20 to Watch: Women in HVAC - Marzia Sedino
P.E., LEED AP BD+C, environmental engineer and associate director at SOM
Name: Marzia Sedino
Title: P.E., LEED AP BD+C, environmental engineer and associate director at SOM
Educational Experience: Environmental engineering degree and a master’s degree from the University of Pavia, Italy, and research collaboration with LBNL, Berkeley, California.
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: ASHRAE, ASLA, and CTBUH.
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
I wasn’t love-struck with engineering at first. It took some time for me to see the inner beauty of engineering. As a kid, who spent a lot of time outdoors, I was always intrigued by weather phenomena and how they affected people and nature. During physics class in high school, I realized I could use scientific theory to explain those occurrences and that was my “wow” moment. I chose to study engineering in college because I wanted to be able to use science to make a tangible impact on the built environment. It was tough at first; the demands were high, and there were too few girls to bond with. Luckily, I met several incredible professors, most of them women(!), who were able to show me the potential ahead. They taught me that an imaginative engineer is what the world needs most. And right there I fell in love.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
The versatility of it. Once you grasp the basics of engineering, you can apply the theory to solve an infinite amount of problems. From designing HVAC systems to fight climate change to baking the perfect loaf of bread.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
When I gained the confidence to bring my voice to the table; it was then that I realized I could make my own design choices knowing that I had science and experience to back me up.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example?
There are more and more women in engineering but many challenges remain. Compensation is a big one that must be addressed, but it’s more than that. Gaining the respect of your peers when you are a young lady in a male-dominated environment is not easy. On the other hand, it is also frustrating and insulting to witness women becoming the obvious choice because of their gender. I am hopeful because I see that a change is coming, and it’s coming rather fast.
I had my hiccups with compensation, and I faced some real challenges when I returned to work from each of my maternity leaves. I was very lucky to have an open and honest dialogue with my supervisors, which has made things easy, but we must realize that this is not the norm. Seeing women leaving the industry because they cannot support themselves financially or because they cannot find a work-life balance is wrong.
Of course, we can get more women in engineering. First of all, we need to expose young girls to science and STEM thinking right away and drop those gender biases that our society is so entrained with. Secondly, we need to acknowledge all the amazing engineer ladies out there so they can become an inspiration to future students. Then we need to pay women equally. This will fight the stigma that engineering is a conservative, unglamorous, and dry discipline, because that is simply untrue. Let’s say it out loud, and let’s show everyone why.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
Working at an interdisciplinary design firm like SOM is highly collaborative, and there is a fundamental focus on sustainable design among all teams. My day-to-day job is to attend project meetings and provide ideas as well as engineering thinking throughout the design process. Along with a team of engineers, designers, planners, and scientists, I help to shape the design of buildings, buildings infrastructures, and entire cities for a more sustainable future.
What drives/motivates you every day?
I’m motivated by watching the ever-changing Chicago sky over Lake Michigan and knowing that I am working on a better world for my children.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I hope to work with educators and institutions to ensure that climate science and earth education become disciplines taught in grade school.
What’s one thing no one knows about you?
I take ballet classes.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
Mentorship for me came from many different sources, who are all important in defining who I am today.
My dad, who passed away a few years ago, has been the most incredible presence in my life. His pragmatism, reassurance, and sense of humor have shaped my mind and guided me through the most important milestones of my life.
The strong women in my family — my grandma, mom, and older sister — all worked very hard to achieve their goals. I’m thankful for their infinite support and inspiring values.
My life companion, Craig Burton, is the coolest and brightest male engineer out there. I’m appreciative that he’s shown me the fun side of engineering (and for studying with me for the license exams).
My professor of applied physics and thesis supervisor, Anna Magrini, introduced me to the science of buildings and helped me see what I wanted to become.
My professor of hydraulics, Carlo Ciaponi, always thought outside of the box and approved what, at the time, was an extravagant engineering curriculum.
My former supervisor Teresa Rainey is a role model and a dear friend. Her belief in me when I was a young engineer gave me the confidence I needed to spread my wings and fly.
And last but not least, my supervisor Luke Leung has been influential in my career. His continuous support and honesty, along with his tireless visionary leadership, has proven priceless.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
Ask questions and always use your imagination.