Jan. 30, 2019

Schulich alum sleuths out a career in forensic engineering

Unusual specialty ‘not really a single discipline, it’s a way of thinking,’ says Julia Bassett

Because of her job, people tend to ask Julia Bassett, BSc(Eng)’16, if her work is like what they see on the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

“I get that a lot,” says the UCalgary Schulich School of Engineering grad. Bassett works in forensic engineering for the engineering and consulting firm Jensen Hughes. She specializes in fire origin, cause and determination as well as vehicle collision reconstruction. Right now, she shadows and trains under various engineers and splits her time between field investigations and developing test protocols for lab experiments.

“The engineering specialty comes into play when you are trying to find out what is the cause of a fire. It could be a mechanical failure, or an electrical failure or a chemical process — literally anything can cause a fire — it’s not really a single discipline, it’s a way of thinking,” says the Nova Scotia-born, Calgary-raised Bassett.

“It’s bringing together your entire degree and everything you have learned, so it’s really versatile in that regard.”

One night, early on in her engineering studies, Bassett was watching the TV show NCIS with her father. A scene featuring Abby Sciuto, the forensic scientist character, grabbed her attention. “I made a comment saying, ‘I wish engineers could do something like that.’ I thought it was specifically a science field.”

Schulich School of Engineering graduate Julia Bassett

Julia Bassett wants to continue building her expertise in fire, as well as collision reconstruction

Photo courtesy Julia Bassett

Her dad, who used to work in the insurance industry, replied, “I know a guy that does fire forensics. I will introduce you to him.” Bassett ended up getting hired as a summer student and learned about fire origin and cause. “I kind of fell in love with it and I was like ‘This is what I am going to do when I graduate.’”

Bassett continued her mechanical engineering studies and added a 16-month pipeline integrity internship with TransCanada to her resume. “I was part of an integrity management team that was called to remediate, to make the engineering decisions,” she says. After graduating, a former upper-year Schulich friend looped her in about a job as a consulting analyst at Accenture, where she worked on a wireless network for an oilsands plant for almost a year. “I loved the job and I loved the people,” she says.

Still, Bassett kept in touch with her mentors in forensic engineering and when she found out there was a job opening at Jensen Hughes, she applied and landed the job. “This is where I saw myself and it all just fell together,” she says.

Fire investigators tend to be mostly men, says Bassett. “There aren’t a lot of women in this field, so it’s really cool to be a part of this and show that I have great quality of work and great communication with my clients.” Bassett wants to continue building her expertise in fire, as well as collision reconstruction and the human factors involved in that. Her goal is to become an expert witness in both fields. “I would like to testify in court,” she says.