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Women in STEM: Meet the technician who manages EWEB's communication system
March 30, 2023 • Rachael McDonald, EWEB Communications
As a utility, EWEB is known for providing water and electricity to Eugene residents. But EWEB also operates the largest publicly owned open-access fiber network in Oregon.
The infrastructure of underground fiber that connects high-speed internet in downtown Eugene needs to be maintained. Gretchen Lowen is the engineering technician who oversees changes or additions to EWEB’s fiber system.
“I'm responsible for the fiber system, which includes communications for substation relays. It includes communications for our computer system, our internet, phones,” Lowen said. “And then we also have circuits at are for our public partners, the City of Eugene, the school districts. They send all their communication traffic on our fiber as well.”
In 1999, EWEB constructed 70 miles of fiber, initially to connect 25 metro-area substations. It has now grown to more than 195 miles of fiber optic cable. EWEB is also manages EUGNet, the downtown fiber network constructed through a partnership with the City of Eugene, Technology Association of Oregon, and the Lane Council of Governments which connects downtown businesses to affordable high-speed internet. The fiber system was installed between 2014 and 2019 in EWEB’s underground vault system, which was built in the 1950s with an eye toward future communication needs. EWEB’s Water, Generation, Information Systems as well as the City of Eugene, Lane County, ODOT, the University of Oregon, local school districts and multiple commercial customers use EWEB’s fiber.
One of Lowen’s current projects is moving EWEB’s Network Operations Communications Center (NOCC) out of the former Headquarters building downtown since the City of Eugene is moving into the building after purchasing it from EWEB earlier this year. That equipment is moving to the Willamette Substation near downtown. Lowen described rerouting these connections as working a huge puzzle.
“So, what I do is I go in. This is my puzzling,” Lowen said as she clicked on a map of the fiber network on her computer. “I go in and I say I need to go in this direction from say this vault, well here I have this strand available on this cable. But now, I’m looking at what do I have available on this cable.”
Lowen works with a number of software tools, including EWEB’s GIS (Geographic Information System), spreadsheets, and a program called autoCAD, to design and map the fiber network.
“It’s got a huge scope and I'm learning all the time,” said Lowen. “And that's the beauty of working for this organization is that you always have opportunity to grow and learn.”
Lowen is also a people person. She’s on EWEB’s Diversity Team, which meets monthly to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion. It also organizes activities, like a recent movie screening and discussion. She encouraged a team member grappling with feeling helpless about working for change to go from “I can’t,” to “How can I?”
“Somebody said, well, I'm only here. I could never,” Lowen said. “And I'm like, oh, that's not the way you have to think. You have to say, I can do and just do it.”
Lowen says that’s the attitude she brings to her life and career, and it’s been encouraged at EWEB.
“That's what I like about this organization is if you decide you can, you can. It doesn't mean it's easy,” said Lowen.
Lowen grew up in Hawaii and came to Oregon for school, starting at Lane Community College and then transferring to the University of Oregon.
“In school I was going to be a doctor because I love science,” said Lowen. "Then, I couldn't afford to continue going to school. So, I worked in the restaurant industry for years and I loved that industry as well.”
Lowen got married and had children and was able to not work full time while raising her kids. Once her kids were older, she came back to full time work. Her first job at EWEB was in Human Resources, where she started over 15 years ago. She then worked as an Admin Assistant and as a Distribution Engineering Tech.
“I spent ten years in distribution engineering. So, I learned a lot about our electric distribution system. So, anything between the substation to the meter.”
Then, at a suggestion from her co-worker, she applied for her current position as an engineering technician managing EWEB’s fiber optics network.
Lowen prepares construction designs, including materials needed, contracts, labor, equipment, and permits. She solves technical problems, assists in cost analyses of utility projects, performs field inspections and makes sure the project goals are achieved within budget.
The job requires technical skills such as drafting and surveying, as well as interacting with customers, meeting deadlines, and working both independently and within a team.
Lowen said she feels fortunate to have been happy at a variety of jobs. She encourages people to not limit their options when thinking about a career.
“But I tell you, the thing that I really love most about this job is the connection with my customers and my community,” said Lowen. “Any time I can interact with people, I like that. That's my deal.”