Carnegie Mellon University
March 29, 2016

CEE Women in Engineering

CEE Women in Engineering “Because I wanted to save the world,” says Professor Jeanne VanBriesen on why she pursued a career in civil and environmental engineering. “And because the people who work in this field want to save the world.”

It’s no secret that the Earth is changing.

From the rising global temperatures and population, to increasing drought and flood conditions, to natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes — it’s hard for anyone not to want to save our world.

But in Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, we’re surrounded by others with the same motivation. A cohort of hope, and the tools to make a difference.

Saving the World

“I believe that we’re mandated to be stewards of the Earth,” says current doctoral candidate Nizette Consolazio.

For Consolazio — and for many who study CEE at CMU — humanitarianism is a primary motivator. By studying biocides used in hydraulic fracturing, Consolazio aims to pinpoint the risks associated with these additives and how they can affect drinking water sources.

Many, like Consolazio, began their careers in other fields but were later attracted to CEE.

CEE alumna and Associate Professor Shonali Laha (PhD ‘92) of Florida International University, for example, initially studied mechanical engineering — but, shaken by the 1984 Bhopal disaster of central India, in which toxic gas escaped from a pesticide manufacturing facility and resulted in thousands of deaths, she switched her studies to environmental engineering.

“[The Bhopal disaster] made me question the paradigm of using synthetic poisons to kill pests,” she explains, “and whether there might not be less harmful, more sustainable tools available. After exploring the feasibility of switching careers to ecology or forestry, I finally settled on environmental engineering, [as it is a] field that promotes sustainability and explores the role of humans in mitigating some of our adverse impacts on the environment.”

In addition to pursuing sustainability and environmental protection, many go on to design and build infrastructures which, in many cases, save lives.

Commanding Officer Liz Durika of the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), in just over a decade since receiving her bachelor’s degree from CMU in 2003, has become a decorated officer recognized for her leadership and humanitarian efforts. Durika currently commands more than 400 Navy Seabees, or members of the United States Navy Construction Forces, and has commanded projects that include digging wells to provide African communities with access to clean water and building an eight-room hospital in Ghana, which included an urgently needed maternity ward.

“In my current position, I work with folks from all walks of life,” says Durika. “Everyone should be afforded the opportunity to be successful by creating an environment that fosters trust, respect, esprit de corps, and responsible decision-making, with room for errors and mistakes, while countering prejudices that stifle initiative and job accomplishment.”

“Over the past 12 years in the Navy, it is the people that make work great. When we all come together for a common goal, we can make great things happen.”

Cutting-Edge Technologies and Techniques

“One of the things that I love about my current job,” says Judith Hill, a computational scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “is that I feel like I have an impact every single day. The amount of science that comes out of a machine like Titan is astonishing.”

Hill, who received her PhD from CMU in 2004, designs algorithms to optimize the output of Titan, the nation’s largest supercomputer. Titan has a peak performance of 27 petaflops, units used to measure enormous amounts of processing power.

Currently, Hill is working with a group of researchers at Princeton University who are interested in the material properties of the Earth’s inner core and mantle. In order to help understand how the Earth is structured, the researchers want to process 30 years of global earthquake data. By employing supercomputers, researchers can analyze these massive amounts of information in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise. With supercomputers like Titan, Hill is able to foster groundbreaking discoveries across many diverse fields, every day.

“The world moves really, really fast. That’s what drives me — and modeling and simulation enable us to keep up.”

The world indeed moves really fast — and so do vehicles. Ahana Mukherjee, a master’s student advised by Associate Professor Mario Berges, completed a summer research project with Assistant Professor Sean Qian, who uses modeling and simulation not only to keep up with cars, but to stay ahead of them.

Using sensors and data mining, Mukherjee used statistical modeling and data analysis to predict how many Pennsylvania car crashes there will be in upcoming years. She had access to all Pennsylvania car-crash data from 2010 to 2014, including additional information such as the time of accident, number of individuals present, and road characteristics such as road length and whether it was in a rural or urban area. Mukherjee’s research project, Mobility Data Analytics, allowed her to use these large amounts of data to pinpoint which roads require additional safety precautions, making future driving conditions safer.

“The Department of CEE here at CMU is very unique, very different,” says Mukherjee. “This department does not follow traditional CEE structures — concrete is not the focus. It’s more about sensors and data mining, and this project is very relevant to that.”

In terms of nontraditional structures, Assistant Professor Hae Young Noh goes a step further, using structures as sensors, specifically focusing on vibrational analysis. By attaching sensors to buildings, infrastructure, or vehicles, Noh is able to use the vibration of the structures themselves to gather information about structural integrity, environmental conditions, and human behaviors. For example, she uses these structures to detect the health of rail lines and to track the movement of patients within hospitals — the building could alert doctors to changes in walking patterns, which could reflect illness, or alert nurses if a patient falls.

Noh’s research has a vast number of potential applications and will serve to further connectivity. Using structures as sensors opens an enormous window, allowing for greater monitoring of systems and behaviors to enable remarkable technological progress — the stuff of science fiction, realized.

“I like the scale and the variety of civil and environmental engineering,” says Noh. “We cannot really live without civil infrastructure systems. Everyone depends on them.”

Mentorship and Support

“The support system at CMU is incredible,” says current master’s student Abigail Cahen, “especially in the CEE department. Being well-supported enables you to do so much more.”

Cahen, in turn, goes out of her way to support her fellow students. In addition to being a brilliant student — recommended highly by her professors — and a campus resident assistant, Cahen is a teaching assistant and an active member of many CMU student groups, such as Chi Epsilon, the National Civil Engineering Honor Society, and the Society of Women Engineers. In her positions, she is able to work with other students to enhance their experiences at CMU, as well as her own.

And students are not the only ones supported at CMU — Christiano Professor, Co-director of the Smart Infrastructure Institute, and Associate Dean for Research Burcu Akinci says that, as a recognized female leader in such a male-dominated field, she feels lucky to be in the CEE department.

“There is the department, there is the field and there is the larger community,” she explains. “The larger community is still dominated by men, though it’s changing. But in the recent field conferences I’ve gone to, I’ve seen more women coming up as PhD students or new faculty members, which is absolutely great. And in terms of the university and the department, where my day-to-day interaction is, I am absolutely spoiled.”

The students, faculty, and staff of CEE at CMU support each other, but many are also dedicated to aiming their mentorship outside of the university as well.

Noh, for example, does outreach activities aiming to improve science and engineering education for middle school girls — middle school, she says, is when overall student interest in science and engineering peaks, but also, incidentally, when girls’ interest in it drops — and Minkyung Kang, a current PhD student studying Advanced Infrastructure Systems, was a member of a student group through her Korean university which worked with professors and students to improve the inclusion of females in the department early in her education.

“We ended up writing a guidebook for professors and students on how we can improve the engineering education in the engineering school for everyone, male and female, of any age,” says Kang, whose early environmental awareness was influenced by stories — one book in particular that affected her told the story of a boy with a green thumb. Her younger self wanted to make her city greener, like the boy in the story, influencing her decision to go into civil and environmental engineering.

“One of my most important activities is mentoring,” says Professor VanBriesen, “from junior faculty through undergraduates.”

VanBriesen, in addition to her renowned research into drinking water and river-water-system contaminants, is a principal investigator for the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, a National Science Foundation-funded initiative that builds on students’ knowledge foundations with interdisciplinary training. Her technical leadership and her dedication to mentoring women pursuing engineering careers have attracted much attention and praise. Earlier this year she was awarded with the Barbara Lazarus Award for Graduate Student and Junior Faculty Mentoring. The award recognizes the exemplary contributions of CMU faculty members who work to foster a welcoming and nurturing environment for graduate students and young faculty.

“Mentoring enables future generations of scientists and engineers,” says VanBriesen, “to ask good questions and search for the answers, to think deeply about how things are now and how we want them to be in the future.”