Top 40 Under 40: Rachael L’Orsa: Into the fire

Rachael L'Orsa

I interviewed Rachel L’Orsa while British Columbia was burning, and she was taking a break from jumping into its blazing infernos. I know. How cool is she? But that’s not why she’s one of Avenue’s Top 40 Under 40 for 2014. For the scoop:

Avenue: Top 40 Under 40, Class of 2014 : Rachel L’Orsa

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Rachael L’Orsa: Into the fire

Rachael L’Orsa’s high school math teacher told her she was bad at math and would never amount to anything. If only he could see L’Orsa now.

The no-good math students aced her undergraduate engineering degree at the University of British Columbia, winning virtually every available scholarship along the way, including the coveted Research Fellowship placement at the University of Tokyo, and a graduate scholarship that would enable her to work anywhere in the world. She chose the University of Calgary’s electrical engineering programme—specifically, Project neuroArm, a one-of-a-kind neurosurgical robotics initiative at the Foothills Medical Centre, which will change the way surgeons distance-operate. It also has immense implications for Canada’s space sector and any other industries (think oil and gas) that require maintenance and repair in hazardous environments.

Her passion for robotics led L’Orsa to found—in-between the demands of her master’s research—the Schulich Community Robotics Program, because she saw a lack of hands-on opportunities for Calgary kids to really learn robotics. “Becoming tech-savvy as a child will open a world of opportunities to young Calgarians, helping them discover their passions and build confidence with the open-ended problems and emerging technologies that will colour their futures,” she says. She also gives her time to mentoring high school students through the Cybermentor program, and she coaches an all-girls robotic team. If any of those kids have a bitter math teacher in their lives looking to squash their dreams, L’Orsa wants to be there to counteract that, and show them that they can do math—and anything else they dare to dream.

When she takes a break from academia, L’Orsa jumps out of planes. Into smoke, in the middle of forest fires. That’s how she spends her summers, as one of Canada’s only three female smoke jumpers. She’s also a certified paramedic, a competence she continues to maintain—“because it’s good to know how to save lives.” And, because all that physical energy has to go somewhere during the academic year, she’s also the president of the U of C Rowing Team. “Calgary is capable of producing world-class rowers, but there is a need to cement the necessary infrastructure in place to support our athletes on their journey to the podium,” she says. She wants to help them do that. And she’s gonna.

What next? She’s been accepted into the U of C’s electrical engineering PhD program starting this September. And 10 years from now, she’s going to be an astronaut. Believe it.

FACT BOX

Candidate:  Rachael L’Orsa

Age:  32

Job Title: Future Astronaut. In the meantime: Master of Science Candidate, Electrical Engineering, at the University of Calgary, Graduate Research Assistant with Project neuroArm, Founder and Director of Schulich Community Robotics Program, Smokejumper with the BC Forest Service, Primary Care Paramedic with the BC Ambulance Service, as well as Teaching Assistant at the University of Calgary and President of the University of Calgary Rowing Club

[note to eds: I think the first three have to be included—but yeah, she is really all these things all at the same time. She just blew my mind.]

What the best piece of advice you’ve received? 

It was “never say no”! I’ve been given many fantastic pieces of advice through the years, but last year I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. William Carpentier, the world famous physician, at UBC’s Alumni Achievement Awards. When I asked if he had any advice for aspiring astronauts, he told me to never pass up a single opportunity, even if it doesn’t look as such initially.

What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned? 

That sometimes you have to say no. It can be incredibly tough to draw the line between commitments you are passionate about, but when the quality of your work suffers or your health declines, it’s time for a re-evaluation.