Name: Katrina Kelly-Pitou
Title: Systems Strategist, SmithGroup
Educational Experience: Post-Doc Electrical Engineering, University of Pittsburgh; Doctorate Studies, Energy Studies, University of Nottingham; Master’s Degree in International Relations and Environmental Studies, Hult International Business School; Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Environmental Studies, Duquesne University
Professional Credentials/Accreditations: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: Building Design + Construction 2021 40 Under 40 and 2018 AIA
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
I spent a lot of time participating in science competitions as a child and really fell in love with design in general when working on projects like “the coffee can racecar” with my dad. I used to love taking things apart and putting them back together. I had a whole part of our basement where I could take apart old TVs, computers, and phones and play with the wiring. I loved making things work again, especially because, if I fixed it, it went into my room.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
Getting to see tangible evidence of the efforts you make as a professional is incredibly rewarding. I am someone who is very much focused on sustainability, and, while it can be frustrating and even sad at times to see how far we need to go to achieve our climate goals, I get very excited to be part of the project teams that deploy resilient designs directly into communities. I feel like I can physically touch the negative emissions I’ve helped to decrease, especially through renewable integration. It’s been very rewarding working with electricians, professors, vendors, and designers on the next generation of energy infrastructures.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
I was one of the delegates to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in 2015, which famously launched the Paris Agreement. I got to participate in some of the first global sessions on resilience and helped to present findings as to what resilience really meant to an audience of people from all around the world. I had been working with Swiss Reinsurance for three years, travelling to five different continents, to really understand how climate change was impacting different sorts of communities, and we were able to showcase the urgency around needed action. I’m really proud that the work I helped to lead really pushed policy-makers to begin thinking more holistically about funding adaptation.
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?
I’m so passionate about diversifying STEM, and we are already seeing the number of women increase in engineering, but we have so much more work to do as an industry. A huge barrier for women has been the lack of “seeing themselves” in the leadership positions. It’s hard to get into a field where female mentorship is so limited, but my generation definitely has it better than the last, which had to rely solely on male support to get them to the top. I think we really need to make engineering work more relatable and approachable to females. There is a mental barrier that is formed when you are in environments that are distinctly male. I’m also a professor, and one of the only females in my departments, and I think it’s fatiguing for women to be in rooms where cognitive bias still isn’t fully recognized. We need images of female scientists in classrooms, departments staffed with female leadership, and females in leadership positions at companies to show and help young women understand what is possible.
For me, education is at the center of all of this. We have to teach young girls differently. Girls require more explanation behind math. At the end of the day, it’s a language, although we don’t teach it as such. We have to do better in making math more accessible to girls, and, as a society, we need to continue pushing against “traditional female” subjects. Give girls cars, blocks, and Lego bricks, etc. Math should be for anyone, especially those who are creative. Engineering is problem-solving, and unique methods for getting the correct answer should be celebrated, not punished.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
I’m heavily involved on the design side of things at SmithGroup, so my days are normally broken up into hardcore analytics and then designing projects with integrated teams. I spend a lot of time understanding the impacts of our designs on the environment and then work to maximize the systems’ designs that can take advantage of the locality. My day mainly revolves around the concept of building electrification, and I work alongside teams to identify how to decrease the energy burden in buildings and then develop the systems that integrate with the grid in environmentally and economically friendly manners.
What drives/motivates you every day?
I’m driven to make positive change for the next generation. To know I’m helping close the gap between global goals and local action continuously motivates me. But, I’m lucky to work with an amazing group of people who also make work fun, which is also hugely motivating.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
I spent years in school doing field work so that I could minimize my “behind the computer time,” yet the pandemic has shifted a lot of the on-the-ground interaction to the utilization of software simulation for things like site visits. Personally, I think the pandemic opened up my eyes to the importance of incorporating health into design considerations. While my heart has ached for the people who have experienced deep loss over the past few years, I’ve been lucky in that my immediate family has stayed healthy. Still, I’ve witnessed the stress on our health care systems and have been doing a lot more thinking about what sustainability truly means. It seems like we need to be focusing on creating healthy societies but also moving away from these closed-room, energy-hogging hospitals. If anything, the pandemic has made me consider teaming with our health care teams more.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I’m dying to build a beautiful power plant in the U.S. I got to tour the ski slope in Copenhagen, and while our teams have gotten to do cool power plant designs in China, I’ve never gotten to do one in the U.S. I really want to get creative on flipping the concept of what a power plant means/looks like.
What’s one thing no one knows about you?
I love film and movies and actually have a certificate in film studies. Also, I’ve broken my nose an embarrassing amount of times. I shall not name that number.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
Definitely my parents, first and foremost. Both of them are weirdly involved in all things that flow. My dad was a steamfitter and then later a construction manager for Intel. His appreciation for all things lab build-out and mechanicals have been a source of inspiration. I utilize his mathematical “cake” equation (not to be confused with pi) on projects still.
My mom is in charge of finances and operations for a water authority, so she has been a constant source of help in both navigating complexities as a woman in a technical field but also in navigating weird excel macros for load-flow calculations. She went back to school while still working, and it’s been so inspiring to have a mother who can truly balance it all. She’s amazing.
Professionally, literally every engineering leader at SmithGroup has been a fantastic source of knowledge, motivation, and inspiration. George Karidis, Don Posson, and the amazing Stet Sanborn at SmithGroup have been such huge advocates for me. George is especially great as the design director of engineering; he’s such a champion for blurring the lines between engineers as problem-solvers, yet creative entities, that he has honestly helped me to redefine how I identify myself within the field. I have an interdisciplinary background that isn’t just engineering, and George is truly someone who helps me understand how to innovate the field. Stet’s work on all-electric buildings in California has given me the precedence around design that I need to showcase reluctant Midwesterners how to design around electrification.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
Keep breaking the mold. It’s OK to point to structures and situations that feel like they weren’t made for women to excel within. The more you can help change to happen, the easier it will be for our daughters, nieces, friends, and mentees. Onward … because Katharine Wilkinson once told me, “Climate change is a man-made problem with a female solution.”
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