During the month of March, Women’s History month, ACEC California is highlighting the past and current notable contributions of women engineers and land surveyors. As such, we are highlighting accomplished female engineers and land surveyors to gain a better understanding of how they view women’s growing place in the engineering profession and how the profession can continue to reach out to aspiring young women engineers.
Amanda Lai is a project engineer in the water group at Kleinfelder, where she works on local projects to help alleviate California’s water challenges. Ms. Lai graduated from UCLA in 2011 with a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and spent three years at Parsons Corporation, working in road/highway engineering and earning her PE. She then decided to shift her professional focus to addressing the state’s water infrastructure needs.
Ms. Lai has also been named one of 2017 ACEC National’s Young Professionals of the Year.
Each year, ACEC National selects five young professionals from all over the country who represent excellence in their field and illustrate how their work has positive impacts on society. Amanda will formally accept the award at ACEC National’s 2017 Fall Conference.
Outside of the office, she serves as the President of the Engineers Without Borders San Diego Professional Chapter where she oversees international projects in El Salvador, India and Senegal that help to provide basic human needs in developing communities. She is also active in a mentorship program at Emerald Middle School in El Cajon and a STEM mentorship program at San Diego High School. In her spare time, she travels extensively and frequents local farmers markets where she dabbles with sustainable agriculture.
Below is a Q&A ACEC California conducted with Ms. Lai:
What was attractive about the profession of engineering?
Engineering is a fancy word for sustaining existence. Without engineering, the human race would have ceased to exist long ago. Most importantly, we would not have pizza.
What do you work on in your current capacity?
My team focuses on water treatment, storage and distribution. Living in Southern California is a constant reminder of the impact and imperativeness of water infrastructure. My team is comprised of a group of highly technical and creative engineers, and I am constantly amazed by their talent.
What is the one thing many people don’t understand about civil engineering?
Two things. Firstly, it’s everywhere, seen and unseen. A few obvious engineering feats are skyscrapers and bridges and the infrastructure supporting these marvels. In the last few years, I have been captivated by the things unseen, namely resource recovery. A few weeks ago, I participated in Engineering Day at the Mall where our EWB booth did a water demonstration that challenged many young students to think about where their water comes from and the engineering behind our modern existence.
Secondly, engineering is incredibly innovative. We are artists, and science is our medium. I find it amusing that engineers are often billed as less-than creative. If that were the case, we would be walking everywhere, Los Angeles would still be an uninhabitable desert, and there would be no pizza.
Is it important to you to help develop the next generation of women engineers? How might the profession do better at reaching out to aspiring young women?
I cannot imagine a world without female engineers. I was raised predominantly by strong and decisive women, and to think that there could exist a future where there are fewer females in the STEM field is unthinkable. My grandmother and her six children (5 daughters, 1 son) fled Vietnam during the Vietnam War; they oftentimes had no choice but to work hard and to work honestly. Growing up, this was normal.
We need to talk about the absence of women in leadership positions. I am lucky to work in a time and place where there are laws prohibiting explicit gender biases in the workplace, but we are now presented with the subtle microaggressions that require a different approach. Microaggressions are like the vestigial organs of our patriarch’s past. What’s worse is that people don’t like to talk about it because it’s not so obvious, but no battle worth fighting is easy. Kleinfelder hosts a quarterly women’s network to designate a space specifically to talk about inequality in all forms. Forums like this facilitate conversation to acknowledge disparities and ways to address them.
We also need to normalize women and minorities in the STEM field. My hope is that students will one day no longer have to hear the statistics about how engineering is a male-dominated field. We exist! I work with a local middle school as a mentor and STEM advocate. I have received letters from some aspiring female engineers who are encouraged by the very sight of a female engineer. I do not consider myself to be a highly exceptional engineer, but the fact that I am present in their lives is enough encouragement for them to continue pursuing their education, regardless of the antiquated statistics that they are fed.
What would be the dream project you would choose to work on?
Ideally, I would like to design a large-scale composting facility powered by vermiculture that can take in organic waste and biosolids and produce nutrient-dense compost for agriculture and protein-dense grub for livestock feed.
Realistically, I plan to travel to Senegal this summer with my EWB team to implement our sanitation project.