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Young, Talented, and Making a Difference

Who says you have to be a well-seasoned professional to gain recognition for your contributions? Meet some young women engineers who started off their careers by creating names for themselves.

By Anne Baye Ericksen

As a young, entry-level professional, it's hard to accurately picture what your daily job responsibilities will entail. Sure, you hope you'll be challenged with intricate projects that will draw on your education. Of course, you want to contribute to your team, maybe even come up with solutions to nagging problems. But then again, being the newest member to an organization, perhaps you'll be regulated to the more mundane—however necessary—tasks. Maybe it's all about paying your dues before you can be let loose and really put your engineering skills to the test.

According to some of today's young technical professionals, the latter scenario is an unfounded stereotype. For them, it's more a case of the former circumstances that they've encountered in their still-brief careers. Here, Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers magazine features three young women who have not only found personal satisfaction in their work, but who also have gotten their respective industries to sit up and take notice.

Keeping Motivated

In 2000, the Olin Corporation intended to sell its Morgan Hill, California signal flare manufacturing facility. As part of its due diligence, the business conducted testing of the site's soil and groundwater, and discovered perchlorate, a known contaminant. After further tests, Olin acknowledged the area required an extensive cleanup and eventually brought in Geosyntec Consultants, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, to review the existing data and continue sampling. Geosyntec also developed a site-specific remediation plan for future protection of the natural resources and to alleviate any potential buyers' environmental concerns. When all was said and done, Geosyntec saved Olin more than $2 million, compared to previous estimates, and the project was awarded an Engineering Excellence State Award by the American Council of Engineering Companies.

Tammy Hebeler

Tammy Hebeler

It is this sort of hands-on work that appeals to Tamara Hebeler, Professional Engineer at Geosyntec, and why she has spent the first eight years of her career with the organization. "They work on really technical projects, and I thought I could sink my teeth into complex problems here," she notes.

As a young student, Hebeler knew she excelled at math and science. "Those were my strong subject areas and it's what I paid the most attention to," she admits. So when she was shopping for colleges, she leaned toward those institutions with strong engineering programs. She chose Syracuse University in New York, and during her time there, Hebeler's interest in civil engineering was piqued. "The professor who taught the discipline had an enthusiasm that she used to sell me on the topic. Plus, I liked that I could work with the public and not always have to be in the office. With civil engineering, there is that public interaction," she explains.

Hebeler continued her education and received a master's degree in civil engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Like countless other recent graduates, Hebeler faced the life-changing decision of where to start her career. "I had done an internship in Boston during grad school, and I thought maybe I would move back," she comments. "However, I had several interviews with Geosyntec, and I liked the level of interest they showed in me." Ultimately, she opted to stay in the South and pursue a consulting career.

Although her emphasis in her studies was in the geotechnical field of civil engineering, Geosyntec appointed Hebeler to a design group that primarily focused on testing and treating aging landfills, especially those associated with military sites. "That was my entrance into the environmental world, and it really was learning on the job for me," she says. "But there is such a high caliber of people here to ask questions of."

More specifically, Hebeler's present expertise falls in line with Geosyntec's remediation services. She and her current team typically evaluate data collected from a site, such as in the Olin example, to check on its progress in terms of returning the soil and groundwater to a cleaner quality. From that information they design new or improved systems to filter out contaminants or to treat the soil and groundwater to return it to acceptable levels.

Another aspect of her duties is advising customers on how to maintain a clean environment during major construction projects. "We make sure they are not discharging sediments into the local water bodies. We help to do controlled construction, and we always make recommendations based on the idea of saving time and money for our clients," she says.

Indeed, Hebeler insists that factoring in costs to any engineering project was a mental adjustment she had to make almost immediately in her career. She explains, "When you are in school, you don't have to worry much about the financial side of a project, and that just doesn't work in the consulting world. You have to focus your ideas and concepts based on billable hours, budgets, and working with clients."

Part of that also entails writing up results in technical reports, oftentimes for a nontechnical audience. "Being a consultant is not just about your analytical abilities. We often are working with public relations professionals for the military who have no technical background, and you have to make the technical understandable to them," Hebeler says. "A lot of people struggle with that, but I had taken a technical writing course in college, and I think that helped a lot."

Her efforts have paid off. Within Geosyntec, Hebeler has been appointed her own engineering team to manage. Additionally, she's been awarded industry distinctions, such as the Young Civil Engineer of the Year Award by the Georgia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the 2007 Young Engineer of the Year Award during Georgia Engineers Week.

But it's not necessarily the accolades that keep this young professional motivated. "I like doing the design work and seeing sites being cleaned up because of the changes I made to the system," says Hebeler. "What's challenging is staying abreast of the current and emerging technologies. It may not always be best to do things the same way just because it is how you know how to do it. You have to find the best way with the new technology."

The Fun Stuff

Whether it's developing the technology to assist in national security or to advance medical applications for more accurate diagnoses, Gabriella Carini, Ph.D., thoroughly enjoys carrying out her tasks as an assistant physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. "I don't consider it work when I'm getting paid to play with this stuff," she laughs.

The "stuff" Carini refers to is the development of X-ray Active Matrix Pixel Sensors for the Linac Coherent Light Source. You know, your everyday single-photon-sensitive, high-tech detector that integrates JFET switches, capable of 100% fill factor, low noise, and fast readout with a dynamic range of more than 10 thousand photons. At least that's her most recent endeavor.

Gabriella Carini, Ph.D., Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Gabriella Carini, Ph.D., Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Carini started at Brookhaven in 2003 as a research scholar during her electrical engineering Ph.D. program at the University of Palermo in her home country of Italy. "I wanted to come to the United States because I thought it was the place to be if you wanted to do research," she explains. "I was supposed to be here for nine months, and it was just extended and extended."

In fact, Carini has stayed with the research facility for more than five years thus far and seems to thrive in the environment. "This is suitable for me. It is the kind of place where you can find people doing any kind of science and they are open to discussing their work. I find that motivating," she states.

In the beginning, Carini was assigned to the Nonproliferation and National Security Department, Detector Development and Testing Division. Despite not being eligible for top security clearance due to her foreign national status, she participated in the creation of CZT radiation materials and detectors with the intention of being utilized for national security purposes. Next came projects with the National Synchrotron Light Source, end-station development for microcharacterization of semiconductor detectors, and most recently, the X-ray Active Matrix Pixel Sensors. What does she find most rewarding and challenging? "Getting the project there, and making it. There are peaks and valleys; moments that you think you will never get through, and then you do and it's amazing. It's all in the game of research," she says. "But when you go for that first test and it works, that is extremely satisfying."

Now much of her concentration is geared toward non-federal applications. "The detectors can be used for many different sciences. People can do experiments now that they never dreamed of before because they didn't have the tools to even think about them," she offers. More specifically, the technology can be applied to nuclear medical imaging, environmental monitoring, and nuclear weapons safeguards.

Of course, the young engineer teams up with other scientists, engineers, and technical professionals, but her contributions have been highlighted on several occasions. So far, Carini has authored/co-authored more than 30 scientific publications in addition to being named co-winner of a 2005 R&D 100 Award. At the 2006 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Nuclear Science Symposium, Carini received a certificate of outstanding contributions. And most recently, the IEEE Long Island Section bestowed on her the 2008 Outstanding Young Engineer Award.

As flattering as the accolades are, this engineer remains focused on the job at hand. "This is what I like to do, and it is as simple as that," she comments.

Driving Forward

For the past several months, the automotive industry has hogged the national headlines. Unfortunately, it wasn't necessarily for the one-of-a-kind concept cars on display at the annual Detroit Auto Show—however outstanding the dream designs might be. Rather, the attention honed in on the financial difficulties the Big Three are battling in today's tight economic environment.

But not all automotive news is about companies trying to dig out of the red. There are technological breakthroughs worthy of being touted, too. For example, the Chevrolet Volt is the first extended range electric vehicle to have both environmental enthusiasts and engineers excited about its possibilities. General Motors first announced the project in January 2007, and the Volt's production version was revealed last September. If all goes according to plan, GM hopes to launch sales of the vehicle in November.

What separates this auto from the hybrids currently traversing the roads is its 161-horsepower fully electric engine, which is the only power source. Hybrids, on the other hand, alternate between electric-powered and gasoline-powered engines at different speeds. The Volt operates off of a lithium-ion battery pack, which powers the vehicle for up to 40 miles. When that source runs low, a gasoline/E85 combustion engine acts as a generator and recharges the battery while the car is in operation to provide an overall driving range of 400 miles.

The key to the Volt being an engineering and commercial success is the efficiency and strength of the battery pack. It's this element that has GM's technical staff logging in countless hours, and among them is Adrienne Billiau. "There is so much information to learn in order to properly understand the battery system [and how it] operates under different conditions as well as how different factors affect the life of the battery," she comments.

Being from Michigan, Billiau knew early on she would pursue a career in the automotive industry. She explains, "I picked engineering because there are so many opportunities to expand your career [because] there are a variety of industries that depend on engineering."

She graduated from Kettering University last March with a degree in electrical engineering and therefore is still a relative newcomer to the professional world. That said, Billiau is no stranger to the Detroit, Michigan-based manufacturer. "I started working at GM as a co-op student in April 2005 and did several rotations within the company," she notes. Among them were stints in the Global Energy Center evaluating fuel economy and hybrid performance, and in Specialty Vehicle Activities and Concept Vehicle Integration that involved programming responsibilities. During her brief full-time tenure, Billiau has concentrated her efforts to the Battery Systems Lab, testing the Volt's battery and bringing the vehicle one step closer to the marketplace.

"I work with a group of engineers to test a number of these batteries for performance, characterization, and life," she explains. "It is important in order to make sure the battery is meeting specifications for the vehicle as well as checking to make sure it will continue to be a good system throughout its life by doing accelerated testing, which allows us to condense several years of testing into a shorter period of time. My job includes writing software to test the battery, running the tests, analyzing the data, and providing support to other groups within the company."

What does she foresee for her burgeoning career? In spite of the financial turmoil in the industry at the moment, Billiau believes there are plenty more outlets for her at the company. "As advanced battery technology continues to improve, there is going to be an increase in the number of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids," says Billiau. "I think this shift in transportation will be better for more than just the auto industry. Once the electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are more common, I think development of vehicles with different energy sources, such as hydrogen or even solar power, could have more potential even further down the road."

In order to get from here to there, it'll demand engineering know-how. "If there is something you are passionate about in your field of study (programming, design, electronics, etc.), ask around or do some research to see if it is something you can do with advanced technologies that are green," suggests Billiau.

Getting Notice

Whether you set out to simply satisfy your own personal goals or to truly make a well-known name for yourself, all three young women encourage you to reward yourself by taking on responsibilities that not only challenge you, but that you find personally enjoyable. "What I'm looking for in new hires are people who have done well in the academic world with a strong record in engineering, but who also have enthusiasm and personalities that show this is what they want to do," offers Hebeler.

Once on the job, the real work begins. It's not enough to step back and allow others to guide your career. If the prime job assignments don't automatically come your way, then seek them out. This might mean attaching yourself to mentors. They can help you solve technical challenges or advise you on how to network among other professionals. "You find them over time and it may not be the same person for every topic. One mentor might show you how to balance your life and another shows you how to handle challenging issues," says Hebeler.

Also, show initiative. Don't just volunteer for duties when asked, but rather create the chance to prove yourself. This might mean proposing ideas or explaining how you can remove an obstacle of some sort. "When others know your abilities, that will lead to more experiences," states Hebeler.

And finally, Carini concludes, "Don't be afraid to dream a bit."

Technology rules in today's workplace. No matter where you work, technology is a key component to the success of any business. More and more non-tech companies are hiring at least one IT professional to maintain their networks and provide support.

That's great news for you because it means increased job prospects. But what is it like to be the only techie in your workplace?

It can be the ideal situation if you like a lot of autonomy at your job and crave being the sole authority on all things tech. With that independence, however, comes a strong sense of responsibility. You will have sole control over the way the IT department is run and the changes it will make in the future. Employees and managers from all departments will turn to you when they have IT problems—whether or not they are in your specialty. Being the only IT expert at your job can be a daunting prospect for some since it may be difficult to work without the camaraderie and support of other techies.

You Want Me?

IT professionals will discover that working in a non-tech industry has many perks. For example, if you want to work for a company that you truly believe in, like a non-profit, it can more than make up for the lack of on-the-job technical peers. Similarly, if you find a position with a non-tech company that provides a service or sells a product that you feel strongly about, the benefits can definitely outweigh any negatives. And the good news is that positions for IT professionals are extremely diverse, which means there are jobs for almost every specialty and interest, according to Robin Hammond, director of Career Services at Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, Arizona State University.

"Since engineers are trained in solving complex problems and looking at whole systems, they are very attractive candidates for a wide range of industries, which are not necessarily engineering focused," she says.

"One example is in the financial industry. Companies in this sector are always trying to make internal processes more efficient and more effective. Engineers are rigorous problem solvers, highly analytical, and proficient in math and quantitative skills. These attributes are key competencies for such companies as American Express, Goldman Sachs, U-Haul, and Dreyer's Ice Cream, to name a few."

Hammond explains that these types of companies come to Arizona State University to recruit engineering students because they want engineering skills for their leadership programs. "More and more companies who are cultivating their talent pipeline look to engineers as key candidates for leadership roles," she says.

There's Work To Be Done

Michael Neece, chief strategy officer for Pongo Resumé, an online resumé-writing resource, believes non-traditional jobs for engineers and IT professionals leverage the analytical and mathematical skills of the technical person." IT instills employees with problem solving skills and the ability to see patterns within huge volumes of data. This makes technical people valuable to non-technical professions," he says.

Adrienne Billiau

Adrienne Billiau

Neece describes a few of the positions that engineers and IT professionals can have in the non-tech firms. He says that they can work in production management, patent research, or by the health care industry to optimizing management of electronic medical records. According to him, computer scientists are also hired in the wastewater and electric utility industries to help optimize water stream flows and power delivery.

Neece asserts that nearly every industry hires technical professionals, including universities, government organizations, construction and manufacturing, hospitals, utilities, petroleum producers, and more.

The Lone Tech

But can you handle being the only IT expert at your job? It's important to understand the pitfalls of working for a non-tech company before you make the leap. In this type of work environment, you will have to contend with management not necessarily valuing IT as much as a tech company would. In fact, they may be more prone to cutting costs when it comes to new technology.

Non-tech companies also tend to hire one IT professional as a kind of "catch-all," which means you might end up working on anything related to IT, even if it is outside your area of expertise or if it is incredibly mundane. For example, you may spend an exorbitant amount of time helping people in the sales department recover lost files after their system unexpectedly goes down.

Many More Pluses

Jim Turnquist, director of Career Services at Michigan Technological University, encourages new IT grads to take a look at the wealth of job opportunities available for techies in the non-tech world—regardless of the perceived negative aspects.

"The attractive part for engineers and IT people is that just about every employer may use them. We are a high-tech society using technology to do more for us. This changes the complexity of the work force. Jobs will be eliminated because of technology and new ones will be created. Like the post 1980s recession in the automotive industry, many jobs were eliminated due to automation. These people had to go back to school to learn new skills that could deal with automation. This is an ongoing phenomenon. Society is changing constantly due to technology. We have to adjust our skills to meet this need."

Turnquist says that all kinds of companies are hiring engineers and IT people, like the railroad industry, insurance companies, investment firms, the federal government, medical schools, health clinics, law offices, retail, hotels, consulting firms, and more.

"Investment firms hire engineers to do research on potential investments and new products that could affect the stock market (for instance, alternative energy, mining, new manufacturing methods)," he explains. "And insurance companies hire them to investigate accidents, fires, and other damages to facilities. Also, engineers may investigate a potential customer to evaluate their facilities to determine if they want to insure their operation."

Turnquist uses the railroad industry as another example since they have been hiring engineers to manage crews, and service systems engineering is becoming a popular degree program for coordinating transportation issues.

According to Turnquist, many engineers also make excellent medical doctors because of the intense undergraduate program they completed. "Robots and other electronic systems are playing a bigger role in medicine," he explains. "Being an engineer would prepare them for this part of medicine.

"Hospitals and clinics need engineers to help them with all the new equipment—both in development and maintenance," Turnquist says. "And more and more engineers are going to law school to specialize in patent or corporate law."

What Can I Expect?

"An engineer [working for a non-tech company] should expect a variety of careers within one company. The person could start off in design and then convert to marketing/sales and then management," Turnquist asserts. But keep in mind that IT professionals should plan to continue their education while employed, possibly pursuing a master's in engineering or an MBA.

Also, Turnquist says, "Engineers need to understand that the employer will want strong communication skills in conjunction with their analytical skills. They need to polish their people skills. Working alone is not always an option." The most desirable employees will be ones that have both technical skills and "soft" skills. "We live in a high tech society, but we deal with people. An idea is just that unless we can communicate it to others."

Anne Baye Ericksen is a freelance writer based in Southern California.

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