Women In Tunneling features an exemplary female representative of the tunneling industry each month in order to amplify their experiences in the underground field. For April 2021, we are proud to introduce Maria Chastka, Project Engineer at Obayashi Corporation. Join us in our interview with Maria below as she shares about her day-to-day experiences as an engineer in the underground field.
- What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?
Currently, I am a Project Engineer for Obayashi Corporation overseeing the Newell Creek Dam Project for the City of Santa Cruz, CA.
- How were you introduced to the tunnel industry, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?
My senior year in high school I attended a geology field trip to a working silver mine in Idaho Springs, CO. I was drawn to construction while attending Colorado School of Mines and became more interested in the excavation process than mineral processing. Finding a career in Heavy Civil/Underground Construction was an easy transition and allows me to be a part of incredible projects around the US. The tunnel industry allows me to see so much of the country and potentially the world, while working on critical infrastructure projects that improve our way of life.
- People outside of the industry don’t tend to understand exactly what the job entails. What is it like to work as an engineer on underground projects?
I really enjoy the variety of each day and that there is always something new to learn; I am never bored at work! The day-to-day challenges can be intense as each new aspect of the work process needs to be thoroughly understood, adapted or changed to meet the constraints of construction, then built all while maintaining budget and schedule. In my experience, no two jobs are the same so you are constantly learning and adapting to new variables. As a tunnel project engineer you may be: working with the owner/designer to re-design a drawing or spec to better meet the needs of the job, performing survey, purchasing/ordering, cost engineering, estimating future jobs, training new employees, writing/reviewing submittals/RFIs/spec revisions, troubleshooting equipment issues, researching/writing papers for industry that will help your job and future jobs, acting as job site point person for any issues and/or all of the above. The learning curve may be steep for job to job, day to day, but discovering how best to utilize and implement your abilities will carry over to other projects in the future.
- What professional achievement are you most proud of?
My favorite part of my career is the opportunity to build challenging technical work on impactful community projects; it is immensely rewarding. Knowing that I am part of improving infrastructure in multiple cities across the US, while underground is still very cool. I very much enjoy tackling a challenge and finding the best possible outcome.
- Even though the number of women has been increasing over the years, the tunneling industry is still considered a male oriented environment. What do you think are some of the factors or obstacles—either societal or sometimes even self-imposed— that deter women from entering the underground career force? And what can we do as an industry or as a society to encourage more women to join?
I am inspired by the incredible women in the tunneling industry that have found a way to thrive in their careers no matter what roadblocks are presented to them. There are unique challenges for women in technical roles, especially regarding having a family and children. Fortunately, I am continually impressed by, and thankful for, the support of other women but more importantly the men in the field that are helping to change the "way it has always been" and recognizing the untapped talent pool that makes up half of the population. If we have learned anything from the ongoing pandemic, I hope the ability to allow flexibility for “on site” hours to accommodate responsibilities outside of work is something we can continue to utilize and encourage. The opportunity for career advancement is incredible in this field and I hope to support the next generation of women in industry however I can.
- How do you tap into your inner leader? What advice would you give on having the courage to honor your voice and to speak out and contribute your influence?
A few years ago, I was asked to be a mentor for new engineers in my company. At the time, I felt underqualified and terrified to be giving advice. Fortunately, I was able to voice my concerns with a colleague and they asked how my mentor as a young engineer advised me. I did not have an answer as I did not have a formal mentor and felt the same concerns of inadequacy then. I reframed the idea of mentorship as being a sounding board for a colleague. In doing that, I receive as much of a benefit from my new relationships with younger engineers as I hope I provide to them.
- Looking back, what two pieces of advice do you have for your younger self?
I would explain that mistakes will happen and how I recover and learn from those experiences will only make me better at my job and in life. Also, as difficult as it may be, asking for help is not a sign of weakness especially when taking on a new task or role.
- What do you hope the future holds for yourself, for the industry, and/or for other women who will be a part of tunneling & underground construction?
I will continue to learn and feel accomplishment in the projects I build, as well as gaining and sharing experiences on each one. I am hopeful that our industry continues to make strides in technological innovations, but more importantly, maintains the gradual shift of humanizing our workforce and encouraging individual strengths. Helping each other develop our natural skill set and building teams for projects while promoting those strengths will not only make projects more successful financially, but will also lessen the burden of challenging days and strenuous workloads.
Thank you, Maria, for sharing your personal insights with the UCA of SME Women In Tunneling community. We are grateful to have you as a member, and proud to have you representing Women In Tunneling.