wom(en)gineer recently sat down with Crystal Salazar, Electrical Engineer, to talk about being a woman engineer early in her career. Crystal joined Altieri 3 years ago after graduating from Fairfield University – the only woman electrical engineer in her class. Today, she designs electrical systems for a variety of project types including The Obama Presidential Center in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Crystal is also Team Captain of Altieri’s Quality of Office Life (QOOL) team, supporting the happiness and wellness of our staff!
wom(en)gineer: Let’s start from the beginning, did you always want to be an engineer?
Crystal: Like many high schoolers, I had no idea where I was headed. Math always came very easily to me – I just didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. When I took an entry-level electrical engineering course during my freshman year at Fairfield University, the light went on 😉 I ended up majoring in Electrical Engineering and minoring in Math – a perfect outcome!
wom(en)gineer: Did you have good role models for the path you chose?
Crystal: I had a female math teacher in high school who was very supportive and encouraging about girls in math/STEM fields. At Fairfield, a female mathematics professor encouraged me to switch my focus away from engineering in favor of being a mathematician. At the same time, a female engineering professor made me afraid to work in a male-dominated field – she would always say that when you work in the industry, one mistake could cost you your career. Ultimately, I chose engineering (more exciting than math), but I also brought along a fear of making mistakes – not great when you are starting out.
wom(en)gineer: That is a significant hurdle at the beginning of your career. Have you been successful overcoming this fear?
Crystal: I am so grateful to receive a lot of support from my Altieri colleagues. The culture not only encourages continuous learning (one of our core values), but also emphasizes mistakes as a critical element of the learning process. Kari Nystrom, Altieri’s only female partner and only partner who is an electrical engineer, has been mentoring me from the beginning. With her support, I realized that I had to stop being afraid in order to learn. I will now ask anyone just about anything!
wom(en)gineer: Mentoring has clearly been an important factor in your professional growth; no doubt it has positively impacted your day-to-day project work. Speaking of which, you’ve had the opportunity to work on amazing projects in your first 3 years at Altieri. Is there one that stands out as a highlight for you?
Crystal: Altieri’s portfolio is awesome! My favorite project so far is the one we are doing at MIT*. Converting a historic building presents so many challenges which have forced me out of my comfort zone in terms of electrical systems design, decision-making, and coordination between all members of the design team. Also, because of the complexity of the project, I have been working very closely with Kari who is Principal in Charge of the project. I am learning so much from her!
* The Metropolitan Storage Warehouse project is a significant adaptive re-use renovation of a brick storage warehouse – built between 1895 and 1923 – on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, MA. The historic building is being designed for the university’s School of Architecture + Planning and for Project Manus, MIT’s makerspace initiative sponsored by the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
wom(en)gineer: Are there other lessons you are learning from Kari?
Crystal: Being mentored by Kari is an amazing opportunity for me. I had researched Kari prior to joining Altieri but had no idea I would be hired into her studio. I am so lucky to be working for a strong, successful female electrical engineer early in my career. In addition to becoming more comfortable making mistakes, I have learned not to be afraid about asking questions. Kari is teaching me confidence… and patience. None of us know it all now and we never will! Kari admits that even after 34 years she is still learning new things, helping her and others around her to become better engineers. I am learning from Kari’s mentoring that this learning process never ends.
wom(en)gineer: As your career develops, what role would you like to play to advance the presence of women in the field?
Crystal: I would like to make anyone comfortable in their jobs, comfortable enough to ask questions and, in doing so, become better engineers.
wom(en)gineer: Do you have any advice for other young women starting out in engineering?
Crystal: Be courageous! And confident. Women bring a different energy to projects and teams. We make things grow.