August 28, 2007Her job: Senior Project Manager, Knowledge Management Offic, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
Currently, I manage rulemaking efforts to update and revise Federal regulations to protect the public and the environment from the unauthorized use or accidental release of radioactive materials; and as a Knowledge Management Officer, I look for opportunities to help gather knowledge and information from people who are leaving the agency so that new employees can learn and build on past experience. I deal with a lot of people all across my agency as Knowledge Management Officer.
Why did you choose engineering?
I didn’t choose engineering. I kind of fell into it. When I was a young girl, I wanted to be a ballet dancer or a gymnast. One day I was struggling to do a double pirouettes and it was driving me crazy! I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. My dance teacher told me I needed to understand how the body works and told me to take physics when I got old enough. So I did. I found that not only did I like it, but it helped to explain why so many things are the way that they are. All of a sudden a lot of things made sense like why the stars twinkle, how to do multiple pirouettes and the kinetic difference between a back handspring and a back full twisting layout. Once I understood vectors and kinetics, dancing and gymnastics were a lot easier. I kept taking classes to learn why things are the way they are but I didn’t plan on going into engineering as a career. Nevertheless, here I am.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana where I majored in physics and nuclear engineering. I know that sounds like I am very smart, but in truth, I don’t think of myself as smart. I think that I went into physics because of the way that I think. I ask a lot of why questions and want to know how things affect each other. Physics helps me figure that out - so physics just made sense. I am currently in graduate school at Virginia Tech studying Science and Technology Studies focusing on policy. Now that I know why, I want to know how national science policy is made. It is fascinating, particularly living and working in Washington D.C.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
I like to keep on learning new things. I have changed jobs about every 2-3 years. I have done everything from working at a construction site to doing research in a government laboratory to writing national technology policy. I have worked on a lot of different things - from a waste treatment system to designing a nuclear propulsion system to go to Jupiter. But I have always tried to do things that help us to expand our knowledge, improve the quality of life or both. Because I am very interested in helping others get into engineering, I have worked on recruiting and retaining women in science and engineering careers. I have met some amazing people and gone to some very exotic and interesting places doing that kind of work too.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
What I like the most about my work is the endless variety. No two days are alike. Some days, I get very technical and look at engineering calculations and write reports, some days I travel to go to meetings or conferences, and sometimes I get to go out to the field where I get to see hardware up close and personal. I get to see how the hardware is made and talk to people about what it can do. Occasionally I travel overseas to see how different nations solve the same problems but in different ways. I really enjoy knowing how things work and meeting and working with people who are interested in making things better.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
There are two things I am particularly proud of. In the early part of my career, I was a resident inspector at a nuclear power plant. There were very few women doing that job at the time so I really stood out. I found a testing deficiency at my plant that could have led to a serious safety issue. In my role as an NRC Resident, I helped make sure the managers were aware of the issue and then watched to make sure that it was corrected quickly. I received the NRC Meritorious Service Award for Resident Inspector Excellence from the NRC for my work and was the first woman to ever get the award. The second thing that I am proud of is my work in designing and conducting a National Survey of Women and Men Engineers in the United States. I did this outside of work. Once it was done and published I found that no one else had ever done a survey like that which meant that I was sort of a pioneer. That also made me an "expert" I was invited to testify before a Congressional Subcommittee on the survey and its findings. Not bad for someone who had trouble doing double pirouettes.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
I believe that most challenges are really opportunities to do something different and unexpected. I think it is a question of how you look at the issues that you face every day. If I believed half of the things that people tell me are problems, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
For me, the important thing is to be true to myself, try to make things better and to have fun in my job. That is both my short term and long term goal. Exactly how I do that is less important. I haven’t followed the "standard" career path. At some point, I will be eligible to retire from my current job, but I am looking at that as an opportunity to go and do something different.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
I value the views of my parents, my friends and my many mentors. Others can give you their views and thoughts, but the trick is in figuring out who you are and what you want. With all the stuff that the media puts out there it can be hard to get to know one’s self. Just remember that what is shown on TV and in the magazines isn’t necessarily "normal." In the end, it is my life and my decisions. I have to be true to myself and let others be true to themselves. That isn’t always easy.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
Figure out who you are and what you want. There are people out there who will try to steal your dream, and some of these folks will be people who love you and want the best for you. But they will unknowingly try to steal your dream. Don't let them. I am not saying to discount them, what I am saying is to put the views of others in perspective. Understand their concerns and fears for you. They may see something that you cannot. Get to know yourself and what you are good at. Respect yourself, including your talents and your faults. Build on the former and tone down the latter. See the possibilities and find people who can help you to hang on. Then someday you will be there to help someone else hang on.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I think I am pretty normal because like most females, I like to eat out, shop and travel. I still love to dance and do so whenever I can.