Each year on June 23, we recognize International Women in Engineering Day, an awareness campaign that raises the profile of women in engineering, celebrates their achievements and focuses attention on career opportunities available to women in this exciting industry. We spoke with some of the female engineers around OUC to learn how they got into the field and what being an engineer means to them.
Manju Palakkat, Chief Transformation & Technology Officer
Manju Palakkat was raised in Kuwait by “traditional Indian parents,” which, she says, meant she could choose between becoming a doctor or an engineer. She chose the latter and earned a bachelor’s in computer engineering from Bangalore University in India. She returned to Kuwait to work for a startup before moving to the United States. Her industry experience now spans the tech, hospitality, banking and retail industries, and she holds a master’s in Computer Science from Florida International University, a master’s in Business Analytics from the New York University Stern School of Business, and a Master of Business Administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Quyen Newell, Senior Engineer, Water Production
For Quyen Newell, choosing to be an engineer was a process of elimination. She tried different paths (accounting, pharmacy) before finding the one — environmental engineering — that ended up being just right. She joined OUC in 2018 after working more than 22 years at another Florida utility. As a senior water production engineer, Newell works on projects such as replacing ozone equipment, adding Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) systems and conversion of chlorine gas systems to sodium hypochlorite at OUC’s water treatment plants as well as pipeline rehabilitation and replacement.
“What I like most about my role is providing clean drinking water,” said Newell. “We are so blessed here. You turn on your faucet, and you have clean drinking water readily available. There are several places around the world where that’s hard to come by.”
Victoria Simanca, Distribution Engineer
For Victoria Simanca, engineering was in her blood, as her parents worked in the industry. While she originally set out to pursue civil engineering, her path changed during an introductory environmental engineering course – she went to her adviser to switch her major the first day of class.
Simanca started at OUC in May 2018 as a water engineering intern and was hired as a distribution engineer after receiving her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Central Florida. While she never expected to work for a utility, she says it’s opened her eyes to the variety of opportunities in engineering: “What I love about the field is that it’s so broad; you can do anything, you just have to apply what you’ve learned.”
Kristen Harrington, Distribution Engineer
Kristen Harrington originally wanted to go into international relations, but it wasn’t until her senior year in high school when she realized she couldn’t give up math or science – so engineering it was. After graduating from The George Washington University in May 2017, she worked as an OUC intern for eight months before becoming a full-time employee in January 2018. A few months later, Harrington was inducted into the Order of the Engineer, a group of engineers in the U.S. who have publicly committed to high standards of ethics and professionalism in their careers.
“In the end, engineering is experienced-based,” Harrington says. “The more you work, the more you learn. It’s one of the most rewarding things in my life that every day I’m learning something new and able to apply that and grow.”
Ileana Loubriel, Senior Engineer, System Protection
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Ileana Loubriel always heard, “Engineering is for men.” And because she liked math, she was encouraged to go into accounting instead. But at her school’s career night, she met a female engineer. “She worked in the chemical industry,” Loubriel remembers. “I was so interested in what she was saying. I thought that was kind of cool to enter an area where there are no women. I think that opened my eyes. Now, I’ve been an engineer for around 30 years.”
One of Loubriel’s favorite parts about her current role is the variety: “Here, we do a little bit of everything. We plan what we’re going to do, we do the scope, we buy the equipment, we design. I like that because I learn other things, not just my part. I can learn the whole line of production.”
Xama Joshi, Senior Engineer, Substation & Transmission Project Management
Xama Joshi’s goal was always to become a doctor, but when she moved to Orlando from India, there were no medical schools close by. So she took a different route, obtaining her associate’s degree from Seminole State College before earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida. “A lot of my professors at UCF inspired my interest in the electrical field, so they definitely have made a big impact on my career,” said Joshi. Now, she’s been with OUC since 2007, starting in Distribution Engineering and eventually moving to Transmission Engineering.
“I highly believe that if you work hard you can always achieve your goal in your life, no matter how hard the path is,” Joshi said. “For those who want to become engineers: never give up, keep on working and do your best.”
Natalie Urick, Senior Distribution Engineer
With an electric engineer for a dad, Natalie Urick grew up witnessing the power of engineering firsthand. “He could do anything,” said Urick. “No challenge seemed too great. I wanted to be as amazing as him.” Because math and science were her strong suits in grade school, she thought engineering might be the path for her. But it wasn’t always straightforward.
“During college, I made good grades and enjoyed most of the classes, which was enough reassurance to know I was pointed in the right direction. After college, I spent the next five years or so constantly second guessing my career,” said Urick. “Did I just really make a choice based on feelings? Were my feelings or hunches wrong? Should I do this with my life? Should I do that? I finally found what I was looking for – PURPOSE. That purpose drove me to become a better engineer; to learn things I thought I would never understand, like chemistry and electrical engineering, being a part of a team, and managing projects. My purpose was simple – to help other people with what I’m good at, and it turns out it is designing water and wastewater utilities. I stopped looking for what job or career might make me happy, to finding a way to use my abilities to help others. “
Eva Reyes, Manager, Lighting
Utilities were the family business for Eva Reyes. Her dad worked in commercial services at an electric utility in Puerto Rico, and she followed in his footsteps at the same company for 11 years before moving to Orlando with her husband and two children. She joined OUC in 2004.
“My favorite part about engineering is you’ve got to be very creative,” said Reyes. “You also need to approach different sources — different departments, different people, experts on the subject matter that you might not be proficient in — to complete a project design.”
Chris Russell, Manager, Water Resources & Compliance
When Chris Russell’s high school guidance counselor suggested engineering, she thought it sounded too technical. But after researching different careers in the industry, she was drawn to environmental engineering. “Working with people and with the environment had more appeal to me than the mechanical aspects,” said Russell. “I decided, OK, I’ll try it — and I’ve been doing it for 34 years.”
In her role at OUC, Russell primarily deals with consumptive use permitting compliance and water resources planning. “I enjoy being an engineer because it’s always challenging, and there’s usually never a dull moment,” said Russell. “I like using critical thinking to solve problems.”
Alyson Byrne, Project Engineer, Water Resources
Alyson Byrne became interested in engineering when she was applying to college.
“At that time, my older sister had made the decision to pursue her PhD in Environmental Engineering. I have always looked up to her and, as my mom fondly reminds me, wanted to do everything she was doing,” said Byrne. “Environmental engineering also felt familiar because our grandfather was a sanitation engineer. He studied civil engineering in 1946 and specialized in potable water treatment, wastewater treatment and solid waste. Eventually, sanitation engineers were referred to as environmental engineers with the holistic mission to protect human health and nature’s ecosystems. And I excelled at math and science, so engineering was good fit for my skill sets.” Following in their footsteps, Byrne graduated with honors from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Engineering and a Master’s of Engineering specializing in Solid Waste Management.
For young girls looking to get into engineering, Byrne says to seize opportunities and don’t be afraid of challenges: “I landed my first job at an international consulting company because I took on a few key challenges presented to me in college. Throughout college and the first decade of my career, these opportunities have shaped by personal and professional growth, ultimately leading to my current role in Water Resources with OUC.”
Lilly Pares, Distribution Engineer
Lilly Pares comes from a family of engineers, and was among the first few female engineers to continue their legacy, earning a bachelor’s degree in electric engineering from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. She spent more than 25 years serving in different capacities at PREPA (Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) before moving to Florida. She joined OUC in 2014 as a project coordinator and then moved to the distribution engineering team.
Pares hopes to use her experiences to inspire young people interested in joining the field: “In the next chapter of life, I plan on narrating my experiences and thoughts to help nurture and cultivate the next generations of exceptional engineers.”
Chanda Durnford, Emerging Technologies Project Manager
Math was always Chanda Durnford‘s favorite subject. She grew up loving puzzles, LEGO kits and anything outdoors. But she cites NASA’s Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (SHARP) as the turning point that piqued her interest in problem solving and led her to engineering school. After earning her civil engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, she worked for ten years in construction management in Virginia before accepting a Master of Science fellowship to study sustainability at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
“I moved back home to Florida after an exciting job with Hawaii Energy,” said Durnford. “The last four years with OUC have been an equally positive experience working with forward-thinking customers interested in new clean energy solutions.”