Jacki Flor on the site of the Sea Bright municipal parking lot reconstruction, which she’s overseeing, and Christine Ballard, giving a presentation in Red Bank below, say their interest in solving mechanical problems was nurtured when they were girls. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Municipal engineers are the brains behind public infrastructure, designing everything from crosswalks to sewer lift stations. They pursue grants to pay for ballfields and bulkheads. And they serve as emissaries, navigating the often choppy waters between zoning board applicants, contractors, elected officials and taxpayers.
In that realm, a woman’s point of view and way of communicating can often be helpful, Ballard said.
“There have been a lot of men doing this for a long time, and I’m sure they did it well,” she told redbankgreen. But “there’s been a wonderful transition to women in government,” and it turns out that other women are “sometimes better at translating projects, and why we need to spend a million dollars to fix the water plant,” to diverse constituencies, she said.
In fact, the broader field of engineering could use many more women, which is why the American Association of University Women and the Girl Scouts of the Jersey Shore are putting on an event at Brookdale Community College on Saturday to encourage girls to consider careers as engineers.
According to Susan Monroe, assistant professor of mathematics at Brookdale, only 16 percent of engineers are women. That’s because girls still shy away from the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, she said.
By bringing girls onto a college campus where they can see meet and interact with women in the field, the hope is they will leave thinking, “these students look like me. I can do this,’” Monroe said.
Ballard and Flor both work at T&M Associates in Middletown, where another woman, Bonnie Heard, is the engineer for Monmouth Beach. All three are appointed to their municipal posts.
Flor and Ballard say that women, particularly those with skills in math and the physical sciences, can find great satisfaction in the realm of roadbeds, driveway aprons and planning board agendas.
“I love what I do,” Flor told redbankgreen over coffee in Sea Bright, across Ocean Avenue from a municipal parking lot reconstruction job she’s overseeing. Many engineers, she said, are “not very social,” preferring to solve problems seated at a desk, but for her, the sense that she is helping improve community life, whether through the proper height of riverside bulkheads or filling a hole in the sea wall, is the most rewarding aspect of her work, she said.
“I think that’s the key to being a successful engineer,” she said. “You’re not just trying to solve a road problem. You’re trying to serve the entire community.”
Flor, 37, was five years old when her father was killed in an accident near their home in Pittsburgh in 1980. The family moved in with Flor’s grandfather, who retired as an engineer at Gulf Oil to help raise his three grandchildren.
“I was the oldest, and he raised me to be an engineer, just like him,” Flor said with a laugh. “He was there to do all the science projects in the garage with me. I never wanted to be anything else. I looked up to him so much because of what had happened that I would have never even thought to be anything else.”
Flor says her own daughter, who’s 7 years old, wants to be an engineer – for now at least.
Ballard, whose 34, grew up in Middletown, and likewise attributes her interest in the field to the influence of male figures. First was her father, who worked in finance, but helped young Christine with her school science projects.
“Everybody did volcanoes. We never did volcanoes,” she said. “We did locks, to demonstrate how you get a ship from one place to another, or we did submarines.”
The other was Ed Bechtel, her physics teacher at Middletown North. “A whole group of” girls from her class went on to become engineers, architects and scientists in part because of his influence, she said.
“I love what I do. I really do,” Ballard said. “I get to see my designs built.”
“Christine is very good at explaining things in layman’s terms,” said Councilwoman Kathy Horgan, who attributes her understanding of “muffin monsters” – used to remove fecal matter from sewage systems – to Ballard.
“Inspiring Girls in Engineering,” is the morning portion of a daylong Girl Scout event to be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Brookdale Community College’s Lincroft campus. Activities includes a fun engineering activity as well as a chance for the girls, all fifth and sixth graders, an opportunity to ask questions of female engineers or engineering students. For information on the event, contact Michelle Masarik, outdoor program specialist, Girl Scouts of the Jersey Shore, 732-938-5454, extension 181.