This month I had the opportunity to interview automation engineer and author, Lori Kefalos. I find Lori’s story very interesting because she has had a long and fulfilling engineering career, but she took a short break from engineering to pursue another field.
Now she has returned to an engineering career and she is also an author. As you will read in our interview, Lori has written picture books and is working on a chapter book to inspire girls to pursue STEM fields.
Lori also loves to travel and has had many opportunities to travel for her job and to live internationally for work. As someone who also used to travel frequently for work, then moved to Australia for work, I can agree with her that the opportunity to see the world is one of the highlights of choosing the engineering profession.
I think you’re going to really enjoy reading Lori’s story in our interview below.
Engineering Emily (EE): How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
Lori Kefalos (LAK): I decided in high school. I always liked math and science in school, so engineering was an option. I also had taken an aptitude test that showed I had a capacity for engineering.
In deciding which type of engineering to major in, hmmm – well, as a kid I just loved the game of Operation. Remember that game where a man with a red nose laid on a table with his insides exposed? You could push his nose and it would light up and beep, or if you tried to extract one of his ailments and touched the side, it would make a loud BUZZ! – signifying you just lost your patient.
Well, I lost a lot of patients, so med school was out. I thought his ailments were hilarious; butterflies in the stomach in which you had to pull out a butterfly, a wrenched ankle where you had to remove a wrench, water on the knee where you removed a bucket. Although, I grew up thinking humans had a wishbone in their skeletal system– another good reason I didn’t attend med school.
Anyway, I took that game apart when I was a kid to see how it worked – I guess that was an early indication I was interested in Electrical Engineering. When I was in high school, a good friend of mine’s boyfriend was studying electrical engineering as well as a cousin of mine. Electricity and electronics always intrigued me.
I easily ruled out civil and mechanical engineering, not having as much interest in those disciplines. Those were the only three disciplines I really knew about at the time. Today kids in high school are lucky to have STEM programs where they can find out about all the other disciplines of Engineering, not to mention the internet as a great resource to learn about engineering.
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student?
LAK: I went away to Ohio State my first year. It was the first time I was away from my parents. I also went there alone with no close friends. So, the first quarter, while other students in my dorm were enjoying their newfound freedom of being away from parents, I was missing my mom. To combat being homesick, I threw myself into my studies which I guess was a good thing.
The second year I moved back to my hometown and attended the University of Akron. The second year is when I started taking the electrical engineering course and when women disappeared. This was in the early eighties, so there weren’t as many women in the field as there are today. I think there were three of us total in my graduating class. I can’t remember what the other women’s majors were. One might have been electrical engineering. All I can say is most of the time, I was the only female in the electrical engineering classes.
So, guess what? Being the only female, the professors always knew my name and therefore I was always called on in class. In hindsight it was a good thing, because I always was prepared in class in fear of being called upon and not knowing the answer. But while it was happening, I thought it was horrible.
EE: Did you do any engineering internships during college?
LAK: No, I did not. But I recommend that engineering students definitely try to intern. Companies are looking for graduates with experience, even directly out of college. You get a lot of theory in college; the practical experience is very valuable.
EE: What industry do you currently work in?
LAK: Interestingly enough, I currently work in the Entertainment industry. I work for a company that automates the electrical mechanical systems, like hoists and winches, that move equipment in theaters, sports arenas, concert halls and theme parks. I say interesting because I took a detour off the path of engineering and worked in the field of communications (writing and editing, not telecommunications) for about five years. So, I often found myself backstage, but on the creative side. Who would have thought I would someday be controlling the things I saw back there!
Most of my career was spent working in the tire industry. I worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber designing controls for tire building and tire testing machines.
EE: Have you travelled for work, and if so how often and to where?
LAK: Oh yes. When I worked for Goodyear, I travelled quite a bit. I have been all over the world. After a machine was designed, it had to be commissioned. This was primarily the job of the control engineer. Every now and then the mechanical engineer involved in the design would have to accompany me on a start-up, but mostly I traveled alone.
The time away from home varied. It depended, of course, on how many machines were purchased. If I were to guess, I travelled anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the time. In North America I travelled to places like Topeka, Kansas; Lawton, Oklahoma; and Napanee, Ontario, and Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. International travel included Poland, Luxembourg, Germany, Turkey, Switzerland, Chile, Peru, Brazil, South Africa and India. I hope I am not forgetting anywhere.
I love to travel! I love learning about other people’s culture, especially the food part! Also, I took advantage of the travel for work. After a start-up, which was anywhere from a 2-week stay to a 4-week stay, I would take personal time and travel to another country near to the one I was visiting. It was a great, inexpensive way to see the world! Instead of paying for a plane ticket from the U.S. across the ocean, I only had to pay a couple hundred dollars to fly somewhere nearby.
EE: Have you had to move for work?
LAK: Yes, I did move for work, but had to? No. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to live in Santiago, Chile. I spent close to two years as a project engineer installing other engineers’ designs in a tire plant there. It was such a wonderful experience. I would tell every person if they get the chance to live in another country to take it. Because of my travels, I met so many wonderful people. I have friends all over the world now because of it.
EE: What has been your best experience working as an engineer?
LAK: I would say the satisfaction you get when you successfully commission a machine. There can be years of design behind it. The startups are stressful because you are working in a production environment where time is money. So, you put in a lot of long hours during a start up trying to get the machine commissioned in the fastest amount of time.
It was hard work, but a great feeling of satisfaction getting the machine functioning and the operators and engineers trained at the plant. During that time, you are working closely with engineers from the plant. They were always such nice people. They wanted to show you their country so there were always great expeditions to historical sites and wonderful dinners involved.
EE: What has been your most challenging experience working as an engineer?
LAK: That is a good question. I think maybe being a woman in a field dominated by men. When you are the minority, unfortunately, I have found you must work harder to be noticed and you must prove yourself like you are representing your entire race or gender. Which is ridiculous. I was lucky that the young engineers that I hired in with were progressive. I never felt any bias from my coworkers.
But I have been in many situations where I was fully aware of the prejudices. I remember on one installation, I had just finished reviewing drawings with the head electrician on what needed to be installed. After the meeting was done, the first thing he said to me was, “I don’t have a problem working for a woman, but I know many people who do.” Anyone that starts a sentence with “I don’t have a problem working for a woman” has a problem working for a woman.
EE: If you are no longer working as an engineer, why did you leave engineering? And do you plan to ever return to engineering in the future?
LAK: I mentioned earlier I briefly spent some time working in internal communications. Although I came back to engineering, I still write. I have just published my second picture book, A Blob on a Bus, which is about a playground bully. I am also writing my first chapter book where the protagonist is a girl who loves science and math. I want to get young girls interested in the field of engineering. We need more women in the math and science fields!
EE: What advice do you have for girls interested becoming an engineer?
LAK: I want to tell them YES you can! You know, I have read all kinds of studies, ones that say boys are better at math than girls and ones that say girls are better at math than boys. There are also studies that say coffee is bad for you and other studies that say coffee is good for you. I choose to believe the one that says coffee is good for you. I believe math and science is not gender related. If you tell a child she or he cannot do something then they will not. But, if you tell a child, with hard work and perseverance you can accomplish great things, then they will.
EE: Would you still become an engineer if you could do it all over again?
LAK: Sure, engineering allowed me to see the world and it opened the door to so many other opportunities. My engineering degree lead me to discover writing and, believe it or not, film editing. Who knows what is next? Maybe, I will someday save a person with an infected wishbone. Wouldn’t that be something.
Lori’s enthusiasm for getting girls interested in STEM really shined through in our interview! She has a great personality and I loved hearing her perspective on her engineering career. She was able to provide some wonderful insights on her career as an engineer and useful advice to young women interested in a career in engineering.
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