Jackie Phuekhunthod (age 27) is a civil engineer who works in the private sector for Water Resource consulting, specializing in Recreational Water and Stormwater design and a graduate from UCLA. She models flood events, designs man-made rivers and lakes, drafts construction plans for stormwater treatment, writes master drainage plans for new developments, or studies entire watersheds for restoration.
I want to start off with getting to know your childhood and anything particularly special about your youth that led towards STEM.
"It started with toys. I liked to build things with LEGOs, tinker with gadgetry, and navigate puzzles in video games. Growing up, I wasn’t pressured to go towards one career path versus another, so I went through many phases of dream jobs, ranging from cartoon animator, to architect, to lawyer. I was fortunate to have parents who supported my interests, whatever they were, and encouraged my exploring. Over time, I was naturally drawn towards STEM, because the challenges and obstacles were similar to my childhood idea of fun: chasing the satisfaction of solving problems in creative ways."
What major did you have in college? As college applications approach for rising seniors, tell us about what influenced your choice for your major. (Share any advice to our audience who are pursuing in that field). In what ways does your college major affect your work right now? *
"I really enjoyed Physics during high school, and for no other concrete reason, decided to major in Physics for my undergrad. It wasn’t until my 3rd year at UCLA that I had explored enough electives and major courses to really understand what I wanted to do career wise. Specifically, a fluid dynamics class made me interested in the behavior of water, so I took up an Environmental Engineering minor to satisfy that curiosity. Before I knew it, I was applying to grad school to specialize in Water Resource. My current job and career trajectory is not aligned with my undergrad major at all. Was it a waste? Depends how you want to interpret it. I think my Physics background provided a strong foundational translation into engineering. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Physics, and I would not have discovered Water Resource if I did not first explore Physics.
My advice to college applicants is this: Choosing a major is not a one-time decision that determines your identity or commits your career path. It’s very natural to change majors or add to it as you continuously take in new information on subjects and niche industries you’ve never heard of. At the same time, there is still an introspective aspect in determining your interests and whether you want it to be your career. You have to accept that you won’t really know until you try. There’s a fear of wasting time that tends to hold us back. You have to ask yourself: for what reason am I rushing?"
Did you do research and/or major projects? If yes, what inspired you to do so?
"My graduating master's project led me to my current career. CSULB encouraged students to connect with local industries to put our senior projects to actual application. I wanted to test the new hydrologic modeling software XPSWMM iI had learned in the classroom on a local watershed where I could better connect with the ramifications of my data results. So I chose to connect with Long Beach Public Works who happened to have a city wide stormwater treatment project going on. They happily introduced me to the consultant team and I worked with their designs for my modeling project. I loved the creative solutions that were presented and I knew then that I wanted to be a design consultant too."
Many high school internships often emphasize on skills pertaining to management or accounting duties. Are there any instances where you had to use business skills in your education/career despite it being STEM? *
"The business side of engineering is often not emphasized enough in school or internships. There is a proper way to write emails, handle meetings, phone calls, billing, proposals, scopes, and change orders. There's a timing and balance to all of these. You don't want to nickel and dime your client for every trivial work effort, but at the same time, you need to clearly define and work within the authorized scope contract. These are all things I learned while on the job and was fortunate to be trusted with client interactions as well as technical tasks. Staying organized and communicating clearly with tact is key."
After college or grad school, were there any life-changing experiences or any key people who deeply influenced you towards your career? *
"There are two major roles in the private engineering industry: the upfront project manager, and the behind the scenes technical expert. You need to have a good grasp of both to do well as either role, but you can specialize. After college, after grad school, even after starting my job, I wasn't sure what role I wanted to specialize in.. But after observing my surroundings in meetings with other project teams from our consulting partners, I noticed I was always the only woman in the room. It is actually the lack of representation of female project managers that influences me to become one in my professional career."
According to ASCE, only 14% of women are in civil engineering. In your own thoughts, why should women pursue a career in civil engineering? Were there any particular moments where you have impacted females during your education/career?
"Civil Engineering has historically been a very standard, by-the-book, tried and true type of industry. But that has been changing very drastically in recent decades due to higher environmental awareness, building regulations, new technologies, and a push for unique and innovative approaches to history-old problems. Civil Engineering in a developed country is going to keep pushing boundaries and demanding creative solutions that only new perspectives can bring. I think women can bring these new perspectives to the table, and their presence alone already brings a new atmosphere that was not there before.
At my current job, we get summer college interns and international interns every year. They are often assigned to departments that align with their interests so we can help them explore. We work very closely together during their short time with us. and I end up getting to know them very well, which makes me very sad when they leave. But I would do it over and over again because some interns (both male and female) come very eager to please, but timid to speak up. Sometimes working with someone more similar to themselves in age, gender, or demeanor helps to lessen any intimidation that prevents them from asking questions or contributing ideas. I make efforts to remind them that an engineer doesn't always look like a business suit, or a yellow construction hat, or a stern frowning man. Engineers look like me; they look like yourself. I only hope my small impact on our future engineers helps to replace the picture of a stereotypical engineer in their heads with a vision of themselves instead."
Civil engineering has been an evolving field. What are the motivations you have for yourself to continue your growth in this industry?
"The private consulting sector keeps me very engaged. The variety of projects and sometimes sudden emergency situations excite me. I go into work with a very loose idea of what I'll be doing for the day because a single email or phone call might make me drop what I'm doing for something else, or make me completely start over. Sometimes there are long nights. Sometimes you're put on the spot with high stakes on the line. It can be a stressful industry because of this, so it's not for everyone. It's important to distinguish the fun-adrenaline stress of being challenged VS the stress of hating what you do. In my case, this fast paced industry still has so much to offer me. I've learned so much in so little time, I'm motivated to continue growing in this industry because despite all that I've learned, I've barely scratched the surface."