Building a Strong Foundation
For me, my path to becoming an engineer started early.
My father was a professor of mechanical engineering and my mother worked as an administrative assistant for the engineering group of the Ohio Bell Telephone Co., so I guess you could say I was destined to become interested in all things technical. In fact, our family vacations often revolved around visiting engineering marvels like the Hoover Dam. Or maybe it’s genetics — my family is full of engineers: my father, his brother, my brother, and three cousins — and my architect husband and I now have two sons in college studying engineering, too.
But what really got me interested in buildings and how they function was when my father volunteered as the property manager at our church. During that time, he would go in to check on the boiler, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to make sure everything was functioning properly. I would tag along, becoming more comfortable with the behind-the-scenes of the building, my experiences slowly helping to shape my interests and career desires.
After graduating high school — still interested in buildings — I met with an architect to discuss my career path. Although I was interested in becoming an architect, he told me to consider architectural engineering instead, as there were a lot of opportunities in that area that fit my interests. Armed with this advice, I ended up in the architectural engineering program at Kansas State University. This comprehensive program allowed me to take an in-depth look at electrical, mechanical, civil and structural engineering as they relate to buildings, further broadening my knowledge and interests.
Upon graduation, I got my first job in Detroit as a mechanical engineer designing HVAC systems to provide special temperature and humidity control in the manufacturing and testing facilities of Ford and Chrysler. This start in heavy industry helped me further understand specialized building mechanical systems and how they impact overall production and operations.
I started in 1998 at Burns & McDonnell with the Aviation & Federal Group as a mechanical engineer working on projects supporting the F-22 manufacturing program. The experience I gained from the automotive manufacturing HVAC design translated well to aerospace manufacturing. In addition to temperature and humidity control, the F-22 manufacturing process also required special exhaust filtration systems and uniform velocity when applying the stealth coating on the fighter. As the F-22 program began the beddown process at the Air Force bases, facilities to maintain the stealth coatings were needed, as well as training facilities that featured high-tech flight simulators, requiring special foundations, fire protection, communications and security systems to enable the training missions to be properly executed.
As time went on, I took on the role of project manager for Department of Defense (DoD) projects, traveling all over the country for various projects that support the mission of the Air Force, Army, National Guard and Reserves — designing everything from high-tech facilities, to child development centers, working dog kennels, barracks, fire stations, warehouses and readiness centers. This has given me the opportunity to work with some amazing service men and women and understand the unique operational requirements for each facility so they can perform their duties.
More recently, I’ve relied on my technical foundation to serve as project manager for more flight simulator training facilities, but this time for the KC-46A tanker mission. I led a team of architects and engineers to develop prototype facility designs before the simulators had been designed that would enable those high-tech systems to have the vibration isolation, power, communications, cooling and security needed for training by the pilots at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma and at Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire. This involved working closely with key Air Force personnel as the training program was taking shape to see that the building would support the goals of the mission.
In my time in the industry, I’ve seen many things grow and shift. It’s now more common for women to work in the engineering field than it was when I started — I’ve even worked on projects that have been entirely woman-led. And today there are several organizations that promote women in the industry. This has opened a wide range of opportunities, including for woman-owned businesses that contribute to the diverse supplier base many large firms look for on projects.
After 22 years at Burns & McDonnell, I’ve come to find that my willingness and flexibility in the jobs I’ve worked on has contributed to how my career has taken shape. Experience is something that we gain every day, making us smarter and more prepared for tomorrow. And we need more than just technical skills — we also need to learn how to understand our clients’ needs and use our experience to transform that understanding into reality through our projects. That’s what makes this career so rewarding. Working for a diverse company like Burns & McDonnell has allowed me the opportunity to put my experience to use for various clients in different markets.