Name: Robin Graves

Title: Mechanical Department Facilitator, Affiliated Engineers Inc.

Age: 37

Educational Experience: Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Certificate in Technical Communication from the University of Wisconsin

Professional Credentials/Accreditations: Professional Engineer (P.E.) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional (AP)

Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: ASHRAE Member and University of Wisconsin Extension Instructor of the “Understanding Building Mechanical Systems” Course

What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?

In school, I always excelled in math and science, and engineering was a perfect combination of the two. From a young age, I knew I wanted to pursue engineering. As a result, I took every camp, extracurricular activity, and AP course I could to achieve that goal.  

What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?

The most rewarding aspect of working in engineering is being able to design buildings that make a real impact on society. I’ve designed laboratories that are now developing and processing COVID vaccines and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results at rapid rates. It brings me pride to know these labs have touched people’s lives in such a positive way. I’m currently working on designing multiple university engineering buildings that provide modern facilities used to teach the next generation of engineers.  

As a young engineer, I helped design a 1.2 million-square-foot children’s hospital that now treats 220,000 children annually. In the years since it opened, it has become one of the nation’s leading pediatric cardiology centers; a specialty near and dear to me as my youngest daughter was born with congenital heart defects and had open heart surgery two years ago.  

Describe the proudest moment in your career.

One of my proudest moments was having the opportunity to take ASHRAE conference attendees from all over the world on a tour of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Energy Systems Integration Facility I designed after it won Lab of the Year in 2014. The lab features three types of hydrogen, uses waste heat from the attached data center to heat the high-bay lab, provides AC and DC power flows up to 1 megawatt, and has precise hot and chilled water loops used to test HVAC equipment as well as heat and power applications. The building achieved LEED Platinum certification by saving 40% more energy than the ASHRAE baseline.  

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?

As a young female professional in the AEC industry, I strive to excel beyond expectations and present an impactful first impression to new clients. I want to earn the trust of clients and colleagues, knowing my age and gender may be working against me. I’ll never forget the time I was not recognized as an engineer on a new project kickoff in front of a large group of people. It was disconcerting they thought I was only there to take notes, and I felt I had to prove myself for the rest of the meeting.

There has been an increase in women graduating with engineering degrees, but they don’t seem to be entering or staying in the AEC industry at the same rates. Studies have shown that reaching a critical mass of 30%, or at least three women in a given situation, significantly reduces or eliminates isolation and tokenism. In these situations, women’s ideas are more likely to be overlooked or not taken as seriously as others. We can all make a major difference within the industry by learning to become allies to the women and minorities within our organizations to offer friendly faces in the workplace and encourage growth of diversity, equality, and inclusion.

What does your day-to-day job entail?

My day-to-day job involves leading AEI’s system-wide mechanical team, which oversees knowledge management among our 19 offices and serving as the mechanical department facilitator at the firm’s largest office. Additionally, I continue to serve as a project engineer, working closely with architects and engineering teams to design one-of-a-kind buildings.  

What drives/motivates you every day?

I love being able to come to work every day and design large, complex buildings. We work on a variety of projects types from hospitals to research facilities to cleanrooms. No two buildings are alike, and each comes with its own set of unique design needs. Every day, there are new and interesting challenges to solve.  

I enjoy working with clients who are pushing the boundaries of traditional HVAC design. I work to understand clients' needs and deliver the best possible building to meet their sustainability, maintenance, and adaptability goals.  

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?

Leading a department of 50 people proved to be a challenge during the pandemic. Our department had to find new ways to keep in touch, communicate across multiple platforms, continue to mentor, and share lessons learned. Overall, many of these changes have made the team more adaptable. As a result, my team continues to host virtual monthly lessons-learned sessions. These sessions can be recorded and allow for others outside the department to join without the limitations of room sizes.  

At times, it’s been difficult to juggle my career and family life due to online schooling and my virtual meetings from home. Luckily, my husband was able to adjust his work schedule to handle the majority of the online schooling sessions for our kindergartener. The pandemic has granted us a unique opportunity to have a window into what happens every day in the classroom. We no longer had to ask what she had been doing at school. Now that she is back to in-person learning, she is starting to learn the social aspect of school that she couldn’t fully understand from online learning.  

What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?

I aspire to take on more of a project management role, as I enjoy working with clients in support of their missions and visions. We work with clients who are pushing the boundaries on new medical and research advancements every day, so it takes innovative designs to meet their needs. I look forward to stepping up to the challenge.

I also strive to keep inspiring others to join the HVAC industry by regularly presenting building design concepts to undergraduate courses and with student organizations. I want to continue volunteering my time for Expanding Your Horizons (exposing sixth- through eighth-grade girls to STEM) and the Women in Mechanical Engineering Mentorship Program.

What’s one thing no one knows about you?

I am a bull's-eye, high-power rifle competitive shooter who has represented the U.S. in international competition.

List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.

I've been fortunate enough to have many mentors in my life, the first that come to mind are my parents. They have taught me the importance of a strong work ethic, to believe in myself, and to go after my dreams. They have helped fuel my passion for the engineering industry and are my biggest advocates.

When it comes to my career, as a young engineer, Gene Nelson gave me some of my first opportunities to be more actively involved with client meetings. He taught me the importance of being a strong, technical engineer. Project managers, including Ken Meschke, Rick Flock, and Jason Atkisson, have all supported an open learning environment and instill me with confidence in my engineering and leadership abilities. They have showed me how to earn clients’ trust, lead large teams, and handle difficult situations. Diane Lee has helped shaped and advance my career through her skillful guidance. She has taught me to think bigger and make my own path.

What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?

My No. 1 piece of advice would be to find a successful mentor who can help guide you in both your personal and professional practices. This individual can be your sounding board for technical questions as well as your advocate. Do not be afraid to ask for what you want and make your career goals known.