Making an Impact: Conversations with the Engineers Who Change Our World

Change is the only constant. That truth, often credited to pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, is especially true for engineers, no matter what their discipline. This year, we interviewed people involved in many various aspects of the engineering, from those who are on a mission to get kids excited about STEM to early career engineers, to entrepreneurs and seasoned veterans. All of them look at engineering from a unique perspective. All of them are on a mission to do things bigger, better, safer, faster.


Dream Big

We “dreamed big” with the filmmakers at MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF). In partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Bechtel Corporation, they produced the IMAX movie “Dream Big: Engineering Our World” showing the remarkable ways engineers are changing our world!

“The challenges engineers are taking on are the big ones: clean water, smart buildings, climate change, creating sustainable cities for tomorrow,” says ASCE Executive Director Tom Smith. “And that means there is a pressing need for lots of young people to bring their fresh ideas. We hope many will be inspired when they see how engineering can take you to different places across the globe, from China to Nepal to Seattle. You also see how different kinds of people – from Avery Bang working in Haiti to a first-generation American such as Angelica Hernandez making her dreams come true in Phoenix to Steve Burrows flying across China – can each make their own individual mark on their communities and the world at large.”


Learn More

Engineers and attorneys could learn a lot from each other, and Vanessa Adriana Nadal should know. She’s both. In May, we interviewed Nadal who is an MIT-trained chemical engineer and an attorney who earned her J.D. at Fordham University School of Law. She says engineers and lawyers have more in common than you might think, “Both require superior critical thinking skills, and both benefit from compassionate story-telling.” NEF spoke with Nadal from London (where her husband, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was filming “Mary Poppins Returns”) about what engineers and attorneys can learn from each other, and the cyclical beauty of art, inspiration, and STEM.

She told us, “Math and science are so ubiquitous that people take them for granted. They are everywhere. And they are beautiful. I’m always disheartened when people say that those subjects have little application to the real world. It’s true that you aren’t going to use logarithmic equations on a daily basis, but neither do Socrates, the Iliad, or the works of Michelangelo come up in daily conversation. I think it’s both humbling and inspirational to be able to appreciate the manifestations of our math and science knowledge in our natural world.

Accordingly, one of the huge challenges—and responsibilities—of scientists and engineers is to make our work relevant to others. Of course, engineering students have heavily-loaded majors, so there is understandably little room to incorporate enough humanities classes to turn them into great storytellers. Such is our plight.
But more than just sharing the joys of math and science with the world, good communications skills are necessary to continue being effective scientists and engineers.”


Build bridges

For people in many parts of the world, just one bridge can make all the difference. Avery Bang was featured in the IMAX film “Dream Big,” and as the Chief Executive Officer of Bridges to Prosperity, she’s seen first-hand how infrastructure means more than just convenience. We talked to her this year about creativity, failure, and the life-changing power of engineering.

“The built environment is the single most important part of our daily lives – the way we get to and from places, where we sleep, how we learn – and its engineers who create this environment. In the developed world, the everyday contributions of engineers go unnoticed because a working infrastructure is already in place, but in developing countries, that’s not the case,” Bang said.

“Working in a place like Haiti, everything so bare – you don’t live in a house with insulation and bedrooms or have roads that resemble anything we would be familiar with in the U.S. When you work in an environment where there is not a lot already in place, to have something new is really obvious. Something so simple as a bridge in these developing landscapes can be the single most important part of the infrastructure and gives you an appreciation for the difference engineering can make in peoples’ lives. You can provide isolated communities with access essential healthcare, education and economic opportunities.”

Bang went on to say, “When you see engineering in a place where it is noticed and appreciated and people show up to volunteer because they know it is going to make a difference, it makes engineering very human.”


Make a difference

Dr. Menzer Pehlivan was 13 years old when she survived a devastating earthquake in Turkey. Today, she’s a geotechnical engineer working to make structures safer to reduce risk and increase resiliency from natural disasters. Through her appearance in the IMAX film “Dream Big,” she’s also working to show children the fun of engineering and its potential to change people’s lives for better.

“…As engineers, our job is to find the most efficient solution to each problem. Engineering requires teamwork, and I feel fortunate to work with talented professionals from different backgrounds throughout each project, which provides me with excellent learning opportunities every day,” Pehlivan told us in August.

“Engineering is more than just math and science. It is more about imagination, creation, innovation, and teamwork. It is about being open to new ideas, new solutions, and new visions since the engineering profession is continually advancing.”


Celebrate the can-do spirit

For engineers in the start-up space, there are a lot of hurdles to clear to get their passion project off the ground. But for those who succeed like Ben Waters of Seattle-based WiBotic, it’s worth it. WiBotic makes wireless charging solutions for robots and robot fleets, and is pioneering autonomous charging capabilities for aerial, aquatic and mobile robots. Waters told us, “I’ve been very inspired by the entire process, including the amount of work and thought that went into our strategy and financing and the diligence our investors did on our company. If WiBotic reflects other American companies in terms of the way they go about it, I believe there will be a lot of great companies that start-up. When they’re driven by recognizing a problem and creating a solution that is more cost effective, safer or enables something to be more reliable – those are businesses that I believe can succeed.”


Bring others along

We also talked with Alaska Airlines pilot and trained engineer Jeanne Deaver about the importance of mentoring.

“When I was a little girl growing up in western Nebraska, there were very few women in STEM. There were even fewer flying Boeing airplanes at a major airline. I believe the reason I was successful is because of my mentors who provided the guidance and encouragement necessary to help me stay focused. Their words helped shape my inner dialog when things became difficult. I am so thankful to all of them for helping me succeed. This generation has a lot more opportunities to pursue STEM careers. But they must be made aware of their options to know that they exist. That is why it is important for all of us, as professionals, to look back and offer a hand up to the generation behind us. I give back as a mentor at Raisbeck Aviation High School, through Amelia’s Aero Club at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, and by taking the opportunity to show my workplace to every enthusiastic child who is on my flight.”


Inspire the future

Rube Goldberg, Inc. (RGI) is making STEM fun on an expanded scale. In a partnership with Spin Master Corp., RGI is offering toys in an exclusive deal with Target. We had to get the story, so we talked to Todd Anderson, toy designer and brand manager at Spin Master and Jennifer George, RGI legacy director and Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter.

Anderson told us about testing the toys with focus groups of kids and even giving the children of Spin Master employees take-home prototypes. “This was very intentional testing. We found that these builds were not as simple as a typical construction or science kit and really require active thinking to get the sets to work and we embraced the difference. Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed. Every step is a task to complete, and this remains true to the spirit of all Rube Goldberg inventions,” he said.


Try something new

No two roads to leadership are the same. As a Smart Building Practice Co-Leader at Deloitte, Joann Michalis is like many engineers, she solves problems – and takes risks.

She says, “Engineers are particularly good at learning something new or experimenting with a new idea…Leadership is built with the help of others. Your network and your ability to learn will see you through as long as you are willing to push yourself forward. You make mistakes, but that is OK – just don’t make the same mistake twice.”

“The rate of change is rapidly increasing and jobs will be changing. Your path to leadership is not the path I took, but the one you craft. Build a team. Implement a project. Ride each wave; grab the next wave and ride that one. Just don’t give up learning and trying new things.”


We can’t wait to see what 2018 holds for engineers and their impact on the world we live in.