SWS editor interviews Laura Casset, P.E., CFM, CPESC, associate, floodplain management and project funding specialist for Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN) on women in engineering
Laura Casset, P.E., CFM, CPESC, associate, floodplain management and project funding specialist for Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN), a planning, engineering and program management firm, has boldly pursued her engineering career, inspiring and mentoring other professionals in the process. She spoke to Managing Editor Lauren Baltas about the challenging and rewarding aspects of her career, ultimately giving voice to the experiences of many other industry professionals, particularly women engineers.
Lauren Baltas: Can you just start by telling me about how your career got started--what drew you to storm water and erosion control or what drew you to engineering in general?
Laura Casset: From a young age, I had an interest in the natural sciences, spending a lot of time outdoors doing creek walks, hunting for bugs--it just was a big part of my childhood, just that desire to spend a lot of time outside. And as I moved into high school, math and sciences were just areas that I really was passionate about and enjoyed. In high school, I met a woman in passing that used math and science in her job, and she got to travel. And I was like, well, what is it that you do? And she said, I'm an engineer. And I thought, if I get to use math and science and I can travel, I'm going to do that. And I checked that box on my application to the University of Texas at Austin, not knowing anything about engineering as a profession other than I would be able to utilize these interests.
At the first firm I worked with--a woman-owned firm based in Austin--we did a lot of land development, and I got to see all aspects of civil engineering. I continued on that path as far as doing land development work, even past graduation, because I'm in the civil engineering world, [with] land development, you'd get to touch everything you get to design--waterlines, wastewater lines, storm water line, site work. So it was just a really good opportunity for someone who didn't come from a family of all engineers to get a broad exposure to everything that our profession is.
And after several years of doing land development, I started gravitating towards single family residential work, because everything is very personal for me. I was looking for a home to buy at the time, and I was very interested in doing work for residential developments. And even further, I found that designing the detention ponds and designing the storm sewer and ensuring that these homes that someone would purchase, and you know, raise their family in, would not be subject to flooding. It just seemed like a really complex aspect of the work that I was doing, and I wanted to do more of that. And so at that time, I made a career change and moved from land development into water resources, and I've been reducing flood risk for Texas, as well as several other states, ever since. It was the best choice I ever made, and it fits me to a tee.
Baltas: What were the stepping stones that were important to getting where you are now?
Casset: I needed to have a mentor who could take me to the next level as far as water resources is concerned, because when you're doing land development, you get exposed to a lot of different aspects of general civil, but it's just scratching the surface in a lot of those areas. And I wanted to do a deep dive and get more modeling experience. So, I found an incredible mentor, Tom Mountz, who actually works with me now.
He took me under his wing, and I really became his right-hand woman. He's an expert modeler, and he taught me how to model using HEC-RAS and HEC-HMS primarily. I would write the reports and finish up the models. Some of the most notable projects we did together were the San Antonio River Authority Mission Reach project, which is a huge channel flood mitigation project in San Antonio, Texas, and we did the hydraulic modeling for that channel modification.
Baltas: Did you start your career unsure of what you wanted to do?
Casset: It's definitely evolved over time. I mean, we are a sum of our experiences, right? So it feels very natural to me that natural channel design is up front and foremost in my toolbox of how I address problems. It feels so natural. In fact, I assume that other engineers approach mitigation problems with the same angle, but that's not always the case. I mean, the most efficient solution by far can be concrete. But there's a lot to be said for the human experience and wanting our channels with networks to be an asset to our community. It feels like the public is demanding holistic solutions, holistic projects that take into account more than flood mitigation alone.
Baltas: This tends to be a male-dominated industry. When you were in school and starting your career, was it important to you to know or work with other women in the industry?
Casset: I did not get exposed [to women engineers] in school. It was fine. I had a very strong knit study group--female ... a mix--but I definitely had a group of female engineers that we all studied and supported each other through university. My graduating class was 24% female. One of the internships that I had at a woman-owned business in college was pretty well balanced as far as the male-to-female ratio. Right after graduation, I graduated into firms that were maybe 9% to 10% female, and of the female staff, few were engineers.
It was hard at the beginning of my career to feel comfortable and confident that there was a place for me, but I’ve spoken with male colleagues who had similar experiences. I will say it was harder at the beginning of my career to not have any female mentors ahead of me. I had one client, Roxanne Cook, P.E., with the city of Austin, who was further along in her career, and I reached out to her at one point to let her know that it was really great working with her, because it showed me that there's opportunities for women to advance in our field. But I have not had the chance to work directly with a woman in engineering that is my senior.
Baltas: Have you had any opportunity thus far to mentor any young engineers?
Casset: I relish opportunities to cultivate young engineers. For a long time, I felt like I needed to do more work on myself, so I pretty much was head down, very into the models ... into analytical work, up until my position here at LAN, and here I've gotten to work with a number of new graduates and many folks that are mid-level in their career. I definitely drop everything to jump in and help them.
I've also known that the female graduates, they've chosen me and they want to work for a woman because they understand that I have two young kids and I strike a balance. They want to work with a leader that has achieved that balance. It's comforting to know that it can be done. I have very talented women that I've known who have made the choice to stay home and cultivate their children's minds, and I support that. The point is to have a choice and to feel okay to make the choice either way.
[At] several conferences that I go to, women have no problem coming and talking to me and asking, is it possible? Can we have those--family, marriage and work? And it's just so shocking that this is still a question. And I think that … a lot of engineers are over analytical, always searching for a problem … I'm an optimist, but I say, I worked in a very male environment and I did it. And it wasn't easy, but I did it.
As much as I want to believe that we've moved past a lot of these issues, regularly I get introduced or something is said about well, Laura is running this team and seeing all this success, but she's also a mother, so it's really much harder for her. And that's such a slight, in my opinion, to my male coworkers, because my husband works very hard, and sacrifices a lot concerning his career to make us have balance. My male coworkers that are my peers, similarly, they carry a heavy load at home and at work. So I still think that there's some of that out there, but I want to believe we are moving out of that. I remember at one point in my career, I was told that the best thing I could do for women in engineering was to just stay in the industry, to not leave. I understand why that was shared with me, but I'm not going to just stay, I'm going to thrive.
Baltas: What have you been most proud of thus far in your career?
Casset: Since I’ve come [to LAN], my career has just blossomed. This is the most fun I've had in my career. And part of that is the environment I'm in. Before I came to LAN, I was primarily doing intensive hydrologic and hydraulic modeling for 10 years, developing flood mitigation solutions for communities primarily in Texas. At one point, I was working with a rural community, and I was extremely knowledgeable about the flood risks that they were experiencing and had gotten to know the private property owners very well, who had experienced repetitive flood damage.
It's very important to me to help this community reduce their flood risks. The issue that arose was that they could not afford to implement the solutions that I developed. So the solutions I developed went on a shelf, and I was not okay with that. So I started to research state and federal grants and subsidized loans that were developed to help communities reduce their flood risk. At that point in my career being a modeler, it really was not part of my business to help communities with gaps in their finances to implement flood risk reduction solutions. And so I approached LAN and I told them that I had done some grant applications with some previous jurisdictions and I wanted to do more, and they made an opportunity for me to come here so that I could research and develop solutions for helping communities that were experiencing those gaps in their funding. I can now proudly say that I have contributed to grant and loan funding upwards of $45 million in infrastructure for Texas. That feels great, knowing that I’ve helped so many people across Texas. I’m grateful LAN took a chance on my passions.