Job: Water Resources Engineer, Tetra Tech
Location: San Diego, California
One of my best friends from college, Taylor, connected me with Olivia, a high school friend of hers. Olivia is the first person I have interviewed in California, so I was surprised (and jealous) to hear of the work-life balance and culture that she has experienced thus far.
Tell us about yourself.
Originally from Rhode Island, I am currently a Water Resources Engineer at a large engineering consulting firm called Tetra Tech in San Diego. Since high school, I have loved math and science, but I had no idea what engineering was. Every time I asked someone what it was, they told me it was problem-solving, which is pretty much the vaguest answer ever. Still, I thought engineering was something I wanted to do, so once I got to Notre Dame, I started with broad engineering courses that were open-ended and just tried to figure out what I wanted to do within the field.
How you end up in environmental engineering?
In my first year of school, I was completely lost. I liked aspects of all the engineering courses I took, but I also wanted to know what I would be doing at the end of it all. I saw that engineering actually does include some broad problem solving, but it is also really just using the principles of math and science to come up with solutions that are necessary for our everyday life. I tried out chemical engineering, which led to me tripping and spilling chemicals everywhere in a lab, so that ended quickly. Even after that, I thought I still wanted to be an engineer, so I stuck with it. Next, I tried out mechanical engineering, but as I was looking at the next three years of courses, I couldn’t pronounce some of them, so that was a no for me as well. I knew that engineering would be a lot of work, but I thought to myself that if I was going to be working ridiculously hard and with weird hours, I needed to be passionate about it.
That’s when I found out about environmental engineering. It was a relatively new major at my school and I was told that we would learn everything from treating clean water to groundwater contamination from nuclear sources. The major is designed for students to learn about the environment, its problems, and the knowledge you need in order to go out in any of those types of fields. Once I found I would be learning about global health and water crises, I wanted to know where I could sign up! I have always had this call to do international development work, and there are so many water-related crises out there that it just felt kind of natural to fall into environmental engineering. There are nine million children who die each year from dirty water and one-third of the entire population does not have access to clean water. That’s absurd! There are so many ways to get into environmental engineering. When it came time to find a job, I reached out to a lot of Notre Dame alumni, including one in California, which is how I got to my current job.
What do you do as a Water Resources Engineer?
We look at stormwater, specifically when it rains and how it rains off the road, your street, your roof, and anywhere else. It is a big deal here because of our beaches. If there is dirty water running off the land and onto the beach, beaches have to close and that affects tourism, so the state is very interested in putting money into our work. We also work with droughts, like the one a few years ago in California. That was a huge concern because there wasn’t enough water for people, so we had to pull water from other states and tried to figure out where California could get drinking and irrigated water.
Most of our work is looking at solutions for these issues. For example, when it rains, rather than treating that water and sending it to the ocean, why don’t we treat it and store it under a park, football field, or golf course, instead of pulling from our drinking water to do those things? We are working on some really cool stuff in trying to work with these big municipalities and identifying solutions. If you think of LA, it’s all urbanized, so everything is paved. If there is a big rain event, all of the water is just going right off the city of LA. We are trying to make this very grey environment act as a natural system. As a solution, we are trying to figure out ways to put that water back in the ground and how can we use that water in a smart and innovative way, rather than sending it back out to sea.
What is it like being a woman in your field?
There were probably 30% women in all of my engineering classes throughout school and I'd say I learned a lot from it. You really have to stand up for your ideas and bring value on a project, and I think I have carried that throughout my experience. Environmental engineering definitely has more women than men, but I think that is mostly because it is a newer field. My office is still predominantly male, but I have been lucky to work with a lot of people who are open-minded and who very much value women’s opinions. I never feel stepped on or not appreciated.
Why do you think that is the case?
I have had amazing strong female role models for all of my internships and jobs. They came into engineering at a time when it wasn’t like where the field is today. They have instilled in me the need to stick yourself out there and that it is okay not to be the most liked person in the room, but if you stand behind what you believe and your value, then it is worth it. They told me to make myself known and not to stand for anything less.
What can you tell us about moving across the country and starting a new life?
It has been the best and sometimes the worst at the same time. It is so rewarding because I always had this dream of living in California and I have been able to branch out so easily. It also doesn't hurt that I get to surf, road trip to Mexico on a regular basis, and just do things I would never do if I were back home. I also really love the work mindset that San Diego has. My sister has lived in New York for several years and I just get the vibe that it is a culture that applauds you for working sixteen-hour days. Meanwhile, people here don’t put emphasis on that, but instead, they applaud you for having a work-life balance. It’s very rare that people are in my office after 5:30 in the evenings. Being far from home can be difficult too, though. Considering that I am geographically as far from home as I can possibly be, the three-hour time difference is tough. By the time I get out of work, get dinner and exercise, it’s already bedtime back on the east coast. This makes staying in touch with my friends and family kind of a challenge.
Who is the most interesting person you have met since you moved to San Diego?
I have met a lot of people here who attended highly prestigious schools and did super well academically, could do anything they want, and here they are working as lifeguards or bartenders, just “figuring things out” for a few months. They have this vagabond lifestyle which stresses me out a little bit, but I kind of envy them because they just have the attitude of “I’ll figure it out eventually.” We should probably all have a little more of that in us.
Have you had any hardships in your young professional career thus far?
Oh, absolutely. In my career, I have a manager who has a different style than I am used to. She has a strong hands-off approach, which has been great because it is such a growth opportunity for me, but I often question whether I am doing something right or wrong. I am also the only one in my office without a Master's or PhD. In college, I studied what I actually do now, but at a very topical level. What we do obviously requires a strong technical base and specific knowledge, and because it is a niche field, I have had to teach myself a lot of models and become updated on new technologies within the field. I love learning, so it has been awesome, but it is also challenging to work on these projects with people I think know so much more than me. However, I have to trust that just because I don’t have these additional degrees, I am still bringing value to the team. I work hard to prove myself in this regard.
What do you do for yourself?
One of the big things I like to do when I am stressed is cook. I will just go home and meal prep for days. It is a big stress reliever for me because it is so relaxing and gets my mind out of work. I also really like to get outside, so I bike, walk or do something active because it is always nice out here. I actually feel bad if I don’t get outside because it is so beautiful and I know that I won't be here forever. I love the water too, so even if I am just sitting there and reading, it’s nice. Wine also helps.
The YoPro Know's Takeaways:
– Stick yourself out there as a woman in your field
– It is okay not to be the most liked person in the room, but if you stand behind what you believe and your value, then it is worth it
– Make yourself known and do not stand for anything less
– People here don’t put emphasis on 16-hour workdays, but instead, they applaud you for having a work-life balance