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This is what a Nerd Girl Looks Like!

Photo by Joshua Kelly

Not only was Sabrina Odah the Project Manager of the UC Berkeley team that took home first place at the nationals for the 2012 ASCE/AISC Student Steel Bridge Competition, but she also performed in show choir with me for three years in high school :) When I saw this photo, I had to ask her for the story behind it:

CC:Who or what were your inspirations to go into engineering?

Sabrina:I thought about majoring in different disciplines during high school (psychology, law, mathematics); none captured and held my interest. One day, while driving over the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, I decided that I wanted to learn how bridges work -- how they're built, how they're designed and constructed. I asked my dad, an architect, what I needed to major in to work on bridges, and he answered Civil Engineering. Four years later, I have my B.S. and am continuing on to receive my M.S.

CC: Tell me a little bit about how the Steel Bridge Competition works.

Sabrina: Steel Bridge is a student-led and student-organized competition team that incorporates design, analysis, fabrication, and construction elements. The finished product is a 22.5-ft long bridge made entirely of steel, and entirely by students. Berkeley's team is one of the largest in the competition -- we had a team of over 35 students altogether. During the Fall semester, we present preliminary designs and eventually optimize these designs to create a finalized 3-D computer model. This is done using computer programs like AutoCAD and SAP2000; once our optimization process is exhausted and the design process is completed, we create shop drawings and begin to fabricate the bridge throughout the Spring semester in our student machine shops.

During competition, we are judged on three aspects: weight (lightness); deflection (the bridge is loaded with 2500 lbs and readings are taken to measure how much its final height varies from its initial height); and construction speed (how fast it can be put together by our Construction Team in timed construction.) Therefore, it's imperative that we optimize the bridge's design to achieve the best balance of the three scores.

CC: How do you feel your team benefited from having both the masculine and feminine perspectives?

Sabrina: It comes as no surprise that this competition, as well as this profession, has a strong male influence/perspective. However, what I hope to have contributed as a female Project Manager is confidence to ensure each decision made is in the best interest of the team, compassion to sustain a strong and dedicated team, and a little bit of class to bring to light a new generation of flourishing [female] engineers.

That being said, I know that my team had an incredible sense of respect for me and my leadership. Without this, my time as a female Project Manager probably would not have been as successful. I had a very supportive and open-minded group of young engineers to work with, which didn't make me feel like the odd woman out.

CC: Were any of the teams you competed against in the finals also led by girls?

Sabrina: I'm not entirely certain how many female leaders were present at the National competition, but I am aware that M.I.T. was also led by female Project Manager(s). M.I.T. took Second Place overall. Ladies -- we must be doing something right!

CC: What kind of setbacks had your team faced, and how did you overcome them?

Sabrina: Last year, we made it to the National competition at Texas A&M and faced quite a devastating defeat when we were disqualified because we failed to pass one of the required load tests. I like to think that this defeat made us stronger and more resilient. We were forced to come together to regain confidence in our engineering and teamwork skills.

CC: Judging by the above photo, you have incredible stage presence. Where does that come from?

Sabrina: The award I was receiving in the photo was on behalf of the Construction Team, who actually builds the bridge during timed construction. Prior to the Awards Ceremony, we were told that only the Project Manager was allowed to receive each award (rather than respective team members). In the photo, I was acknowledging my team for their impeccable efforts; that moment captured my confidence in, gratitude towards, and pride for my team.

CC: The competition sounds like a lot of work over a long time. Were you able to squeeze in any other extra-curriculars? What about a social life?

Sabrina: The competition is a huge commitment with respect to time and energy. It's a year-long project that began in the summer for me (planning, organizing, etc), but also wears on each member involved as the semesters progress. Many of the team members have close friends within our group, which allows us all to have a good time while working on our project. Beyond Steel Bridge, however, I was involved in a few other groups and definitely got some social time in whenever possible -- even if that just involved a simple coffee date with my girlfriends at our favorite cafe.

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