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Life as an Engineer

Life as an Engineer

I am back on the road again after a very long dry spell between October and March where I only traveled about once a month. Now that my and my husband’s health issues have all been resolved (two surgeries and a cancer scare), it’s time to get back to work. Right now I’m in Tucson, AZ, next week I’m in St. Louis, MO and I have three trips planned to Minnesota. Now, I have no love for Minnesota. The first time I went, it got down to 14 degrees, I had no gloves, and I needed to scrape the ice off of my windshield. I had to put my hands back in my pockets every 60 seconds. I also slipped on a patch of ice in a parking lot that *should* have been cleared. Don’t Minnesotans clear their parking lots? So, no love for Minnesota. But I do love my job.

My day job is being a safety consultant for a small firm in VA. I work from home, and I travel. A lot. Being a black woman in engineering is weird. It can be a bit lonely in many ways. And maybe because it is lonely, at every opportunity, I try to talk to teens about going into STEM. You see, working in a STEM field is interesting. It’s satisfying. It’s an opportunity to use your mind every day. To have to think about what you are doing, to apply your knowledge.

There are not a lot of women or African-Americans in engineering. Out of 107 HBCUs in our country, only 15 have engineering programs. Because it takes a lot to have an engineering program. You need both space and money for research, for creating things, for machinery, for labs. And everything must be up-to-date. Technology changes every year, and an engineering school has to be able to offer cutting-edge learning environments, for every major that they offer.

This isn’t to say that you have to go to an HBCU, but going to a non-HBCU can be a lonely experience. Forty years ago, when I went to engineering school, there were 50 African-American students out of a class of 1200 and there were six black women. Lonely. And yet, we had fun. You see, when you attend an engineering school, you have the unique experience of not needing to compete in other areas. If you want to do music or theater or writing or sports, you just sign up. There are plenty of opportunities, there are plenty of openings. When I was in school, I ran with the soccer players, played volleyball, sang, played cello, and wrote for the student newspaper. Didn’t do so well academically, so if I had to do it over, I would have been a bit more attentive to my studies. But it was an amazing experience.

The work that I do now is work that I love, work that I’ve been doing in some way or another for nearly 20 years. I inspect and test products and machines before anyone starts using them to make sure they are safe and no one can get hurt using them. Some machines are small and can fit on a table. Some machines are huge and take up a part of a football field. So, I have to travel to where they are being built. I’ve been to about 17 states in the last two years. And I get the satisfaction of knowing that because of my work, it’s more difficult for someone to get hurt from a workplace injury.

Now, not everything can be made perfectly safe. A chain saw is not safe. But you can design it so that it is “safer”. And that is what I look for.

The joy of a STEM career is that you’re always using your mind. You are always using the technical foundation of your education. If that’s what appeals to you, then you will always enjoy your work. And because there is a shortage of people interested in STEM, it usually pays well.

So what do I tell young people about STEM? Figure out what you love and find a place where you can do it. If you like animals, if you like the human body, if you like taking things apart, or putting them together, if you think you might like medicine, or oceans and weather, or even if you don’t like science, but you like arithmetic, or geometry, or logic, or calculus or computer programming – there is a career for you, and you can do something that you will love and be good at.

Making money, of course, is nice. And people in STEM make a decent wage. But for me, the key is being able to want to go to work every day. Personal satisfaction. If you’re going to do it for 40 hours a week, 35% of your adult life, you may as well enjoy it.

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