Karen Strauss

Current Position: Development Review Supervisor at Ada County Highway District
Karen Strauss
Highlight BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. Believe me, if I can get through all the math and physics involved in engineering, anyone can!
June 16, 2008Her job: Pavement Management Engineer, Idaho Department of Transportation
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I am the Pavement Management Engineer for the planning department at the Idaho Department of Transportation (ITD). I review all state construction projects for pavement improvements and create data that is entered in a tracking system, so that we can track all paving improvements in the state. I also drive all the state highways in Idaho every summer to review pavement conditions, and with my team, we rate the pavement, seeing if it's worse than last year, or if a project has been performed that has improved it. I also compile summary reports of our findings, and assist in presenting our findings to the public.
Why did you choose engineering? I chose engineering because I really, really thought I wouldn't be able to do it. I had a horrible time in school with math and physics- to me, it was like trying to learn Chinese! When I went to college, I made up my mind that I wouldn't major in anything that required any math! I started my degree in forestry, because I knew I loved working outdoors and with the environment. I knew I had to take at least college algebra for most majors, so I took that class and ended up partnered with a nice guy who was doing environmental engineering. I admired him and said the major sounded like it was similar to forestry, but that it required all the math and physics I couldn't do. He challenged me to attend his classes with him and prove that I couldn't pass them. I began taking engineering classes and to my surprise, everything was pretty clear and I was passing my classes. The further in I got, the more interesting it became. I learned about how to calculate how fast a carousel would turn to make all the horses fall off; how much water I can put through a hose before the hose would jerk backwards; how much dynamite I'd have to use to collapse a hotel building in Las Vegas; and how many cars a highway could handle before I'd see a traffic jam.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? I attended Northern Arizona University and I received my Bachelor's Degree in Civil Engineering with an Environmental Emphasis.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? I get to go out to the field and see how people are building what I put on paper. I go out and answer questions about what I was planning to do and how it will work in real life. I calculate what pipe size I will need to capture all the water on my site. I calculate how many extra cars will be driving on roads because of the development I'm designing, and whether or not I'll need a turn lane. I design roads, looking at how wide the curves must be and how deep they can be based on the speed limit. I grade the sites that I build so that everything drains to my storm sewer, and nothing gets flooded.
What do you like best about being an engineer? The best part of being an engineer is that no one expects a woman to be one. I love going to a site or to a meeting and having the guys ask me if I'm ready to take notes, and ask me where the engineer is. I love the look of surprise when they see that I'M the engineer. I also love designing things and then going out to the site when it rains or snows, and seeing that everything I pictured on paper is happening as I planned it.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? My greatest career accomplishment was passing the Professional Engineer (PE) Exam. It is an 8-hour long test over everything you learned in school and everything you learned for 4 years after you graduated. it's an 8-hour long test that is very difficult. When I passed it, I got to have a seal and stamp that has my name and my PE license number on it, and I'm allowed to stamp and sign drawings. When I sign and stamp a drawing, it says that I, as a licensed engineer, certify that my design is good and will not harm the health, safety, or welfare of the public. It's a very important part of my job.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? I have met and conquered my fear of math and physics, and proved to myself that I am a lot smarter than I had given myself credit for.
Please tell us a little about your family. My family is very small, I only have a mother and a sister. My mother lives in Tucson and my sister lives in Phoenix, Arizona. My mother is a retired nurse, and my sister is a homemaker.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? My short term goals are to learn more about being a project manager, and to make more friends in my city, so I can bring in more people to my business and do work for them. My more long term goals are to eventually run the group that I work with.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? My mother always told me that I was going to college and that I was going to make something of myself. I believed I was going to college all of my life so that when it was time, I was ready and excited to go. The partner I had in my math class was the one that influenced me to try engineering and I am indebted to him for having a great influence on me to make me prove to myself that I am smart.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. Believe me, if I can get through all the math and physics involved in engineering, anyone can!
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I live in a cute little house that is very old with my husband and my wiener dog. In my spare time I like to paint, read, play soccer, and shop.