Today’s episode is a really special one because it not only emphasizes the importance of having higher percentages of women in the engineering industry as a whole, but it also brings up the discussion of how the civil engineering of the future may look like from a sustainability, and even space exploration (hello, Mars!) standpoint.
Today’s guest is Hannah Copeman, an amazing female engineer to join the ever-growing group of women in engineering, who got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Toronto, Canada, emphasizing on structural engineering. She talks about how she got into engineering in the first place, and why she decided to pursue her higher education in a different country. She also dives deeper into the aspects of being a female engineering student and how this played out during her undergraduate and graduate studies, as well as some personal obstacles she had to overcome, especially in the first two years of her undergrad.
Hannah is currently working for an organization, called One Community, that focuses on building sustainable cities, specifically tackling the infrastructure industry, which accounts for more than 70% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. She’s in the civil structural team, so she oversees and helps design the lancet-arch-shaped, self-sufficient residence built out of aircrete.
Hannah is now in the process of studying for her FE exam, and she shares some tips and habits she has used in order to keep herself motivated and productive, as well as relaxed so that she doesn’t burn out, that may help literally any undergrad, grad, or young engineer out there. Nevertheless, she dives a bit into how the current space exploration and the development in the industry may allow civil engineers to work on projects to be built on Mars, using totally different technologies and techniques, but also taking advantage of some peculiarities of the once thought “inhabitable” environment.
This is a fun and interesting conversation to listen to, which will certainly add a lot of value. It will allow you to get a lot of insights about the future of the field from a young and visionary engineer’s perspective, both when it comes to the necessity of becoming sustainable due to global warming and to the ground-breaking discoveries in planetary surface construction.
Hannah Copeman’s LinkedIn Profile – https://www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-copeman
University of Toronto, Canadá – https://www.utoronto.ca
Manhattan College –https://manhattan.edu
Thornton Tomasetti – https://www.thorntontomasetti.com
One Community – https://www.onecommunityglobal.org
Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Jhonson – Here
Bjarke Ingels Group – https://big.dk/#projects
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Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right, Hannah. Thanks for coming on the Civil Engineering Academy podcast. How's it going?
Hannah Copeman: Thank Isaac for having me. It's going great. Excited for today.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. You know, as we were talking a little bit earlier, I mentioned that it's always fun to have women in engineering come on the show, because I think we need definitely more of them. So, it's fun to hear your experiences, kind of what you've gone through in school, and how you started this whole journey. So, maybe as we dive into this, why don't you dive into how you got into engineering yourself? Why did you go that route?
Hannah Copeman: So... Growing up, I always had a passion for art and math and I didn't really know what engineering was until probably my sophomore, junior year of high school when I was studying for the ACT. And then I had a tutor who conveniently at the same time he was studying for his structural exam. So, he was kind of telling me what that process is like and getting me a little bit more familiar with it. And one of the summers following, I did an intro to civil engineering course at Manhattan College where -- You know, we did the typical build a bridge with Popsicle sticks some other exercises, and we got to go visit Thornton Tomasetti's office in Manhattan and see what they were working on and talk to some of the engineers there. So, that really kind of solidified in my mind that this is something I could see myself doing. And I got to UoT, University of Toronto, in Canada and did engineering there. And so I kind of always had this side passion for art and architecture, but I wanted something a little bit more rigorous on the math and science side. So that's why I did civil primarily, but then I also did my master's and I focused on structural engineering at UoT. So we had some electives there and I reached out to the architecture program, the master of architecture program, Daniel's faculty, just to see if maybe I could use some of my electives there as courses in architecture program. And so I did a couple of proposals on both ends and ended up getting to do that too. So, I kind of did merge a little bit and I definitely, going forward, still want to keep that structural engineering architecture integration, career long.
Isaac Oakeson: That's fantastic. What was the decision to go to university of Toronto versus like a university in New York or anything like that? Why there versus here? I guess you're right on the border, but just curious how that thought processed.
Hannah Copeman: Yeah. So, I grew up in long Island right outside of the city and lived there my whole life, and my sister and I are both Canadian citizens. So, she ended up going to McGill, which is in Montreal, and that kind of just got my idea, thinking about Canadian schools. So, when it came down to visit everything, did my rounds. I think I applied mostly to American schools, like 10 here and then just two in Canada. And I ended up going to visit her when I was in high school. And a lot of her friends were saying, "Oh, if you're interested in engineering or specifically civil, definitely check out university of Toronto since they are known for their engineering program". So I went to visit that and ended up falling in love with the city and the school campus and just kind of wanted a different experience. I definitely didn't want to stay in New York. So, at the end I was between Berkeley in San Fran or the University of Toronto, in Canada. So, I'm either going West or I'm leaving the country. I was like, "You know, I could see myself more staying in the US afterwards. So, why not try Canada now?" So that's what brought me there.
Isaac Oakeson: That's interesting. SoI guess just to go along with that thought process you want to get your PE license, I'm assuming, at some point, and so you're going to get that in the US?
Hannah Copeman: I definitely want to get in the US eventuallyThe EIT, engineering in training, and PEng system in the US and Canada are slightly different, where in Canada for your EIT, once you graduate from an ABET accredited program, you can more so just apply for it. You don't have to take the FE. And similarly, along the lines for the PEng, you don't have to take a rigorous testing of six to eight hours. You still need the experience, and that's a little bit heavier, but it's not as much as a -- I don't want to knock the Canadian system at all, but it seems a little bit -- You know, you have to reach a little bit more of a qualification to get it. And I think I will definitely end up living in the United States and working here. So, I want to transfer back.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome. So, I want to kind of harp on this a little bit, but take me back through like college. I guess, how many women do you recall in classes with you? Was there a few? Was there just you? How many do you think there were?
Hannah Copeman: Probably 30 to 40% of my class was female.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. That's really high. I think.
Hannah Copeman: It was high. Yes. So, at UoT, they have all the different disciplines, you know, mechanical, industrial, engineering, science, chemical, civilCivil and chemical were probably the two higher female percentages. And then you get to electrical, maybe it was 10 to 15% female. So, I definitely had a good group of female friends in my program, and it was very inclusive feeling. But when I got to my master's, there was significantly less females. Most of my friends were males there. It was probably closer to 20% female. So, it was kind of interesting to see that not as many females pursuing going higher in the education process.
Isaac Oakeson: And do you have any advice for women that want to get into engineering? Like, any experiences that you had or tips or anything to go along that to help them?
Hannah Copeman: Yeah. I mean, you know, the program accepts whoever's qualified. So, if this is a passion that you have or something you're interested indefinitely follow it and pursue. And, you know, if you ended up getting into one of these programs and still kind of feel like you don't belong, or maybe that you have this preconception that the men should somehow be better at this, or be more qualified, there are so many female engineering groups available, like society of women engineers virtually at every campus. And in my graduate program, I helped co-found a group for graduate students in engineering. So, there are just so many opportunities for female engineers to be in groups and to talk about what they're feeling or to make other networking and professional development, activities and events. So, if you get into the program, there's definitely a female engineer group to be found. So, you might have a nerve about it, but once you get in, you'll see, like if you belong then -- I mean...No, not even if you belong. Like, if you try, you'll be okay.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, that's fantastic. I remember when I was going to schoolI had a group of probably four good study friends and it was like 25%, you know? One was a girl. And that probably was the same as the classes that I took. So, it's nice to that that percentage is getting higher. That's good. Well, that's great. So, where are you today? What are you doing now?
Hannah Copeman: So, right now I'm working for a nonprofit organization called One Community. And this organization, they focus on building sustainable cities. They're still in proposal phase right now. We're working on open sourcing all of our documents. So, they're mainly trying to tackle the infrastructure industry going forward, you know? It's 70% of the global greenhouse gas emissions are from infrastructure, construction and operations. So, here these small communities, where they're housing 200 to 300 residences, they're entirely self-sufficient, you know, nets their energy, they're harvesting rainwater for irrigationusing vermiculture technique for wastewater. So, that's what I'm helping on right now. I'm on a civil structural team, so I'm helping to design the domes that people would be living in. So, they kind of house one to two people. They're Lancet Arch shapes and they're not pulled out of steel and concrete. They're built out of birth bags. So, this is earth or soil basically filled in polypropylene bags and they're wrapped around and these make the walls. And then they're maintained together with barbed wire, which kind of creates the tension ring. So, focusing on these are structure, but also exploring air-crete as another option. So, for anyone who doesn't know, aircrete is a mixture of water, cement and foam. So, basically aerated concrete and it has more entrained air, which makes it more lightweight and a higher R-Value, so better insulative properties. So it's kind of reverting a bit back to the vernacular architecture where they're using, you know, Adobe homes that focus on passive heating systems. So, these are in proposal phases and we're working on getting funding and a couple of years and hoping to maybe build one out, actually in Utah, we're thinking, for the first one.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, really? That's where I'm at. So, you gotta show me those when you come up with them. You know what you should do? And I haven't seen this, but, on your LinkedIn profile, you can add images of stuff you're working on. And that would be --
Hannah Copeman: Oh, I probably hsould. Yeah. Because it's hard to conceptualize.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. You should put those on there so people can see what you're working on. Wow. That sounds awesome. You'll have to stay in touch since I'm in Utah.
Hannah Copeman: Yeah. Maybe --
Isaac Oakeson: Take some pictures. Well, that's awesome. Thanks for sharing that. Going through work, now that you're working, and even through school, has there been ever a lesson that you've learned? Have you made any mistakes yet that you could share with us something that you've learned?
Hannah Copeman: Yes. I think a most lesson learned for me throughout undergrad was, you know, don't think that just because you excelled in high school, or could even be your previous degree, that engineering would just be another kind of walk in the park or minimal effort given. You know, for me personally, I definitely had to give a lot to get there. And don't think that just because you didn't succeed in your works, excels to the degree that you'd hoped for in your first two years or first year, you know, that your path can't change. In my first two years, you know, it was definitely a transition moving to a new city, a new country, not knowing anyone in the city, trying to regain a social life, just understand like how my new life is going to be there, what amenities. At the same time, having a couple deaths in the family where I had to travel back to New York. So, my head wasn't really, like, fully engaged, I'll say. And the first two years of engineering, it was a lot of general courses. So, chemicalcomputer science, materials. So, stuff that I wasn't truly interested in the beginning. You know, I went for civil. But then in third year I really started to get my grinds. So, it just kind of solidified to me later that, you know, just keep trying, and if you just keep working hard, you know, engineering definitely gets better along the way as it gets more specific and you can start to choose which courses you want to be in, and actually, you know, you're engaged because you're actually interested in this material. And definitely a hard work along the way. It always goes noticed. You know, you're the student, the B student who's always at the TA's office hours, or even in work, if you're the person who's staying an extra hour longer, you know, I've always found that that definitely doesn't go unnoticed.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. So How did you keep balanced with all these events happening in your family's life? Sounds like you've had some deaths that's really sad to hear about. But how, I guess, how were you able to, like, stay focused? How did you march forward?
Hannah Copeman: So, the first few years I got to say I was not very focused. Just kind of giving them my all where I can, but I think it was like -- I really needed to just sit down and figure out what my study habits were and how they would change going into a new program and learning with a new system. But definitely friends really help a lot, you know, beause your peers are kind of going through this together too. You know, a lot more of them are in the same boat than you might think. So, I think just like talking it through with people and really just trying to find your rhythm, like, you kind of -- I think you kind of have to test out a couple of different things to see, like, how you are going to excel or what's going to keep you most level, and trying to find just some other activities that you can do to blow steam off in the meantime, you know, be a sport or hanging out with people.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. You knowI mean life can throw some curve balls at you for sure. And when you're in college I think it's easy to let some of those things really slow you down. So I admire, you know, the determination that you had. I remember when I actually was in college, the really good study buddies that we had came to to schoolone day out of the blue and he had these really deep bruises on his legs and he was explaining to us that he thinks he had a blood deficiency of some sort andhe was going to get it checked on. Anyway, the next day he found out he actually had leukemia and he was gone, like, that week. It was just -- it happened so fast. And so, you know, struggles, they're not picky. They happen to everybody, butI admire the determination to keep moving forward and that's just kind of what you gotta do. So that's great. Thanks for sharing that. So you've touched upon a project that you've worked on that you've studied or that you're working on now. It sounds like that's one of your favorites to work on. Is that true? Is there any other favorite projects that you've worked onthat you would like to share about too?
Hannah Copeman: Yeah, I mean, I've definitely most engrossed in the sustainable community life right now. But other favorite topic project I've worked on was in my second semester of my master's degree, I took a course on seismic and earthquake engineering. And this was always something that I was interested in, but undergrad we didn't really have any courses available. And then throughout my internship experiences in New York, it was something that we really focused on in design since it's just not that much of a concern here as it is like out West or in Asia. But then I had the opportunity to take this course. Sothat was a great opportunity, and we focused on concrete and steel seismic resisting systems and the project culminated, or the term culminated in a project that was to design a six-story office building in Vancouver withsteel reinforcing systems. So we did moment resisting frames and buckling restrained brace frames. And this whole course and project was just very interesting and something I really enjoyed. So, I think going forward, something that I would definitely want to try to incorporate, or be involved in in my career.
Isaac Oakeson: Good. That's great. I'm going to ask you a couple short answer or -- I mean, you can take as long as you want, but I would just kind of want to run through some questions with you. What was your biggest obstacle that you faced when you became a civil engineer? Was it school? Is it studying for these exams now? What do you think has been the biggest obstacle?
Hannah Copeman: Definitely like not finding my rhythm until third year. That was a little bit of a mental hurdle to kind of like, get my ball rolling. Yeah, studying for the FE right now. Luckily, like, your podcast and website and there are so many resources out there. Sothat's going okay for now. Another one that may not be such an obstacle, but a debate that really weigh heavily wasthe debate between going to work right after undergrad or going into master's. So, getting into the end of undergrad, I had a job lined up with the company that I had interned at in New York, December before, but then I kind of got thinking about master's and I just applied to give myself an option. And then when I got in, it was the debate of "Okay, start working and then, if you want, do Master's later, you'll have more real-world working experience and you'll probably get more out of your Master's and you'll be able to ask more questions that are personal, that you understand more", or, on the other side, go into Master's right away. And so you keep the flow going of school and you kind of stay in the rhythm. And I talked to a lot of different people about it, because I was just -- You know, probably either one's fine. But talked to my tutor from a high school ACT, who's now been a mentor to me throughout the years, and my professors and some colleagues from work. And so that one, it was like, you kind of have to see what works for you. Like, since it's -- I know it took me a while to get into a flow. I was like, "I'm going to keep this one rolling for a little bit". But that was definitely something that really took me a while to figure out.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great advice. I actually, I think every engineer has to go through this same decision-making process. You know, once they graduate with their four year bachelor's degree, whether they go out into the world and get work and then get the master's later or some even bag the master's altogether. They don't know what they want. I had the same thing and I was like, "Oh man. So do I go to work for two years? How much?" You know? And then my engineering brain started going off and I'm like, "How long would that take to earn back if I got a Master's degree Stuff like that. So, I actually did the opposite. So, when I graduated, I got a job. But the problem with that is that it's extremely hard to get back into school. And so, once you start working, it just gets more difficult to get back into it. And so I did go back and finally get my Master's, but it was years after I hag graduated with my bachelor's degree.
Hannah Copeman: Did you regret not going right into it?
Isaac Oakeson: Looking back, I wish I had started earlier. I did actually. So, you know, maybe that's good advice for people that are struggling with that decision right now a little bit. It's best to get it over with as soon as possible.
Hannah Copeman: Just knock it out,
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Knock it out, because then life happens and, you know, all of a sudden you have twin daughters, like I have, and this gets really hard to get to school. So, anyway. Good advice. Let's talk about this. Do you have any personal habits that you feel like contributed to your success in becoming an engineer?
Hannah Copeman: Yes. So, one for me is just kind of really planning your goals and being disciplined about it. But this really starts like day to day. So, whenever I'm working either the night before or morning of, I'll just jot down what I definitely want to accomplish for the day. Maybe what I want to accomplish in the week or the month, and kind of write those in. But there's just such an associated satisfaction I get when I fist-free cross it off, like the brain release some dopamine for feel-good satisfaction. It's like that's something I look forward to. Yeah. I mean, you could write it like, you know, a note on your phone or on your computer. But I definitely like the physical writing of it and it's just nice tobe able to really see that you're letting things go, and you can physically see that you've crossed something off your mental agenda. But also, at the same time, I think it's very important to make sure that the goals you're setting are realistic. Beause if you're writing them down and you get excited and you're going to accomplish X and Y and Z, but you know they're kind of big and it'll be more of a surprise to you if you accomplish them, but there's more of a probability that you won't, you know? Don't try to set yourself up for this failure. Like, make them realistic and also try and set some time in where you're not doing work 24/7.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. That's a that's great advice too. What do you think, I guess, has been the best advice you've received going through all this?
Hannah Copeman: So, back in first year, we had a course on intro to engineering, which was, you know, just the welcome to university life engineering. And it was a course where everyone is on their computer, on their phone. No one's really paying attention. And I definitely was not always paying attention, but luckily this one time I was, and the professor said Whatever you're doing, do it with 100% tension". And I didn't really understand what that meant fully until, again in my third year, where it was, you know, if you're studying or you're working, don't have your phone on the side and be messaging people or checking social media or watching movies at the same time, you know? Be fully engrossed in what you're doing. And then on the flip side, when you're taking a break, whether it's, you know, playing a sport, hanging out with people, watching a movie, do that 100% too, you know? Don't be engaged in that activity and be thinking about or stressing about the work that you have to do, because you're just kind of wasting your time there. You're not fully engaging in, and, to fully recharge in one activity, I really find that you need to fully engage in another to come back with a fresh mind.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great advice. I've always heard it being called, and I can't remember the name of the book, but they call that "Deep Work". Like, when you get in the mindset, when you're actually doing something, you know, getting away from all those distractions and focusing on actually moving the needle in what you're doing.
Hannah Copeman: It's hard to separate it. I needed to make an effort there.
Isaac Oakeson: Yes, that's for sure. Great advice. What abouta resource that you think you could recommend to the audience? Or is there a book or software or anything that you have found useful that maybe you couldshare with us?
Hannah Copeman: Yeah. Recently I was introduced to the book called Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson. I don't know if you're familiar with it. So it's a, for those who haven't, simple parable with two men and two mice and they're in a maze and they're looking for the cheese. So, the maze and the cheese are both metaphors with the cheese being, what your goal is in life. So, our goal in the moment, which is a job promotion, getting into this school or saving money for a car, and then the maze is how you plan to get there and what life is throwing you along the way. So, the two men and the two mice, they work very hard in the beginning and they [inaudible] in the maze and they all find where the cheese is. And the men, they get very comfortable on it and they go back every day, knowing where it is and feeling comfortable with the copious amounts of cheese that they have, not really paying attention to everything around them. Whereas the mice start to realize that the cheese source is depleting and one day they all get back to where the cheese is in the maze, and, of course, the cheese has gone. Who moved their cheese? So, the mice don't think twice about it, they just leave and they go and find the new spot that it is. But the men really have a hard time wrapping their heads around it. You know, like, "how could this happen to me? I had all this cheese here who took it, why would they take it?". And they start to starve and get frustrated. And they think that, you know, the longer that they sit there and the more frustrated they get and the more they talk about their frustration, that the cheese of probably just come back, but it doesn't, of course. And finally they reached their Nirvana moment, or maybe just couple with starvation of "Okay, life moved on and so should they". So, kind of just highlights, like if change's happening in your life, try and take control of your situation and don't let the change take control of you. Changing. It's not always losing something. You know, hopefully it's gaining something and something different for the better. So, it's really, if your cheese gets moved, you know, stop wondering who moved your cheese and just try to go find it. And this was like really great to hear during the pandemic. In the spring, I had a couple interviews lined up for jobs to start in September and they went really well. And I finished like full round of interviews with a couple companies. And then, when I'm in the period of waiting to hear if I got or not, they both said they were having a global hiring freeze. So like, "Okay". You know, there's a lot of uncertainty in the pandemic, and there still is. So that's very understandable, but kind of took me while. I was like, "Okay, maybe they'll reopen it in a couple months. Maybe, you know, maybe it'll be back in September". But that didn't happen and hasn't happened for a lot of companies. So, kind of took me a while to wrap my head around that and, you know, "Okay. Take this opportunity to study for the LEED green associate'. "Start Studying for the FE, you know?". "Jump Into work with a nonprofit". So, just find other ways to find your cheese, really.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. That's fantastic advice. Yeah, the pandemic is reallyPeople that are kind of in that transition where you're at trying to find a job, a lot of companies have put a hiring freeze on. And I know other industries, depending on what you're wanting to go in are still hiring, but it really depends on what you're kind of going into. But I love that you're determined to not let that stop you from still moving forward with what you want to do in life. And that's fantastic. Yeah, that's great. You're still -- I mean, you're still moving forward, so that's great. So I love that. This is a fun one I like to ask. But, if you had all the resources in the world, what's something that you would like to develop or be a part of in the world of civil engineering? And I think you've probably hit on some of that, but why don't you tell me?
Hannah Copeman: Okay. So if all the resources were available, I would love to help build new habitats in Terraform. Mars, moon, or whichever body out there is most suitable for human life. And this isn't such an esoteric idea. My favorite architect, Bjarke Ingles, who is based out of Copenhagen, he began working on this project with the United Arab Emirates in 2017 called Mars Science City, where they are trying to colonize Mars. And they kind of have tentative plans for an around a hundred years from now, that they want to start this. And they're talking about soon building a prototype in the desert outside of Dubai to try and mimic Mars climate conditions. So, I just think it'd be incredibly interesting to explore what different building techniques, such as like 3D printing, inflatable structures, you know, for living habits that need to withstand the Martian heat and radiation levels. And, specifically for structural engineers, the gravity on Mars is a third of what is here on earth. So, that means slimmer columns, longer beam spans, and overall just helping create like Martin ernacular architecture, you know? New rules. I think that just be the coolest thing ever.
Isaac Oakeson: Build new codes for Mars construction.That's crazy. That would be awesome. I remember seeing a video and I can't remember where, but I think it was Qatar, that they were building a sustainableI don't know if it was a whole city or whatnot, but what you said just kind of brought to my memory people, you know, trying to make this stuff as we have it today so we can get there. So, it's going to be interesting times where we're going to be, you know? 10, 15, 20, 30 years down the road in life and what's available.
Hannah Copeman: Yes, they are. Like all these different biodomes and how they can make it self-sustaining without having, ever to leave the dome. So, there is a lot of interesting ideas being put forward.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. That's awesome. Well, I really appreciated you coming on to the podcast. Is there any last piece of guidance that you would like to share with the Civil Engineering Academy audience? Hannah?
Hannah Copeman: Sure. Just trust yourself and really try not to compare yourself to others. You know, if you know what you want, like go for it and try not to let how other people are getting there or what their path is affecting you, you know? Once you get your ball rolling, it is very empowering and great feelings. So trust yourself if you want to go for it. So I think that's best advice now.
Isaac Oakeson: And if somebody had questionsthat, you know, they were listening to this and they wanted to connect with you, what's the best way to do that?
Hannah Copeman: Yeah. I'm available on LinkedIn and Facebook, both just sign my name in. I would love to connect to anyone who wants to talk about anything in the industry or any opportunities, questions. Yeah, definitely reach out.
Isaac Oakeson: And she's studying for the FE right now, so, you know?
Hannah Copeman: Yes. Free tips. Reach out!
Isaac Oakeson: Sounds great. Well, thanks for coming on the show. I really appreciate it. And we'll see you next time.
Hannah Copeman: All right. Thank you so much for having me, Isaac.
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