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Women in STEM: EWEB Engineer Laura Ohman's second degree brings a lifetime of benefits

September 06, 2023 Molly Babcock, EWEB Communications

At age 32, Laura Ohman started the first day of her second bachelor’s degree.

She was studying engineering at the University of Minnesota. There was a lot that hadn’t changed since 1996, when she graduated from the University of North Dakota with a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical studies. She was trying to find her classes, forming study groups, and staying late to ask questions after class.

But this time, it wasn’t just Ohman’s first day of school. Her two young children, ages 2 and 5, headed off to their classes as well.

“Balancing school with being a mom was probably the most difficult and most rewarding thing that I've ever accomplished,” Ohman said. “I learned resilience and I learned to be patient with myself.”

Before returning to school, Ohman worked closely with engineers as an executive assistant. The more she attended their meetings and learned about their work, the more confident she became. With the support of her colleagues, Ohman decided to go back to school for engineering.

“I've always felt like the time and effort that I put into my engineering degree has really paid off with a career that is challenging, engaging, and important,” Ohman said. “If you’re looking for a change, it is possible to get another degree. It’s a limited duration of challenge, with benefits that last a lifetime.”

After graduating in 2009, Ohman joined EWEB as an entry-level engineer. Ohman still remembers one of her favorite days as an engineer at EWEB. After years of planning, her team was ready to receive the new transformers at the Carmen-Smith hydroelectric project. The transformers weighed about 158,000 pounds each. The transportation contractor needed a special permit to drive them on highways, and a structural engineer had to evaluate the bridge they crossed.

The Carmen-Smith Hydroelectric Project is a network of three dams, three reservoirs, and two power plants that has served the Eugene-Springfield area with reliable, carbon-free energy for over 50 years. It is a masterpiece of engineering.

“I’ve been very lucky to work on the Carmen-Smith project. It's vital to Eugene, and we're doing a lot of important work there. It feels great to be part of it,” Ohman said.

Throughout her time in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field, Ohman has become accustomed to being the only woman in the room. Despite this, she feels that she has been treated equally to her male counterparts. She advises that other women in STEM focus on confidence.

If there’s a seat at the front of the room, sit at the front! Ask questions and make suggestions. When you exude confidence, the people around you will notice,” Ohman said.

Ohman knows building confidence isn’t easy. She recommends that future engineers know their strengths and weaknesses. All kinds of strengths, including soft skills like communication, are valuable when working in a team. Future engineers can also work candidly on their weaknesses by asking good questions and connecting with mentors.

“You don't have to be perfect at everything all the time. And you don’t have to be 100% ready to apply for that promotion or a new job. Just focus on performance, look for opportunities, and follow your interests,” Ohman said.