According to the Bureau of Labor, in 2015 males made up approximately 90 percent of the professionals working in both the mechanical and electrical engineering fields. While girls and boys excel at math and science classes at the same rate in high school, fewer girls choose to pursue engineering in college. Fewer still elect to work in the field after graduation. BBA has a staff of 24 engineers and designers, six of whom are women, accounting for a quarter of the staff.
Because of the gender gap in engineering, we sat down with these women to find out a little more about them professionally and personally and what drives them to work hard every day in a challenging and historically male-dominated field.
Tami Knopp, PE
“Career paths have interesting forks in them,” Tami says. “Sometimes you start out so sure you want to do one thing and then—pow! You’re exposed to a new idea or process and it becomes THE thing.” That’s what happened when the budding architect was introduced to the art and science of electrical engineering while in the architectural engineering bachelor’s degree program at Penn State. The rest, as they say, is history. In her 15 years at BBA, she has risen through the ranks to become first an associate and then lead electrical engineer who now oversees a 10-person department. There are many sides to Tami’s personality. As much as she loves the precision of engineering, off the job she has equal passion for the messier, less easily controlled aspects of life, especially gardening, canning and the great outdoors in general. “I love watersports like surfing, canoeing and fishing, and the landlubber part of me equally appreciates running, tennis, volleyball and softball. As long as it’s outside, I’m content.” In season, Tami spices things up with her extensive herb and vegetable garden which features peppers representing all levels of the Scoville scale. Bumper crop? No problem. Tami’s BBA colleagues are its happy recipients!
Victoria Fitzgerald Whitesell, EIT
New to BBA as of February 2016, Vicki graduated from The College of New Jersey where she earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. It was an internship that introduced her to the discipline, and there was no looking back. One of the things she really appreciates about BBA is being pushed to think creatively during the design process.
“There are a lot of jobs that you can have that are fulfilling, but at the same time you’re not challenging yourself,” Victoria says. “Having to think outside of the box every day makes my job enjoyable,” she explains. Her creativity extends to culinary pursuits as Vicki loves to bake, and her favorite project so far is a commercial kitchen renovation.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, while obtaining her mechanical engineering degree from the University of Pittsburgh Nadiya studied abroad for six months in Brazil, where all classes were conducted in Portuguese. Since joining BBA in 2015, the multi-phase Princeton Firestone Library renovation has been her favorite project because its complexity pushes her to overcome tough obstacles.
“It’s complicated, yet fulfilling to see how what you learn in the classroom can be translated into the real world,” Nadiya acknowledges.
Li Cui, PE
Li grew up in China, where she liked to explore the food and culture. It was home, but after getting her bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering in Xi’an, she was accepted to Penn State’s graduate school and moved to the United States in 2010.
“I was always interested in architecture,” Li says. “I wanted to be an architect, but I’m not good at drawing and stuff like that, so I decided to go with engineering and help make buildings operational.”
Li’s expertise in HVAC system design and operation, which she gained at Penn State, has served her well at BBA. In her free time, she’s learning how to sew and enjoys planning weekend trips to cities like New York and Chicago.
Katie Roof, EIT
Self-described as inquisitive, creative and sarcastic, Katie chose to go into engineering because it seemed like it fit with her interests and skill set. She joined BBA in February 2015 after obtaining a degree in architectural engineering with a focus on mechanical systems from Drexel, and working for another engineering firm for 1.5 years. At BBA, Katie designs HVAC systems.
“I like problem-solving. One of my favorite parts about my job is the 3-D aspect of it — trying to figure out how everything’s going to fit in that tiny little space,” she explains.
Katie, who was married only a year ago, enjoys a diverse range of hobbies. “I like to play piano, I like to cook, I like to go to concerts with my husband — we both really like classical music,” she says.
Danette Steffish, PE
Danette’s favorite thing about being a mechanical engineer is where the job takes her. Whether it’s beside the bell atop Independence Hall or through time while doing historical research for a project, she loves her on-the-job travels. Apart from work, Danette also has a goal of visiting all of the areas comprising the National Park System, a significant commitment given that there are 411 covering more than 84 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. She’s already made a dent in the list, having visited more than 40 of them and is setting her sights on Yosemite next.
“I do things very systematically, one step at a time,” Danette explains. She has found this to work well for planning her travels and designing mechanical systems and managing projects. Danette applies cause and effect problem-solving to every project.