20 to Watch: Women in HVAC - Natalie R. MacDonald
EIT, graduate mechanical engineer, Dewberry
Name: Natalie R. MacDonald
Title: EIT, graduate mechanical engineer, Dewberry
Educational Experience: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from NC State University.
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: Organizations: ASHRAE; Association of Energy Engineers (AEE); Society of Women Engineers (SWE); and numerous ASHRAE Triangle Chapter Leadership positions, including student activities chair, YEA chair, secretary, and treasurer.
Awards: ASHRAE Region IV: Golden Apple Award for K-12 Activities, ASHRAE Region IV Young Engineers in ASHRAE (YEA) Trailblazer Award, and ASHRAE Region IV: LeaDRS Candidate.
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
I decided to pursue engineering when I was deciding which university to attend. I looked through all the majors offered at NC State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and, honestly, I couldn’t think of anything I thought I would enjoy and excel at more than engineering. I knew from my first semester at NC State that engineering was what I wanted to do for my career. Engineering is the basis for solving every major problem facing us as a society, and it was so exciting to feel like I could be a part of that, even if it meant only solving a small part of one of the many problems we face. I knew from my freshman year of college that engineering would always challenge me, keep me motivated, and could relate back to many of my passions. Not only could I learn and use my analytical skills, but I could use them in practical ways to solve a problem.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
For me, the most rewarding part of my career in the HVAC industry has been the ability to see a project through from start to finish and see what I’ve designed come to life. There are a lot of careers where you don’t get to fully see the impact of your work, but in this industry you can.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
A few things come to mind, but I would have to say the proudest moment of my career was passing the professional engineering exam. My state recently changed the requirements for taking the exam, so I was able to take it before my four years of experience required for the license was completed. I passed the exam with less than a year of experience.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example?
Quite a big question! Women in any male-dominated field — engineering and others — face all sorts of challenges, and although things have gotten better over the years, there are still many hurdles to cross. To think that derogatory things are no longer said, or that biases are no longer an issue, would be naïve. Personally, being not only just a woman, but a younger woman, I have had things said both directly to me, but also while I am not around, that are disappointingly disrespectful and inappropriate. Luckily, in most cases, these kinds of behaviors are shut down and not tolerated. But, regardless, it is upsetting to feel like you aren’t always thought of in the same way or respected in the same way as your male counterparts are.
Despite these few instances, my experience as a female engineer has been mostly positive. I never felt at a disadvantage while in school and always felt welcome and comfortable among my male counterparts. I was, in fact, encouraged to go into engineering while in high school and was always pushed toward my strengths in math and science at a young age, which is so important for young girls while they are navigating through their middle and high school years. Once I got out of school and first started working, sometimes it was difficult. I found myself feeling almost a sense of loneliness among all my male peers. I wanted to have someone else more like me who I could confide in that was going through the same transition. I had feelings of wondering whether or not I could really succeed as an engineer and if I really belonged here. Though my office has several women, I was still the only woman on my direct team. This was tough at first, but I have since found so much support at my firm from both men and women who helped me gain confidence in my work and give me a true sense of belonging here. I imagine a lot of women feel this way, especially at a new job, which can be really tough. Women leave engineering at a sadly high rate and not because they aren’t good at it or even that they don’t like it. For many of the women that leave, it is because of the climate of their organization. Organizations must create environments that are inclusive to not just women but all underrepresented individuals.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
Day-to-day, my job can change depending on what stage my projects are in. If the project is in the design phase, I spend most of my time designing the mechanical systems with guidance from a senior engineer and coordinating with other disciplines both within my team and outside of my organization. This includes 3D and 2D modeling of the systems, equipment selections, pipe and duct sizing, pressure loss calculations, energy and load calculations, specifications, and anything else that needs to be done during design. Additionally, during this process, I spend time coordinating with architects and other clients for coordination purposes and making sure the client is receiving the desired design intent. If the project is out for bid, I review equipment submittals and work with the contractor and vendors to make sure the equipment ordered meets our specifications and design. Under construction, I will spend time on-site doing walk-throughs, making sure everything is built the way it was intended, and working through coordination issues.
What drives/motivates you every day?
I stay motivated when I am challenged and constantly learning. I am never doing the exact same thing for any particular project, and each project has its own unique challenges. Additionally, I have always had a passion for sustainability in the realm of energy systems. This was one of the main reasons I chose mechanical engineering as my major. Knowing that my work can directly impact energy savings for owners is a huge driver for me.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
That would be a long list. I have so many dreams and goals for my career given I’m only a mere two-and-a-half years out of school. Project wise, I want to have the chance to dip my toes in a lot of different projects before getting too specialized. With this said, I would love to have the opportunity to work on projects specifically focused on energy savings for clients. I would also love to have the opportunity to have many different roles, from project management and working directly with owners and clients to managing my own team of engineers. I love working with people, and once I have more experience, I would love to share that experience and knowledge with others.
What’s one thing no one knows about you?
Many people know my parents grew up in Canada, but most don’t know that I actually hold a dual citizenship with the U.S. and Canada.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
I have had many great mentors in my career so far.
Dr. Terry, my professor for several classes at NC State and the director of the industrial assessment center at NC State, who I worked under for my last two semesters of undergrad, has been a great mentor. Terry introduced me to this industry, exposed me to ASHRAE for the first time, and inspired me to join this field after graduation.
Greg Mills, who encouraged me to be involved in ASHRAE on a leadership level directly out of school, has also been a fantastic mentor. Without his support and guidance, I would not have made the connections or had many of the opportunities I have had so soon into my career. Through him, I’ve met so many wonderful ASHRAE colleagues who all serve as mentors to me now. Greg has also given me notable insight into our industry as a whole.
Ken Wehner, who has helped tremendously with my continued technical growth here at Dewberry, has been great. Ken is one of the best teachers I’ve had. He always makes time for my questions, gives me thoughtful and well-explained answers, and has been incredibly supportive of me as I work toward creating more independent designs. Ken has a passion for mentoring junior engineers and it shows.
Other mentors include John Teeter, who hired me at Dewberry and taught me all the basics of mechanical design in my field; Heather Platt, who has been an incredible female role model for me to look up to and so supportive for anything I need, both at work and within ASHRAE; Weston Hockaday, who was always an approachable mentor who supported me anytime I needed advice; and my amazing fellow coworkers at Dewberry, who have been some of the best mentors I could ask for. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten has come from the younger staff at Dewberry, and I’m so thankful to work in a place that has so many talented young engineers.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
My advice to other young female engineers is don’t ever doubt your own abilities to do this job and work in this industry. We all made it through rigorous engineering programs and are all meant to be here. Always ask questions and never be afraid to challenge old ways of doing things. And remember, your soft skills are just as important as your technical skills! Additionally, be sure to seek out mentors in your office who empower and support you so you can become the best engineer you can. If you can’t find these people at your office, seek out outside organizations that can connect you with other successful engineers, both men and women. Finding mentors and a support system is so important for the success of female engineers.