those values?

Inspiring passion and purpose in others start with believing something in you. Leaders not only need to have integrity, but they must also lead by example. For your team to become passionate about the organizations mission, you must first be inspired and believe in it yourself!  Then, you can encourage your team not just to look at what they did each day, but how they went about it, including the impact (positive or negative) they can have on each student they meet and interact with. This purposeful leadership brings a whole new level of satisfaction, both professionally and personally

Think about those ideas and projects that get you up in the morning – that is passion – what are you looking forward to in the day and feel energized about? Passion is the fuel that drives you to immerse yourself in your work and deliver results. Compassion is what you extend to others; it is the manifestation of caring and concern. Though these two concepts may not get equal time in the discussion of leadership, they are equally important.

As I reflect on my journey to leadership, I would not characterize my journey as a series of events that only involved confronting and overcoming barriers. Instead, I would characterize my journey in a much different way. I would say instead, I have been offered a series of opportunities, many of them extremely challenging.  And in each case, I have learned by trial and error perhaps, to weave together my existing skills, qualities, and experiences and add in new ones. And through inspiration and aspiration, I have found that the result was always something more than I expected. Along the way, I had mentors, many of them men, who believed in me and my skills and helped to show me the way. I owe them a great debt of gratitude.

My passion for educating the future generation of engineering leaders and ensuring our engineering student body represents the diversity of Canada.


Ensuring the profession of engineering is accessible to anyone interested in pursuing it has been my driving force to where I am today

Mary Wells Dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo on what has been the driving force to get her to where she is   today

EX: What steps are you taking to go forward on your leadership journey?

MW: I have an event called coffee and conversation with the Dean every Thursday afternoon and it is a chance for students, faculty, and staff to come by and tell me what is on their minds, what they love about Waterloo Engineering, and the things they find frustrating and wish would change. This helps me stay in touch with my stakeholders and understand and listen to their concerns.

EX: How does a day in the life of the dean look like and how do you manage to strike a balance between your personal and professional life?

MW: Each day I make sure I think about what I want to accomplish but also reminded myself of what motivated me to take on this role and my overarching mission. A work-life balance needs to be met over the long term horizon and may be difficult on some days compared to others. Balancing family, friends, and work at different points in your life can be challenging and the balance may shift in favor of one over the other – this is OK. So I would recommend thinking over longer-term horizons and thinking about it in terms of equilibrium and not balance.   

EX: ‘Women Like You Paved The Way For Women Like Us And For That We Are Grateful’. Who are the women who paved the way for you and how would you pave the way for other women?

MW: My mother, Ursula Franklin, and during my Ph.D. Indira Samarasekera. All of these women displayed both grit and grace as leaders.

I would make the above quote applicable to the other women in the following three ways:

– Believe in yourself and keep honing your craft day by day.

– Taking time to reflect by yourself and in conversation with others allows you to fully analyze all aspects of the situation at hand and make the best call and most strategic call, rather than needlessly rushing into the wrong decision.  Reflection can lead to enhanced creativity and allow you to see things from many different perspectives and connect internal and external opportunities. Seeking input and advice from others can be very powerful in providing these different perspectives and allow you to see connections and opportunities you had not seen previously – stay in the grey zone instead of moving too rapidly to a decision.

– Maintain your sense of humor and keep your perspectives in all situations

Current Projects Undertaken by Mary Wells:

Entrepreneurial Ph.D. Fellowship (University of Waterloo Entrepreneurial Ph.D. Fellowship Applications Open  | Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs | University of Waterloo (– This program supports outstanding, business-minded Waterloo doctoral students who are interested in commercializing their research. Successful fellowship applicants are enrolled in the Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business Master of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology (MBET) part-time program in parallel with completing their doctoral studies.

Canadian Engineering Grand Challenges –Recognizing the critical role that engineers play as technological leaders and stewards, we have identified six Canadian Engineering Grand Challenges to focus the thoughts and actions of our engineering community on the most compelling and critical issues facing Canada and Canadians today and over the next decade. This will also allow us to galvanize our engineering students and faculty to work towards solutions for these critical issues as a way to best contribute as a community to help address the UN SDGs.

IBET Ph.D. project (Home – IBET Ph.D. Project)- The IBET Ph.D. project is intended to foster equitable and inclusive research environments to increase the presence of Indigenous and Black academics in STEM. To rectify this situation, a partnership of Ontario Faculties of Engineering (including McMaster University, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, Queen’s University, University of Waterloo, and Western University) and the University of Waterloo Faculty of Mathematics was created, recognizing that institutions of higher learning need to reduce the systemic barriers that exist for junior Indigenous and Black scholars pursuing doctoral degrees in engineering and STEM programs. Today this pan-Canadian partnership of Universities has expanded to include 15 higher education institutions.