Name:Fiona Martin McCarthy
Title: Project Manager, Grumman/Butkus Associates
Educational Experience: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (BME) and a master’s degree in renewable and clean energy from the University of Dayton
Professional Credentials/Accreditations:Professional engineer (P.E.); Quality Commissioning Process Provider (QCxP), University of Wisconsin; Building Energy Assessment Professional (BEAP), ASHRAE; and LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP)
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: ASHRAE Illinois Chapter Past President and Consulting-Specifying Engineer 2020 40 Under 40 award winner
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
My mom first mentioned designers and engineers to me when I was 7. We were in a bathroom, and I was complaining about how messy it was. There was water everywhere, and the doors were making me hit the toilet as I walked into the stall. She told me that most designers/engineers were men and that more women were needed to think about these types of things. Then, in grade school, we were working on that traditional project where you have to research a profession. I had wanted to be a teacher, but so many other students were researching teachers that I wanted to investigate something else. I received my first real toolbox when I was 4 and liked to build things with my dad in his woodworking shop in our basement. So, I started looking at different jobs that would allow me to combine my love of math and science with building, creating, and practical applications, and that’s when I learned about mechanical engineering.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
I love the built-industry — to see projects start on a piece of paper (or computer) and become working, breathing machines that support our ways of life, whether it’s the commercial buildings we work in, the universities where we learn, or the hospitals that help us heal. My role in making those buildings more efficient is fulfilling because I know that consuming less energy directly impacts our world and the future that I am creating for my daughter.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
I have two, but one really occurred before my career started. I took four-and-a-half years to complete my undergraduate degree at the University of Dayton. I had double majored in engineering and music, so the dual path slowed me down a bit. Then, I went straight into the new renewable and clean energy master’s program. I was expected to complete the program in 12 months, but in the first quarter, one of my brother’s passed away. Then, in the summer, my dad got sick and passed away in the fall. I had been driving between Chicago and Dayton every few days, trying to stay on top of my classes and research. I was a wreck, but I got it done with the support of my mom and my amazing professors at UD. I was so proud to persevere, graduate on time, and walk across the stage to accept my diploma. My first major career accomplishment was working with a high-rise commercial building in Chicago that required extensive infrastructure upgrades and controls optimizations to reduce the client’s total utility consumption by nearly 30%. We submitted that project to the ASHRAE Technology Award program and won at the chapter and regional levels. It was amazing to see all our hard work truly pay out that much in the greenhouse gas and utility bill reductions.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example?Why aren’t there more women in engineering? How can we increase the number of women in engineering?
One statistic I heard was that if you don’t introduce children to STEM by the third grade, they won’t consider themselves for the field. I think we need more introduction to STEM at earlier ages, especially in minority and underprivileged communities. The biggest challenge is not having enough women in leadership roles. In undergrad, there was one woman professor in the mechanical engineering department (that has since grown). When I joined G/BA, there was one woman principal, and she has since left. Fortunately, my current office leadership has been very supportive of my development, but I have had to look for female mentorship in other avenues, such as ASHRAE, to help build my confidence and to succeed in this male-dominated field. We need to support young women, encourage them to have the fortitude to stay in engineering, and express there is value in the female perspective in the industry and workforce. We also need to support them if they want to start families and ensure them they have the time and flexibility to succeed at their job and home life. Between the pandemic and a newly elected female vice president, work life has changed, and ceilings have shattered. I am excited; the future is female.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
So much has changed this year. I used to have a pretty good balance of working in the office on energy savings calculations, reports, and conducting on-site assessments or commissioning. I have always thrived on a certain level of busyness or stress, and that balance of in and out of office time works well for me.
What drives/motivates you every day?
Implementing positive change for a better world is rewarding. A healthier building, or one that consumes less energy, directly impacts our community and the planet.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
Now that I’m working from home on a full-time basis, it’s been a blessing to spend more time with my daughter, but not being on-site has been difficult for me to find variety, stay motivated on all of my tasks, and to keep moving. I look forward to site work picking up again and sitting less. I think, going forward, it would be nice to balance a couple of days at home and a couple of days on-site or in the office.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I look forward to continuing to volunteer with ASHRAE, maybe at the region and/or society level. I’m currently still involved in our local chapter, serving as historian on our board of governors. I also sit on the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC’s) Master of Energy Engineering Advisory Council. My other goal is to become a principal at G/BA. As I previously mentioned, we don’t have any female principals and I want to provide that leadership and mentorship to the next generation of women engineers.
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What’s one thing no one knows about you?
I once got second place at a yodeling contest at the Chicago Brauhaus!
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
Dr. Kevin Hallinan at the University of Dayton was the key to my success there. He helped me navigate a dual engineering and music degree path. He recommended me for the German summer internship program, where I first got to work on renewable energy and my passion for sustainability and energy efficiency took off. He supported me in my darkest times and helped me graduate and start my career. I couldn’t have done it without him.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
This job requires us to wear multiple hats, especially when we’re working in the field. Work hard, but it all goes to waste if you don’t have confidence in your abilities or the ability to communicate your knowledge. Confidence and communication skills are the key.