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Photo Credit - Exponent

Kaitlin Spak

Senior Managing Engineer

Exponent

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You are not responsible for anyone’s happiness but your own.

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WHAT DO YOU DO?

I am a mechanical engineer who works for a consulting company, which means that I get to solve engineering problems across a wider range of products, industries, and fields than I ever would have imagined! On any given week, I am traveling to a site to inspect a piece of broken equipment, performing custom testing to figure out how something will fail, working with my team of multi-disciplinary scientists and engineers, and writing reports and giving presentations to both technical and non-technical audiences to explain the engineering analysis we've conducted. I get to travel the world, work with the most amazing people, and learn about everything from consumer products to manufacturing plants, applying my problem-solving skills to make real improvements to products and processes.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?

When I was young, I loved visiting my grandpa, a retired engineer, because we got to build things together! Whether it was a canoe trailer or a doghouse, my grandpa showed me how I had to make a plan and put the parts together carefully, understanding the capabilities of the components to make sure whatever we were building wouldn't fall apart or break. When I got to college, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, but what kind? I enrolled in general engineering, but I made a point to walk around the campus and poke my head into classes for a week; whenever I saw a class that looked really interesting, I would ask what kind of engineering class it was. Lo' and behold, every class I wanted to be in was a mechanical engineering class, and that's how I knew I needed to switch to the mechanical engineering curriculum!

HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?

I was very fortunate to have an extremely supportive family with a mom and dad who were both in STEM careers, and high school and college faculty members in STEM who were women, so I never questioned whether a career in STEM was out of my reach. I've always been outgoing and confident, so I have pushed for my seat at the table and never apologized for wanting to succeed and be involved in a project that could benefit from my expertise. Supportive coworkers have really helped to make sure my voice is heard even if the audience didn't necessarily believe a woman had the skills they needed!

WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"

I drove an old Buick when I started my first job after finishing my PhD. The car looked so out of place in the company parking lot that I knew I had to get something better... one thing led to another and now I participate in road racing with my C7 Corvette! I wish that I knew that car racing was so accessible, I'd be a lot more skilled if I had started earlier!

WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?

I love working in STEM because of the laws of math and physics and engineering that govern decisions. I love to read, but I remember being frustrated in literature classes because there were so many ways to interpret a paragraph; the precision of math and engineering made me happy because there is usually a right answer. You can depend on the fact that force always equals mass times acceleration, two plus two equals four, and entropy always increases. In my work as a consulting mechanical engineer, there are really difficult problems out there, and it doesn't matter what you "feel" the solution should be, you need to be able to back up your solution with the math and physics that support the solution. Of course there are a lot of factors to consider, but STEM provides the bedrock for the analysis that leads to solutions.

BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?

Lots of people will tell you what you should do, and society prescribes an expected path for us - go to school, get a job, get married, have kids... However, if you want to make your own path and do what makes you happy, don't let anyone stand in your way! You are not responsible for anyone's happiness but your own, and luckily, the person you best know how to make happy is YOU.

INSPIRATION

My three favorite quotes:

 

We ask for all things that we may enjoy life; we are given life that we may enjoy all things.

 

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I've always ended up where I needed to be.

 

Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right.