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The greatest challenge for girls exploring engineering as a career? Debunking public perception

Dr. Menzer Pehlivan (pictured front left) is one of the engineers featured in "Dream Big," a new IMAX film premiering at the Saint Louis Science Center.
MacGillivray Freeman
Dr. Menzer Pehlivan (pictured front left) is one of the engineers featured in "Dream Big," a new IMAX film premiering at the Saint Louis Science Center.

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For Menzer Pehlivan, a civil engineer from Turkey featured in the Saint Louis Science Center’s new IMAX filmDream Big,” a career in engineering started with a terrifying childhood experience in Ankara.

On August 17, 1999 at 3 a.m., Pehlivan woke to a shake from her mother, pulling her from bed as the chandelier swung from side to side on the ceiling and her house shook from an earthquake ranking 7.6 on the Richter scale.

“You know that you are living in an earthquake-prone region, but until one hits and you lose more than 17,000 people, more than 50,000 injured, more than 250,000 left homeless, it is not a reality,” Pehlivan said, recalling the experience. “After that, it is a reality in your life.”

This experience would shape Pehlivan’s career goals: to become a geotechnical engineer. Becoming an engineer is a vaunted career in Turkey, a developing country where a lot of construction happens.

Yet, Pehlivan faced peers and teachers who doubted that an engineering career would be a good fit for her. She recalled raising her hand in class when her history teacher asked the class what they wanted to study in college and saying she would become a civil engineer. The teacher asked “how would you do that?”

“I said: ‘Easy, I’m going to go to the university and I’m going to study it,’” Pehlivan told St. Louis on the Air contributor Geri Mitchell. “He didn’t ask this question to anyone but me, because I’m a girly girl, because I wouldn’t fit in in his public image of engineering. We need to change that.”

Pehlivan said the greatest challenge for any girl considering engineering as a career path is the public perception of the career.

“Because of public image, [people] feel like girls should not be in engineering,” Pehlivan said. “That it’s not for you. Really? The public image is this guy with a pocket protector with the glasses, not very appealing. So the kids, the next generation do not want to pursue this. The importance of this project that I’m with, and I don’t want to call it a movie because it is more like a movement, called ‘Dream Big,’ we’re trying to introduce kids, the next generation, into engineering by changing the public perception of engineers, by changing understanding by society.”

Today, Menzer works in the Seattle office of CH2M, a global engineering firm that provides consulting, design, and construction services for corporations and the government. In 2013, she completed her PhD in engineering, studying seismic hazards to nuclear facilities.

Menzer practices a specific subsect of civil engineering: geotechnical engineering.

“Geotechnical engineers make sure when you base that structure in the soil, that soil will be able to carry the load so the structure won’t settle or tilt,” Menzer said. “We mainly deal with everything below the surface and structural engineers deal with above ground. Of course, we work together.”

The movie “Dream Big,” directed by Greg MacGillivray, features four engineers working in third world countries on daring engineering feats. One of the projects more close to home is a section in the movie about the hyperloop, which would reduce the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles to a 30-minute train ride.

Pehlivan hopes the film will encourage young people to pursue engineering and STEM-based careers.

Menzer Pehlivan.
Credit MacGillivray Freeman
Menzer Pehlivan.

“There are so many shows about doctors, about lawyers, about businessmen, about investors,” Menzer said. “There’s no show about engineering that reaches this huge population to show what engineering is. So many kids might not have a chance to ever interact with an engineer. There’s nothing, no outreach. How would he or she, that young, brilliant brain, pick engineering or STEM if they’ve never heard about it?”

For children interested in pursuing a career in STEM, Pehlivan had some important advice about studying:

“The only subject matter they need to concentrate on is that they need to start believing in themselves,” Pehlivan said. “Inspiration can come from many places. When you look at the movie, it all starts with someone believing in their dream. Find another person who believes in you more than you believe in yourself, that is the most important thing. You don’t have to be the greatest math person, you don’t have to be greatest in science.”

Pehlivan said that math and science are important baselines for her work as an engineer but they don’t take up all of her time.

“I’m not saying engineering does not include math or science, it does,” Pehlivan said. “But you just need a basic understanding. You can do it. Anyone can do it. It does not matter your background, whether you are a girl or a boy, or what you do in their spare time or whether you are an introvert or extrovert. “

She hopes her role in the film will help others dream as big as she is able to.

“I love what I’m doing right now: being in ‘Dream Big’ helped me accomplish another dream,” Pehlivan said. “If I can do something that will change someone else’s life, that’s a dream come true. If I can be different than the rest — that’s my mantra, I don’t want to be ordinary. I don’t know what the future holds. With this movie, if I’m a role model for a little girl, that’s a dream come true.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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