As a student at Drexel, Kerianne Chen, B.S. civil engineering ’20, was all about outreach. The Austin, Texas, native, who identifies as genderqueer and uses she/they pronouns, was an active leader in the Society of Women Engineers, where they helped organize the annual “Lives and Lessons of the Underrepresented in STEM” event, which championed voices that are too often unheard in STEM fields. They also regularly participated in events organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Younger Members Forum (YMF), demonstrating engineering concept for K-12 students who were interested in engineering.
Now a professional highway design specialist with Traffic Planning Design, Inc., Chen is continuing to serve as a role model for young engineers. They are currently the K-12 outreach chair for the ASCE Philadelphia Sector YMF and a regular volunteer with the Women’s Transportation Seminar’s Philadelphia Transportation YOU mentorship program. For their DEI advocacy and STEM outreach, ASCE recently honored Chen as a 2023 New Face of Civil Engineering.
What stood out about Drexel when you were choosing colleges?
What stood out was fact that I was able to try out several positions in the co-op program, which was great since I wasn't certain what discipline I wanted to pursue. I started at Drexel as Engineering Undecided, and talked with upperclassmen I met in student organizations about what they did in their co-ops and classes to help me choose my field.
Was there a class, professor or co-op that helped shape you in a positive way?
My third co-op led to my current full-time position. I really enjoyed the type of projects we worked on, but additionally, my team members trusted me a lot during my co-op, which allowed me to learn more aspects of the job and get more experience and responsibility.
Tell us about your job now.
I work as a designer for roadway and multimodal projects at TPD. I work on projects within the City of Philadelphia, surrounding PA counties, Delaware, and North Carolina. There's two types of projects I work on: roadway improvements for site development and multimodal or trail projects. A typical site development example is that there is a land developer going into a site, and my team works with the site engineer to design the driveways, sidewalks along the site, and roadway improvements like turn lanes, traffic signals, and ADA ramps. The goal is to make the site safe and accessible for vehicles and pedestrians. For our multimodal projects, we focus on creating shared use paths for cyclists and pedestrians and bicycle facilities like bike lanes and shared lanes. These projects are often grant funded, which has some different considerations from private projects. As I've progressed in the position, I've worked on lots of aspects of projects including CADD design and plan presentation, horizontal and vertical roadway design, ADA design, stormwater drainage design, preparation of reports, utility coordination, etc.
How did your experiences at Drexel prepare you for your job now?
The majority of the work that I do now is learnt on the job, so being able to work in several different positions while I was a student allowed me to gain a better understanding of the industry.
What does this recognition mean to you?
It is a little bit surreal - I never expected I would be selected when I applied for this. I think a lot of people underestimate the work they do, so it is really rewarding to be recognized as a young engineer.
Within ASCE, you serve as K-12 outreach chair. Why is it important to you to be a model for kids interested in STEM?
I've met so many students and young adults who grew up in underserved communities, with no understanding of STEM or what opportunities exist for them. My goal is that I can share my experiences as an engineer in a way that makes it seem like an attainable goal for students. Engineering should not be considered something beyond their reach, but instead an option for them if they are interested in infrastructure.
What message do you have for young people who want to pursue your field who identify outside the gender binary?
Do not be afraid to make your identity known, but don't feel like it is your whole identity. You exist beyond being a minority or token individual – you are also an accomplished professional. Learn who your allies are, they can help to second your opinions if they are not being heard. Lastly, know that there is no one way to be an engineer…anyone can do it!
What are your hopes for the future of your career?
When I was in school, there were many individuals that served as role models for me, and I hope that I can do that for the students I work with. Going into Philadelphia schools for K-12 Outreach, working with WTS Transportation YOU mentees, I hope that they are able to learn about what their options are, and that they can figure out the best way to pursue their goals, despite any socio-economic concerns. I also look forward to continuing to work in the transportation industry, designing projects that better the community, and serving as DEI advocate within my company and the Philadelphia community.