Important Outcomes Drive Young Engineer’s Community-Centered Approach

February 12, 2020

Dana Al-Qadi had every intention of becoming a physician someday.

And not just like a lot of kids do in elementary school when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

She was literally in college studying to be a doctor.

But then …

She had just returned to campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from a trip to see her extended family in Palestine. Her academic advisor asked her how the trip was.

“Great, it was wonderful.”

“How would you feel about working on a project researching Palestinian water quality?”

Just like that, Al-Qadi’s plans changed.

“That project kicked off my whole interest in engineering,” Al-Qadi said. “It was really eye-opening.

“Researching water quality, particularly when you’re looking at developing countries, is quite a humbling experience. In a very real sense, you realize how important the outcomes of your work are to the lives of other people. Their public health depends on your ability to provide your best knowledge and best efforts on a day-to-day basis.”

The combination of technical work and social impact inspired a swift change in career paths. “I saw that engineering could be a really challenging yet impactful career path for me, so I committed to it,” she said.

Since then, Al-Qadi has made a “challenging yet impactful” career for herself as a senior engineering consultant for AECOM, based in Chicago. As a result of her efforts, ASCE has honored her as a 2020 New Face of Civil Engineering.

Holistic approach

What struck Al-Qadi most about that research work in Gaza was the all-encompassing degree to which an engineer’s work changes communities. She saw the cascading effects of failing infrastructure. For instance, if a community’s only source of clean water was miles away, the task of fetching the water often fell to young women, forcing them to leave school and sacrifice their educations.

“It goes beyond the technical components. The advancements that we make on a technical front have real implications in a number of areas for people – like education, female empowerment, and local economic development.” Al-Qadi said.

She’s taken the same holistic understanding of problem-solving to her civil engineering work at AECOM, especially with a recent focus on the company’s Smart Cities initiative.

Al-Qadi and her AECOM team developed a smart-city toolkit for addressing city priorities in an interdisciplinary capacity. She also played a key role in developing the city of Chicago’s resilience strategy, as well as Boston’s smart utilities vision. Today, her projects range from digital transformation efforts to electrification strategies.

“I think we’re at an interesting place in time where our cities are facing some really complex issues and looking at that from a very narrow mindset, in isolation, is not going to get us where we collectively need to be,” Al-Qadi said.

“At AECOM, we’re truly looking at cities in interdisciplinary ways. We’re taking issues like mobility, and addressing them from the context of robust partnerships, increased community engagement, public health, improved infrastructure and leveraged financing opportunities to create strong solutions. Approaching issues cities face from these different angles brings me back to my days as a researcher – it keeps me excited about engineering and hopeful about the impact that our work can have as it is being implemented.”

Mentoring others

Growing up in Blacksburg, Virginia, Al-Qadi acknowledges her parents as her first mentors. She credits many others along the way, including academic advisors and colleagues at AECOM who have helped steer her career.

“I’ve been so very fortunate to have mentorship, family support, and resources to achieve the education and career that I have, and for that, I really do feel indebted to all those people.”

“But the fact remains that we are seeing a huge gap in mentorship for many students – students of color, women, people from vulnerable communities and lower socio-economic backgrounds. They often have the same abilities and interests in accessing these fields, but do not always have the resources to nurture those interests and propel them as far as they can go.”

So, when AECOM asked her to join the company’s mentoring program six years ago, she was happy to take on the challenge. Since then, supporting mentoring initiatives has become a central part of both her life and her career.

She’s helped expand the program, which now has a pipeline of students many of whom begin as high school interns at AECOM and return as college interns, placing them on a path towards successful engineering careers.

“Several of the students I started working with six years ago are now studying engineering in college, writing to me from their study-abroad programs, and keeping me updated on their milestones,” Al-Qadi said.

“To have the opportunity to play a role in someone’s career development the way that so many people have played a role in mine is what building up our profession is all about.”

Sense of responsibility

Shortly after Al-Qadi began her career at AECOM, she decided to pursue graduate studies. She recently completed her doctoral degree at George Washington University, all while continuing to work full-time at AECOM. It is a testament to how seriously she takes both her commitment to civil engineering and lifelong learning.

“I’ve always liked research. I love the idea of learning from others and contributing to our body of knowledge,” Al-Qadi said.

Al-Qadi’s doctoral research focused on the resilience of urban water systems, particularly timely in the wake of the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan.

On what motivates her community-centered engineering work, Al-Qadi acknowledges a background that has instilled a global perspective within her.

“My Palestinian background is very important to me, and I’m eternally grateful to my family that allowed me to maintain a cultural identity even though I was born and raised in the States,” Al-Qadi said. “Living in a country like ours, a country that is so advanced, with an infrastructure that is so robust compared to other places drives me not only to do more for my own community, but for others as well.

“It comes down to the responsibility I feel as an engineer. Engineers go through rigorous academic training and communities trust us to do our best work for them.

“That’s what we’re here to do. That’s what I’m here to do.”

READ MORE ABOUT THE 2020 ASCE NEW FACES OF CIVIL ENGINEERING.

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