To celebrate National Engineers Week (February 18-24) we interviewed Jennifer Hoynak, a mechanical engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. Jennifer jumped into engineering to design roller coasters, studying engineering at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. While the Energy Department unfortunately doesn’t have any roller coasters to our name, Jennifer’s work winds through the headquarters complex from top to bottom, managing projects from piping to ductwork to make this building hum along smoothly.
Q: Why engineering? What’s interesting about engineering to you?
A: I chose to pursue engineering partially because growing up I was repeatedly told I would be a good engineer. I was good at math and science and liked to solve puzzles, which my family and teachers recognized were a good match for engineering. I ultimately decided to go to college for engineering because I wanted to design roller coasters, even though that’s not where my career has taken me!
Engineering is interesting to me because no two days are the same in the engineering profession and there are always new things to learn.
Q: Did you always know you’d go into engineering? What sparked this interest?
A: I feel like I always knew that I’d go into engineering growing up. Since engineering dealt with math and science (two of my favorite subjects in school), it was a fairly easy decision for me. Engineering was also the degree I would need for all potential careers I saw for myself whether it was my middle school dream job of becoming an astronaut or my high school dream job of designing roller coasters.
Q: What are some activities you do as a mechanical engineer?
A: As a mechanical engineer, I perform a lot of different activities such as reviewing engineering drawings and studies of mechanical systems (piping, ductwork), providing specifications and designs for mechanical system modifications, performing as a project manager on mechanical system projects, analyzing and providing recommended solutions for issues with mechanical systems, and providing recommendations for strategic improvements to mechanical systems. Some of this work is desk work while a lot of it requires me to be in mechanical rooms and other locations with mechanical systems throughout the headquarters complexes.
Q: Of all the types of engineering, why did you choose mechanical?
A: I initially chose mechanical because it was the most general engineering discipline at my college (Bucknell University), and I felt it was most likely to get me a job designing roller coasters. I continued with mechanical engineering because it was the engineering discipline that did and continues to interest me the most.
Q: What training did your job require? What were the most and least interesting classes to you?
A: One of the things my college professors stressed to me and my classmates was that our classes and degree were based on teaching us the fundamentals and the ability to solve engineering problems. The mechanical engineering discipline is so broad that our training would be provided by our future employers and would for most of us last for our first year on the job. The most and least interesting classes were I found more dependent on the professor than the actual material, although I’d say that my senior design classes were the most fun. These classes incorporated all aspects of other classes into a final group project that was worked on my entire senior year. My project was developing and performing “mass manufacturing” of a board game, which my group chose as a Bucknell-themed version of Trouble. I still have one of the games we mass produced in my office.
Once I graduated, my first engineering job out of college was as an Engineer at a nuclear power plant. My training included 4 weeks of off-site training with other engineers along with a yearlong on-site training curriculum to gain certification for all my core duty tasks. These certifications included proper performance monitoring, system health reports, failure investigation reports, and basic plant operational knowledge.
Q: What were challenges you faced along the way to your current job?
A: Some of the biggest challenges involved getting out of my comfort zone to be a better engineer. That includes making sure I am out looking at actual conditions (not just sitting at my desk waiting for reports from others) and being willing to jump into help solve emergent problems even at inconvenient times. These challenges were the times I had the most growth as an engineer and gained the most respect from my management and peers.
Another challenge I have faced is being a female engineer. I have been very fortunate to work with people and organizations that are very supportive of female engineers, however challenges still exist being the minority. It can take more time as a female to gain trust and respect as an engineer, but once that is earned through hard work and being willing to learn, it can help you stand out from others in a positive way.
Q: Are you part of any networking/association groups for engineers? If you are, why are they helpful?
A: I am a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), and Tau Beta Pi (Engineering Honor Society). Being a professional member of these organizations provides me with a network of other engineers, classes and webinars, conferences, and industry publications. They also offer volunteer and other social opportunities.
Q: For little kids--- are there any programs, toys, or books that you’d recommend to explore engineering?
A: I feel there are so many more toys geared towards engineering today than there were when I was a little kid. Specific toys like the coding caterpillar, Goldiblocks, Legos, and playdoh are some examples of recent and more established toys that have basic engineering applications. Programs held by local engineering schools or professional organizations and events to earn scout badges for engineering topics are also good ways for kids to explore engineering at an early age.
Q: What tips do you have for others considering engineering?
A: Engineering is hard work, but it is worth it. Go to events like Discover Engineering Family Day at the National Building Museum to see the different booths and talk to engineers about what they do. Remember that there is no one type of engineer despite the stereotypes – there are engineering applications for just about everything we see and touch every day. Especially for girls considering engineering, you can be super “girly” like me and still make a great engineer!
If you do pursue engineering, make it fun by steering projects to your personal interests and take your FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) exam before you graduate college.