Women in STEM: An SEH Roundtable

In honor of National STEM Day (November 8) and Women in STEM DAY (February 11), we gathered six SEH experts to discuss all things STEM, including: why they chose a career in STEM, the value they feel it brings to our communities, and advice they would give to young women seeking to enter the field.

Meet our Women in STEM experts:

Tracy Ekola

Tracy Ekola, PE, is a vice president and leads SEH operations in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa. An ardent proponent of the planet’s greatest resource, she works tirelessly toward a better world by providing clean water solutions.

Sue Mason

Sue Mason, PE, senior project manager/principal, is a civil engineer and leads the SEH Civil Practice in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. She helps implement public infrastructure projects.

Melanie Niday

Melanie Niday is a senior hydrogeologist and solid waste scientist dedicated to solving our communities' waste water issues and working to preserving the planet.

Ariel Christenson

Ariel Christenson, PE, is a structural engineer with a focus on designing complex projects that span from demolition to new construction and everything in between.

Jennifer Schmitz

Jennifer Schmitz, is a technician with a focus on civil engineering and better streets with safer sidewalks.

Nina Bonanno

Nina Bonanno, EIT, works with clients on comprehensive civil engineering services.

What piqued your curiosity in STEM?

Tracy Ekola
 I grew up on a farm and designing came naturally, needing to figure something out or fix something. On the farm, we built things we needed, and had a side business building grain bins and foundations. Building things for five to six years as I grew up was a springboard for my career. Farming provided learning opportunities for innovation and design in the environment and water. Early exposure for me transitioned right into my career. Loving the outdoors and the environment helps!

Sue Mason
I was "good" in math and needed a career. Someone suggested engineering to me. In addition, at a pivotal time in my life, I had a part-time job working for the City of St. Cloud. I worked in their engineering department and thought I could put my experience to good use.

Melanie G. Niday
Doing well in science and math in high school and hearing about the growing environmental issues in the news during the 1980s.

Ariel Christenson
I've always been interested in math and science, so I started college as a biomedical engineering major. Once I realized physics was far superior to biology, (laughs) I found a home in the civil engineering department. I was fascinated by the large scale applications (buildings specifically). Initially, I was interested in biomedical engineering because of its positive impact on the lives of others, so it was an easy transition to civil engineering—which seeks to better our infrastructure for future generations.

Jennifer Schmitz
I've always enjoyed being creative. I had a high school drafting teacher who really motivated my curiosity and recognized my talents.

Nina Bonanno
I don't recall an exact moment when I knew STEM was the right field for me, but growing up I was always a tinkerer. At any given time, there would be some type of K'nex or Lego structure or model being constructed in my parent's living room. In addition to that, math and science were always my favorite subjects. I participated in MATHCOUNTS and Science Olympiad events in middle school and junior high, which only heightened my passion for the discipline.

What advice would you give your younger self, or a young woman about pursuing her passion in STEM?

Sue Mason
Take chemistry and physics in high school as well as math! None of it is that hard. Get work experience to help guide your career choice.

Melanie G. Niday
Trust the science even though others may doubt it. Many people do not always understand the technical concepts and, as a result, you must be able to continually describe, discuss and teach the science whenever necessary so appropriate decisions and responses are made.

Nina Bonanno
Despite the growth and acceptance of women in STEM in recent years, there will always be someone or something that will tell you aren't cut out for it. Don't listen. It could be a poor grade on an exam you thought you aced, or getting passed over on a job you thought you'd be perfect for but if it's what you enjoy, keep going. It seems like pretty standard and clichéd advice, but I still think it's the most important.

Jennifer Schmitz
Show interest and get involved in what you like.

Ariel Christenson
Understanding the needs of others is crucial from a problem solving perspective (project-level) and on a personal level. In my industry, that is done through collaboration with other disciplines, the owner and end-user.

Tracy Ekola
Get involved in activities and programs that target fourth-sixth graders interested in STEM. Becoming an influencer is important. I speak with high school girls that are not as interested in a future in STEM as much as the fourth- and sixth-graders. It is easier to gain an interest in STEM at an earlier age.

What motivates you in the workplace?

Ariel Christenson
I'm motivated by working toward building a sustainable end product that is safe and that the client is proud of.

Nina Bonanno
The needs in our society are constantly changing, and we have to adapt in order to keep up. Working with such intelligent people here at SEH keeps that flame lit to continue to bring innovative ideas to the table to better serve our clients and communities.

Tracy Ekola
People that are passionate in what they do and helping others really motivates me. As well as people who are committed to building a better world for all of us and serving others. That’s the key for me.

Sue Mason
I value the really smart and creative people I get to work with, and I love serving our appreciative clients and helping solve their problems that result in an improvement for their community. And, having fun and challenging projects to work on doesn’t hurt!

Jennifer Schmitz
I enjoy keeping up with the evolving technology and all of the impressive things we can accomplish with it.

Melanie G. Niday
Seeing the need to provide technical services to navigate regulations based on science to all my clients, I especially enjoy working with those in local government that don't have the technical resources within their own organizations.

Interested in a career in STEM?
Check out our job opportunities or talk with our recruiters here.

What is your favorite thing about working in STEM?

Nina Bonanno
The fact that every day has the potential to be different. I love facing new challenges and the opportunity to find new ways to solve them.

Melanie G. Niday
Being able to mentor younger scientists and engineers.

Ariel Christenson
Innovation. Technologies are constantly changing, so the depth of our knowledge of the built environment is continually increasing. This results in life-long learning—there's never a dull day!

Tracy Ekola
STEM impacts our lives and the quality of our communities so directly.

Jennifer Schmitz
There are never two projects that are the same. Each one has unique characteristics.

Sue Mason
The satisfaction of taking a problem and creating solutions for your clients. Working in a team environment, and collaboratively solving a problem or completing a project.

Who is/are your role model(s)?

Tracy Ekola
My Dad. He influenced me by being an innovator and being able to build anything and everything. I was also mentored early in my career by material scientist Nandu Paruvacat. He approached everything by asking questions and taught me the way you help someone is by helping them learn.

Sue Mason
Dick Moore, former SEH project manager and my eleventh grade math teacher.

Melanie G. Niday
Elaine Hatzenbuhler, my college laboratory instructor. She helped me see that you can obtain respect amongst peers (male and female) and still be yourself.

Jennifer Schmitz
My parents. They have been small business owners for 37 years and taught me great work ethic to reach my goals.

Nina Bonanno
First and foremost, my parents for always supporting me and my choice to pursue a career in STEM, despite the fact it currently has me 1,100 miles away from home. And second, all the women actively pursuing their passions and achieving their goals in the STEM fields, committed to one day erasing the norm of this being a "man's world."

Give us one word to describe your working style.

Sue Mason
Collaborative.

Jennifer Schmitz
Focused.

Nina Bonanno
Diligent.

Melanie G. Niday
Flexible! STEM fields and regulatory-related aspects are constantly changing and have to adapt.

Ariel Christenson
Efficiency. I try to be focused in the work that I do so that projects stay on budget, client needs are met, and I can get home to snuggle with my baby boy (born Nov 4)!

Tracy Ekola
Passionate.

Bringing it all together

Combining passion and skill for STEM is an excellent approach for excelling in the workplace. Together, the women at SEH are actively making a difference and finding the best solutions to positively impact the world around us.

At SEH, we are all committed to sparking inspiration and cultivating mentorships for the next generation of women innovators and leaders in our communities, so together, we can build a better world for all of us.

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