PODCAST: In Conversation with Katie Surra

Posted on August 24, 2020


Katie Surra, BSc’05, MEng’07, began her career working as an engineer, designing innovative storm water management solutions for the rapidly developing landscape of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Currently she is an instructor at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, where she works to develop the Water and Environmental Technology program. In 2016, Katie was awarded a National Science Foundation Advance grant to develop a sustainable model for recruiting more women into technical careers. In this episode of our podcast, she talks about her career to date, the challenges of water management, and her time at Queen’s.
  • So with climate change where you're seeing increases in the average amount of rainfall every year and the number and intensity of extreme rainfall events is increasing as a result, we need effective storm water management, not just in terms of controlling the quantity of runoff, but also focused on quality improvements as well.

    Queen's alumna Katie Surra began her career working as an engineer, designing innovative storm water management solutions for the rapidly developing landscape of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Currently she is an instructor at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, where she works to develop the Water and Environmental Technology program. In 2016, Katie was awarded a National Science Foundation Advance grant to develop a sustainable model for recruiting more women into technical careers. Welcome to the podcast, Katie.

    Thank you.

    I'd like to start by asking you a bit about how you became interested in stormwater management.

    When I first came to Queen's, I always thought that I would be interested in either geological or something with geology or something with mining.

    I ended up in the Civil Engineering department and then sort of thought that I would probably head more towards something structural designing bridges or buildings. I ended up with a summer internship working at Utilities Kingston, and they sent me on a short assignment to the wastewater treatment plant. And when I heard that, I thought, Oh my goodness, who wants to spend their time working at the wastewater treatment plant? Like what a horrible summer job, but I got there and I absolutely fell in love with the work every day was different.

    So, you know, you might start out in the lab doing lab testing and then you might be doing a pump repair who knows what, what every day is going to look like. So I liked that variety and that that really truly appealed to me. So I came back to Queen's that fall and I actually switched from the infrastructure option to the environmental option within the Civil Engineering program.

    And then went on to finish a master's degree with coursework that was focused on wastewater treatment and really municipal servicing and design. So after graduation, I started working for a land development firm, designing residential and commercial projects with the focus on designing their drinking water systems, their wastewater systems, and then the stormwater systems. The stormwater parts specifically appealed to me because I liked the opportunity to try and ensure that whatever redevelopment we might be working on is done in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

    Right. And tell me a little bit about storm water management solution. It must be fairly complex.

    So I worked in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We live within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And if you don't know about the Chesapeake Bay, it's the largest estuary in the United States. It's the third largest in the world. And there's actually, there's more coastline in the Bay than the entire West coast of the United States.

    Wow.

    But years of misuse and poor land management have resulted in severely degraded water quality. It's a huge problem. So Lancaster County happens to be sort of a leader in stormwater management, any development or redevelopment we do was designed with that in mind and with the goal of saving the Bay. So any system that we design includes best management practices that not just ensure control of the quantity of water that's coming off of the site, but also help to preserve the water quality as well.

    One of the projects that I'm most proud of recently, I got grant funding to work with my students and we designed a rain garden on campus. So our campus lies within an area with a combined sewer system. So combined sewer overflows, the City of Kingston historically has had problems with that and Lancaster city is no different.

    So we got funding to help control some of the runoff from some of the buildings on campus. So I worked with the students, they designed the rain garden, they installed it and they were responsible for maintaining it. So it allowed for infiltration. So letting the water soak back into the ground rather than running off and reaching the river. And we made sure to include all native species to promote biodiversity as well. So pretty proud of that project.

    That sounds amazing. So climate change must be affecting stormwater management? 

    Absolutely climate change. We're seeing increases in the average amount of rainfall every year. And the number and intensity of extreme rainfall events is increasing. Those two things combined make an increased risk for flooding and the increase in the amount of rainfall will carry more pollutants to our local waterways. As a result, we need effective stormwater management, not just in terms of controlling the quantity of runoff, but also implementing controls, which focus on water quality.

    Well, I know that yeah, You're working in, what's traditionally seen as a male dominated career. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about some of the challenges you may have faced over time and how you've overcome them.

    So I wanted to be an engineer when I was five years old. My dad was a civil engineer. He's also from Queen's. I remember him bringing home blueprints and drawings and we would drive past bridges that he had designed, or he worked on a project at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. I remember being little and saying, you know, I want to be an engineer and I want to go to Queen's. And that sort of carried on through high school and middle school where, you know, none of my friends wanted to be engineers. They, they had different career paths and they wanted to be dental, hygienists or teachers, but I kept going and I applied to Queen's and, and got in attended for the four years, finished my bachelor's degree. And then my master's degree, and everybody at Queens was supportive.

    I worked in industry and at various times I've encountered people that have put challenges in my way or situations that have been challenging purely because I am a woman. Um, people who thought that I wasn't qualified for the job or, or couldn't do it just because I'm a woman or people who thought that I had it easier, just because I was a woman. I distinctly remember one fellow summer student one time saying, well, it's easy for, because you just look at them and smile and you get whatever you want. Most often it's, it's the opposite most often because I was a woman, I felt scrutinized more, more heavily. I've blatantly had my qualifications questioned on several occasions. My husband and I both worked at the same employer. There was one instance where a coworker actually went to my husband and asked him what my qualifications were and if I was really qualified to do the job.

    Wow.

    So, so I take each of these incidences as a challenge, and it's, it's a chance to prove to someone that I had, the technical skills and the ability to do whatever it was that they thought I couldn't.

    And you've also just recently received a grant to develop a model, to recruit more women into these types of careers. Can you tell me a bit about that?

    We got funding through the National Science Foundation, through their advanced technician education program to increase female student enrollment in our Water and Environmental Technology program or Computer Integrated Machining program in our Electrical Technology program. The Water and Environmental Technology program focuses on preparing people to be operators at drinking and wastewater facilities. Our computer integrated machining program is focused on preparing people to work as machinists and then electricians. So all career paths that have typically between five and 10% of the workers are female.

    We work with local high schools and develop partnerships with them. We go out, we get the young women from the high schools. We take them out into industry and we show them female role models that are working in industry rather than trying to promote the educational path. We promote the final career. So this is what the job looks like. You know, this is somebody just like you, young woman, just like you, that that is doing this job.

    Then we show them what the education looks like. And then we give them the chance to come to campus and work in a interdisciplinary workshop. So they come on campus. We talk about how we use pumps and aeration in wastewater treatment plants, the electrical instructor talks about how do we wire up a pump and what does that wiring look like? And then they actually go to the machining side and they actually build components and assemble them to make a small desktop fountain. And we've seen female student enrollment in all of the programs increase as a result.

    That's great. Can you tell me a little bit about the Water and Environmental Technology program?

    Yeah, so Pennsylvania faces a looming shortage of operators, so certified operators working in drinking and wastewater treatment facilities. We recognize that need, and as a result created the Water and Environmental Technology program. It's the only Pennsylvania department of environmental protection accredited associate degree program in Pennsylvania. I think the program is extremely important. There's nothing more important than protecting public health and the environment and our drinking and wastewater operators are at the front lines of doing both of those things.

    So I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your time at Queen's. Do you have any favorite memories? Yes. I think, you know, everybody comes out of it with friends that they keep in touch with forever and, you know, small memories.

    I loved being part of the Civil Engineering department in a small group of friends there. And I remember failing my first physics midterm. So I got a, I think it was a 48% or something on it. And I was, I was pretty upset and I ran into Dr. Turcke who was the head of the Civil Engineering department. At that time I had met him a few times and he asked how my semester was going. And I said, well, you know, I love it here, but I failed my first midterm. And I'm really worried about what that might mean for me. And he didn't even flinch at all. All he said was good people fail. And I thought, wow, maybe it's really not as big of a deal as it seemed to me. And so that was, you know, that changed my perspective on the entire semester.

    He probably wouldn't even remember having had that conversation, but it stayed with me for for years, 20 plus years now. And it completely changed my perspective on a lot of things.

    That's wonderful. So what would you say to women who are considering applying to engineering at Queens?

    I remember sitting down with my guidance counsellor. I was picking my courses and I distinctly remember her saying, you're not smart enough to go to Queen's. You better come up with a backup plan. And I thought, Oh my goodness, I'm not smart enough to go to Queen's. I've wanted this my whole life. What am I going to do now? So I had needed to take calculus, chemistry and physics, and she steered me away from those. She tried to enroll me in parenting and the restaurant class. I was fortunate. I had parents that were very supportive. I got those classes. I applied to Queens. I got in, I went on to be successful there and post-graduation and have been successful working in industry. And now back in on the academic side. So if I had one message, it would be that you're always going to run into people like that guidance counsellor.

    Really, find the people who do support you And surround yourself with them. There are people out there who believe in you and will want you to succeed.