Ask Cara Baergen what an average workday looks like for her, and she replies that there is no such thing as “average” these days.

Day-to-day operations have yet to start at the advanced energy research facility where Baergen works as a process engi-neer. Once it is up and running, the facility—owned by the City of Edmonton and the clean technology company Enerkem—will produce biofuels and chemicals from waste.

“Some days I’m out in the plant checking things or planning for start-up—working on plans, tracking where construction is at,” explains Baergen, 29, who started at Enerkem a year ago. “Eventually, I will be a part of the operations team, involved in the day-to-day running of the facility.”

It’s an exciting project, Baergen adds, because Enerkem is working to complement Edmonton’s current waste management practices by converting non-recyclable and non-compostable waste materials, which would otherwise be sent to a landfill, into renewable fuels and chemicals. Ultimately, Enerkem will help increase Edmonton’s waste diversion rate from 60 percent to 90 percent.

The City of Edmonton has agreed to supply Enerkem with 100,000 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste per year, after recycling and composting. Using thermochemical technology, Enerkem’s Edmonton facility will convert that solid waste into 38 million litres of methanol, ethanol and other chemical intermediates that form everyday products.

“I think that each of us has certain gifts that God gives us, and it’s our responsibility to use them to try to make the world a better place,” Baergen says, adding that she, like many Mennonites, is concerned with creation care. “This is a cool opportunity to use my engineering skills to be part of something practical that makes a difference.”

Founded in 2000 and headquartered in Montreal, Enerkem employs more than 150 people and is developing facilities in Varennes, Que., and Pontotoc, Miss., as well.

“The goal for us is that this [Edmonton location] will be the first of many facilities in Canada and the world,” she says.

But Baergen wasn’t always so sure engineering was her best career choice. She grew up at First Mennonite Church in Edmonton, where she is still active today as a member of the Worship Committee and the choir. In high school, as she considered her options, she wondered if going to Bible college or pursuing a career in a helping profession might be the best thing to do.

Ultimately, she decided that, since her gifts lay in mathematics and science, pursuing a bachelor of science degree at the University of Alberta, focusing on chemical engineering computer process control, would be the best fit for her.

But studying engineering from 2003-09, and focusing on being a good engineer, felt separate from her church life. “[After graduation] I wanted to do something that connected to this other side of who I am, and that which is core to who I am and what I think is really important,” she says. “These two sides of my life—the engi-neering and the faith life—felt off balance. Doing an engineering degree was good, but I wanted to do something different.”

Baergen, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Alberta board member who travelled to Laos and Cambodia in 2008 on a learning tour, applied to the organization’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program and spent 2009-10 in Tanzania.

There, Baergen worked with a local organization in the Tabora region to assess its capacity to run development projects, and to complete a survey of water and environmental issues. She also coordinated a spring protection project and assisted with the development of a five-year plan for water projects in the Mara region.

Baergen describes her time in Tanzania as difficult. She has always believed in the development work that MCC does, but her SALT experience showed her how messy that work can be. “It doesn’t always go the way you want it to, even with the best intentions,” she says.

At the same time, Baergen describes her time with SALT as a growing experience, during which she learned to see God, herself and others in new ways. It also helped her stop idealizing some of the jobs she initially thought of as “good, Christian jobs,” like development worker, pastor or teacher.

She realized that the two sides of herself that she struggled to connect while in university—her life as a Christian and her life as an engineer—weren’t so separate after all.

“You can be a presence wherever you are, whether it’s in Tanzania, working with the people there, or working in an oil sands company and being a presence among them, or working at a green technology company,” she says.

“It’s about being a light wherever you are in a way that makes sense.”

--Posted March 26, 2014