You might already know March is National Engineering Month, but did you know that March is also the month for “Expanding Girls Horizons in Math and Science“? Much of the work we do here at the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure involves math and science – especially the work done by our wonderful team of engineers on staff, some of whom, are women.
We spoke with Sharlie Huffman, Senior Bridge Seismic and Structural Health Monitoring Engineer with the ministry and asked her a few questions about engineering and the role of women in this field. Sharlie was recently awarded a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal which recognizes Canadians who have made a lasting contribution to the quality of life we enjoy.
1. What made you want to become an engineer? How long have you been in the engineering field?
I always loved puzzles and mystery stories and, according to my parents, had way too much curiosity! Science turned out to be the ideal field for me (along with math). It either answered my questions or let me know how many other people were also seeking the same answers. Also, I like playing with numbers. Numbers for me are just pieces of the puzzle. If you put them together in the right way, you get the answer.
In college, I found physics was too theoretical. I liked science I could touch. My professor said that I should really transfer to engineering – and I did. I graduated in 1981 and came directly to the Ministry of Transportation. It has been an incredible and satisfying journey. I have had many puzzles and mysteries to solve over the years and have been able to create some very visible and long lasting answers (bridges). Of course, I still have many outstanding puzzles and I do not expect that to change as long as I live. Being an engineer isn’t just something I do. It is something I am.
2. What is the most memorable project you have worked on? Why?
Wow, well, every project has its excitement, frustrations and ultimate satisfaction. The first big design project I had was designing the 500 metre Yellowhead Bridge in Prince George. I started it as an Engineer in Training and finished it as a Professional Engineer (P.Eng). Later in my career, when I became the Regional Bridge Engineer out of Prince George, I got to drive over it regularly and was professionally responsible for its condition and its issues. Fortunately it has had no structural problems in its almost 30-year life. Must have been a good design.
I think the development of the ministry bridge monitoring program and the BCSIMS web site has to be another highlight. It will be here long after I am not. I’ll be looking in on it though, checking the website for improvements and expansion of the structural health network and still feeling satisfaction from it for many years to come.
3. What tips or advice do you have for girls or women thinking about a career in engineering?
Go for it! It would be a decision you will never regret. Engineering lets you work in a team or almost-solo (your choice), interact with bright, enthusiastic thinkers and problem solvers – sometimes with a slightly wacky sense of humour and occasionally a way of thinking that is outside the box – and move the world forward in a positive way.
If you like numbers for the fun of them, there is a place for you in engineering. If you like math that is practical and means something real, there is a place for you. If you like science and you want to spend your life in research, you can be a theoretical scientist, but there are also places for you in engineering. I like all the above and manage to have a job that provides it all.
You can work with the environment (not just in concept, but in practice), with municipal systems, with mechanics (including designing medical instruments), robotics, electronics (including musical instruments), roads and transportation networks or my personal favourite – structures. I like structures the best because they are a team effort, letting lots of people call them “mine”, they provide safe passage or enclosure for people and they stand there long enough to show your grandchildren what you have built.
4. You were recently awarded a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. Could you explain how you were nominated and tell us a little bit about how it felt to receive this honour?
It felt wonderful to receive the medal and to know that my colleagues had nominated me and felt me worthy of it.
5. What is the most exciting thing about the future of engineering and what role do you think women have in developing that future?
Engineering is one field that will always have a future, is not location specific and is in demand in the best and the worst of times. Women are generally very good at multi-tasking, organizing chaos (or over-stimulated toddlers) and creative about problem solving which makes them natural engineers. In my experience I have found women less concerned with hierarchal posturing and more concerned with solutions; less concerned with personal wins and more open to consensus and team wins. What women often need to improve on is confidence.
So, what do you think? Does engineering sound like the pieces of a perfect puzzle for you? If you are interested in learning more about how the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure recruits Engineers in Training, check back at the Province’s Employment Opportunities page in winter 2014. We look forward to working with you!