Scientist Spotlight: Kira Larson

In June 2016 I attended the New Jersey Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Conference and one of the guest speakers was a bridge engineer by the name of Kira Larson. Kira’s talk captivated me and I saw a lot of her in myself, so I wrote her a thank you note at the end of the conference. Later, I connected with her on LinkedIn and we have been in contact ever since. She was even kind enough to let me visit her engineering firm, HNTB. I got to sit in on a meeting and get a glimpse of what a bridge engineer does. It was a very educational experience and made me seriously think of engineering as a future career path for myself.

I am currently taking a course called Principles of Engineering and one of our assignments was to interview an engineer. I chose to interview Kira and, being an editor on the school paper, I have to say she was an awesome interviewee! With her permission, I decided to publish the interview so all of you can read about her!

What is your specific degree and how does it relate to your current position? 

I have a Bachelor of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Princeton (in 2008), and a Master of Science in Civil Engineering with an Emphasis on Structural Engineering from Columbia University (in 2009).  My position now is Structural Engineer at HNTB Corporation in Parsippany, NJ.  My degree is directly related to my work; structural engineering is really all based on physics and the forces in members, which was largely what my courses were about.  At both schools there was a big focus on designing structures to be efficient, economical and elegant, and I try to remember that every day at my job!

Pease explain your particular engineering field, your current job title, and your duties. 

My field of structural engineering is bridges; I design and detail new bridges and work to rehabilitate existing bridges.  My job title is Structural Engineer II, and I am responsible for performing calculations and choosing the materials and sizes of members needed to make a bridge stand up.  For a given project, I will work under what’s called a Project Manager, who manages the project as a whole, and I will supervise more junior engineers, who will check a lot of my work and perform smaller design tasks.  When we design a bridge, first we look at the geometry – e.g. how long does it need to be, is it straight or curved or skewed, how high does it need to be, and how much room do we have to build.  Then we design each member from the top down, starting with the beams and the deck, to the abutments that the beams sit on, to the foundations that hold the structure up below ground.  (If you remember my speech!) to make sure they will not fail when loaded by cars, trucks, impact from a vehicle accident, wind, earthquake, extreme temperatures, and more.  If you look under a typical NJ bridge, you’ll likely see a concrete deck sitting on steel beams, with smaller steel members called diaphragms spanning between the beams.  Every dimension of concrete and every piece of steel – from the width and depth and thickness of the beams, to the number of bolts connecting the diaphragms to the beams, to the amount of rebar inside the deck, is calculated by the engineer.  Once the design is complete, we put together a set of plans, which tells the contractor all of these sizes we’ve designed, and shows them how the bridge is supposed to be put together.  We also put together an estimate of all the materials used in the bridge, and how much it will cost, so that our client (some of our larger ones are the NJ Department of Transportation or the NJ Turnpike Association), can properly estimate how much the bridge will cost.  All these pieces come together in our submission, and then the project can be built!

 What is your average work schedule, what does your day look like?

The average schedule at my office is 8am to 5pm, with an hour for lunch, but the start and end times can vary.  Since my daughter was born a couple years ago, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work part-time here, and spend more time with her at home.  I typically work 24 hours a week (Mon – Thurs from 9-3), but sometimes more as needed (like this week!).  My day is typically defined by a to-do list of items for the various projects I’m working on.  When a project first starts, it is largely about running calculations to get all the sizes we need.  Today, as I mentioned, we are working on finalizing our plan set for the bridges on I-80 and the designs are already complete.  So we are finishing drawing up different pieces of the bridges in CAD and making sure everything is shown in a way that a contractor will be able to use our plans and fully understand how to build every part of the structures.

 Starting with high school, please describe your educational background chronologically:

Ramsey High School, 2004

Princeton University, BS, 2008

Columbia University, MS, 2009

 Would you do anything differently if you had to start over?

I wouldn’t!  From a young age I loved math and loved problem-solving.  Today I get to do that every day at my job!  Because I was always passionate about those topics, I was able to enjoy the whole journey. 

 Finally, what advice would you give to me as someone interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?  

The best advice I can give will sound familiar to you from HOBY – find your passion and start building that foundation!  So if you feel passionate about a career in engineering, start soaking up information, job shadow, and learn more about the field.  And also learn more about yourself, what do you love to do and in what setting do you do your best work (StrengthsFinder2.0 is a book I love for this!).   You don’t have to know all the answers today of what you want to do, but if you make decisions day by day that honor your passions, you will end up in the right place.  At first my major at Princeton was Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, but I realized that I wasn’t excited about my courses, so I switched to Civil Engineering, and loved it.  Don’t feel stressed like you have to have it all figured out – wherever you go to school, if you make decisions with both your heart AND your mind, it will lead you to where you were meant to be.

I received a “Road Map to Success” from one of the Corporate leaders of my firm that I have hanging in my cubicle and has really inspired me, and I’d love to share it with you:

  1. Act with integrity ALWAYS
  • Be the same person at work, school, or home
  1. Be willing to do anything, anytime anywhere
  • Have a can-do attitude and never stop trying to discover and learn, choose every day to be a happy person as people will always want to be around you!
  1. Find and emulate successful people
  • Be a sponge
  1. Get involved in your community
  • Help others and begin building your relationship network
  1. Always be a hero at home
  • Spend quality time with family and keep your commitments
  1. Focus your career on creating value NOT money
  • Creates a strong work ethic and a success-oriented mindset
  1. Always read for self-improvement and growth
  • Expands your thinking and gives you great talking points
  1. Take responsibility for your career development
  • Find mentors, go after your goals, and do not expect others to be responsible
  1. Get outside your comfort zone
  • Challenge yourself
  1. Become a detailed note taker
  • Ability to repeat spoken information is powerful

 

 

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