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Hispanic Heritage Month: Latina SWEsters, Part 2

Meet and learn more about four of the SWEsters in SWE’s Latino Affinity Group: Margarita A. Chi-Miranda, Elizabeth Abbene, Grisel Del Hierro Barron, and Evelyn Cortez-Davis.
Swe Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, SWE will be highlighting Hispanic and Latina women engineers in a series of blog posts.

Meet and learn more about four of the SWEsters in the SWE Latinos Affinity Group: Margarita A. Chi-Miranda (Engineer at Jensen Hughes), Elizabeth Abbene (Production Team Leader at Watlow Electric Manufacturing Co.), Grisel Del Hierro Barron (IT Project Manager at Ferrovial), and Evelyn Cortez-Davis (Assistant Director of Water Operations at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power).

(Read about Justina Sanchez, Ivelisse Del Valle Figueroa, Emma Hagel, and Lorna Holt, in our “part 1” blog!)

Margarita A. Chi-Miranda, M.Sc. // Engineer at Jensen Hughes

photo of Margarita A. Chi-Miranda

Margarita is a confident, determined woman. She is a passionate engineer who loves her work. She is a responsible and hard-working person and is always looking for opportunities to learn new things. She loves to help others, especially inspiring kids to pursue a career in engineering.

What’s your current position?  

I am an engineer at Jensen Hughes within the risk informed services division. I have been working there for over two years. I work doing fire probabilistic risk analysis for nuclear power plants. I do fire modeling and analyses of what may be the risk of a fire in a plant. I mainly work programming databases, reviewing drawings and doing walkdowns in plants.

Tell us how you first got involved in SWE. 

I have been involved in SWE since my sophomore year in college. I went to one of the UPRM SWE meetings and I loved what I heard. The members who presented that day were so inspiring and showed me that more than a professional organization, they were like family who support each other. During the meeting I was so excited that I registered with SWE immediately and signed up to volunteer in a Wow! That’s Engineering event. That event was the first of many to come. I remember I spent an amazing day helping with all the logistics of the activity and working with the kids, inspiring them to become engineers. Since that day, SWE became a fundamental part of my life.

Tell us about your family.

My family is from Colombia. My mother’s family is Colombian but my paternal grandparents were Chinese so I grew up in a multicultural home. Both of my parents are civil engineers specialized in geotechnical engineering. My little sister is a bookworm or as she may say, she is a book-dragon. She is studying comparative literature and she has given me the humanistic perspective of life. My husband is Puerto Rican. He is also an engineer and he is a coding geek. Most importantly, he supports all my SWE adventures.

What’s your first memory of wanting to pursue engineering?

Since I was a little kid I used to go to my parent’s lab. They have a geotechnical lab where they do all types of soil testing. I remember playing with soil and helping them with the testing. One of the tests required to roll the soil in a thread and I loved to do that. I could spend hours rolling soil back then. Since that moment, I had always wanted to be an engineer. I always looked up to my parents and wanted to be like them, working on all the cool stuff they did at their job.

What has surprised you most about working in engineering?

Engineering is full of surprises. Every new project comes with unique challenges that become learning opportunities. However, there are two things that has surprised me the most about working in engineering and that I never thought was going to cause such an impact on me. The first is how all types of engineers has to work together to get amazing things done. You always hear that engineering is all about teamwork but seeing how a team of engineers with very different backgrounds work around the clock to get a project done is amazing. The other thing is how engineering impacts society and makes our daily life easier. It may be a cliche saying that engineering makes people’s life easier but when you start working on those little things that improve our quality of life, you realize that no matter what type of engineering you do or if it is in front of a computer or in the field, you are doing something to help others to have a better life.

What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome to be where you are today?

When I was 17 years old, I left my house in Colombia to go to college in Puerto Rico, to the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. I left my family, my friends, my house, everything behind, knowing nothing about life to pursue a dream. I didn’t even know how to cook or pay a bill. I went to Puerto Rico thinking that it was going to be hard but not that hard. First, I was so excited about living alone as a grown up that I didn’t think about all the obstacles I was going to face. I didn’t take into account that I was going to miss my family so much or that I was starting a new school and needed some adjustment. I didn’t even think about the cultural challenge. I am very close to my family and being apart from them for that much time was horrible. The university was wonderful but I didn’t know the campus, and all the classes starting to demand a lot from me became very overwhelming. Finally, the cultural impact. Even though Colombian and Puerto Rican culture can be very similar as they are both Latinos, they can be way different in other things. Even Spanish was different, they used so many words I didn’t know that it was so hard for me to understand them sometimes. For all of these, I started to feel that I didn’t fit anywhere and very homesick, what took me to a very difficult depression. I was just waiting to go home at the end of the semester and never go back. With time I got used to it, I found a lot of good people on the way that helped me, I start making new friends and getting good grades. The one thing that helps me a lot to get it over and overcome the depression was SWE. It gave me that support I was needing and it kept me busy with all the activities they were doing. Now, I am confident that it was worth it, and proud of myself for never giving up.

Who have been your strongest influences in life?

The two people that has the strongest influence on me are my parents. My mom has always been my role model, the person who I have always wanted to be. She is the person I look up for advice or support when things are not going well. My dad is my hero who knows it all. He is the person who always has the right answer for all my questions. For me, he is the wisest man I know. I have learned to listen to them because together they have given me the greatest advice, tools and support to be the woman I am today.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

People may be surprised to know that I love to do crafting, and DIY projects of all kinds. I love paper crafts. I like cutting magazines or any type of paper and doing something else from it. Scrapbooking, card making, and painting are among my preferred activities. I even have a studio, which is my favorite spot of the house, where I can spend hours just making stuff. The best way for me to de-stress is cutting things I find interesting and pasting them in a notebook. Later, I go back to the notebook and just read it as if it were a magazine with very interesting articles.

Elizabeth Abbene // Production Team Leader at Watlow Electric Manufacturing Co.

photograph of Elizabeth Abbene

What’s your current position?

Production team leader

How long have you been in this position?

2 years

Can you give us a brief overview of what it is you do in your work? 

I manage a prototype laboratory where I always get to build new designs to provide solutions for the challenges of our customers.

What’s your first memory of wanting to pursue engineering? 

Definitely my father, I grew up looking at him creating his designs in our backyard shop doing wood crafts, electric, mechanic projects, and welding. We were the loudest neighbors on our block.  

What is a project or accomplishment that you are proud of? 

Developing a plan to improve the quality of our products. One day I got a call from my manager asking me how did my shift accomplish 3 consecutive months with zero customer complains. The key was TRAINING and effective communication between departments.

What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome to be where you are today? 

In my first job I got an offer for a better position, unfortunately I could not get it because my English was not good enough at that time. I felt like learning a new language as an adult would be difficult, so I found a way to make my obstacle enjoyable and I decided to take a year to travel and learn English, and today I have a job where I speak English 100% of the time and I love it!

What is your philosophy in life? 

You can’t control the wind but you can adjust the sails.

Tell us about someone who has influenced your decision to work in engineering? 

I remember one teacher that really gave me the push I needed to make the decision of becoming an engineer. She saw something in me and she said it loud and clear—she gave me confidence to set the bar higher than what I had in mind.

What do you do when you aren’t working? 

I enjoy running and doing woodcrafts.

What is something about yourself that you are working to improve? How? 

I am getting better at handling stress.  I learned skills to reduce my stress by running, meditating, volunteering and taking a day off once in a while to take care of myself.

What’s the best thing to happen since you became involved in SWE? 

In my first year of being a member I won tickets to an award ceremony; it was very inspiring to know the stories of the award winners.

What are you looking forward to? 

I am interested in learning about project management.

Grisel Del Hierro Barron // IT Project Manager at Ferrovial

Grisel Del Hierro professional headshot

What’s your current position?

I am currently an IT Project Manager for Ferrovial, a global construction company.  I am currently focusing on projects in California, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. My position can be divided in four main aspects:

  1. The opening and closures of new and existing offices. This implies making sure that a multimillion-dollar construction project has all the necessary technology tools to start from day one.
  2. The installation of servers. Most of my offices have local servers. Depending on the project needs, I help my customers to find the right solution for them and to successfully implement that solution.
  3. The service management role. Since I work closely with my customers from the beginning of new offices, I establish a relationship with key stakeholders. This relationship allows me to understand their business needs and to become the technology liaison that non-technical users need for their on-going needs.
  4. The special projects role. The group I work with is a relatively small team. This means that many times I am faced with new challenges that I call special projects. These special projects can be a unique request related to topography applications or finding a better networking solution. This process involves understanding business needs, partnering with vendors, finding the right solution, and implementing that solution.

Tell us how you first got involved in SWE. 

I first heard about SWE when I was a junior in college. I saw a flyer about an upcoming meeting and I decided to show up. At that time I was already involved with the Women In Engineering Program at my university, The University of Texas at El Paso, and had attended several events sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute of Women in Technology. Also, a female faculty member was my advisor and she got me involved with k-12 outreach events. Getting involved with SWE was a natural progression for me. That year I attended my first national SWE conference and I decided that I wanted to stay connected with SWE after graduation.

What is a project or accomplishment that you are proud of?

One of the biggest accomplishments in my career has been my work experience as an electrical maintenance supervisor in the crush and convey division at the largest open pit copper mine in North America. When I finished my MBA, I had the opportunity to work at a copper mine in Arizona. There, I not only learned about the general process to obtain copper but also about the electrical and mechanical aspects that allow a 24/7 mine operation. 

What would you tell someone who is thinking about becoming an engineer?

Explore different fields to find the best field for you. If you are in high school, find a summer job with an engineer. If you are in college, do internships to explore where you might see a career for yourself. Life changes and your first career may not be your final career but that initial exploration is key to find the right path from the beginning. 

If you weren’t an engineer, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?

I like to say that I would be involved in politics. It is different to engineering but I do believe that politicians need many of the skills that an engineer has, such as critical thinking and teamwork.

What advice would you share with your younger self?

Be confident. When I entered the workforce I had just relocated from the Mexico/US border to Michigan. My English accent was different and I was a young female engineer working for a construction company. All these factors made me doubt my capabilities. Looking back, I now realize that although it is normal to feel nervous, it is important to be yourself and to speak up when questions arise or when you have an idea. It is true that a new set of eyes can bring a whole new perspective to a problem. Managers know that.

Take control of your career. Others may have a vision of what your career should look like but you should take the lead in helping those around you to choose projects that appeal to you and to provide feedback about tasks that you do not enjoy. Open communication with your immediate manager is key. In the Hispanic culture, especially women, we may be inclined to follow instructions.  It is OK to respectfully speak up and share ideas we feel are important for our career.

Evelyn Cortez-Davis, P.E., BCEE // Assistant Director of Water Operations at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

multiple photos of Evelyn Cortez-Davis

What do you find most challenging about being an engineer? 

Balancing vision with risk. As a manager, I’ve been challenged with taking the city’s supply or infrastructure to the next level to meet aggressive sustainability and resilience goals. As an engineer, I tend to favor low-risk designs and policies that yield reliable, predictable results. Achieving balance between the two has been particularly challenging over the years. My progress sometimes falls victim to “analysis paralysis.” Analyzing risks and engaging subject matter experts early helps to  inform and validate those critical policy decisions. This allows me to promote a progressive vision while managing potential risks.

Tell us about your family.

My family is my compass. I am the third of four sisters, born in El Salvador. We migrated to the U.S. when I was 12. I have an incredible daughter currently in the 10th grade — spending quality mother-daughter time is one of my favorite things to do! My parents have been married for over 50 years and I am blessed to be able to see them regularly. My extended family is huge! I have 27 first cousins on my mother’s side alone. We are super close and supportive of one another. At the end of the day, all my important decisions are about loving and protecting my family to the best of my ability. 

Who have been your strongest influences in life?

Two people stand out: my mother and my daughter. My mom is the strongest person I know. She taught me how to persist, how to fight for what is right, and the true meaning of sacrifice. Secondly, my daughter. When she was born, she absolutely changed the stakes for me. Until then, my long-term plans for the future were ambitious but personal. By simply arriving, she taught me to focus on my long-term impact as a global citizen, tweaking my career path toward sustainability programs. An amazing feat for any infant!

What is your philosophy in life? 

Be the change you wish to see in the world! I truly believe in the power of one individual’s influence and in our capacity to effect positive change. I aim to exemplify my beliefs through my actions every day. I never lose sight of the ultimate vision of the world that I wish for my daughter and future generations to inherit. 

What do you do when you aren’t working? 

I like spending time with family, traveling, and hiking local mountains. I also enjoy volunteering at schools to encourage girls and other underrepresented students to pursue careers in engineering. 

What is something about yourself that you are working to improve? How? 

My mindfulness. Staying in the moment is tough for me sometimes, especially if I’m preoccupied about the next step (or the next 10 steps). This could potentially  undermine communication and even safety. Forcing myself to listen actively and to stay situationally aware really helps. What does this look like? I focus on understanding the other person’s perspective, rather than listening to prepare myself to respond. I ask questions and summarize to check my understanding. One tool I have used to stay self-aware is to literally repeat the 3 words “Mind on Task” to myself if my thoughts begin to wander from the situation at hand. This works whether I’m speaking, driving, or unwisely attempting to text while I walk. The more I do this, the safer and more mindful I become.

What advice would you share with your younger self?

Don’t limit yourself! If there’s something you want to pursue, do it. Now. You may not feel like you are completely prepared at the moment. You may be the first one to try it. You may even feel a little afraid or intimidated. GO FOR IT ANYWAY. Take a deep breath and then step forward. There’s no better time than the present to start blazing your trail.

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