I spy an inspirational engineer

Cindy Cogil, PE, LEED AP

March 16, 2010


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Q. When you first wanted to be something in life, what was it?

A. When I was young, I first wanted to be a lifeguard. I spent all my free time at the pool and it looked like a lot of fun. Turns out it was; so, that’s what I did during my summer break for 5 years. Practically speaking though, I wanted to be an architect.

Q. What kink in the road changed your path?

A. When I took the ACT exam in high school, I noted on the form my desired field of study—architecture. I received a very persuasive letter from a university identifying a number of reasons why I should consider pursuing an engineering degree instead. Two reasons were: 1) There is more demand for engineers than architects, and 2) Engineers generally command a higher salary. In my opinion, a career that offered job security and allowed me to be able to pay back my student loans was a sound choice. An engineering career would also align with my penchant for math and science. I compromised and pursued degrees in Architectural Engineering (AE). It allowed me to study the application of engineering principles and technology as it relates to building design and construction and to work within the AE field.

Q. What did you learn from that, and how do you use it now?

A. I learned to be adaptable, to be open to other ideas. In addition, and as a result of my studies, I learned to be both specialized and broad-based. I believe both lessons have served me well as a consulting engineer in a multi-disciplinary design firm.

Q. What life adventure is high on your to-do list?

A. Well, I recently embarked on what I could imagine to be the most rewarding life adventure when I gave birth to my first child, a baby girl, last September. No additional life adventures currently in the queue.

Q. What challenges do you relish on projects?

A. It’s easy as an engineer to get caught up in the technical details of a problem. However, I find that some of the most challenging/rewarding aspects of a project have little to do with engineering. I enjoy building a trusting relationship with my clients. While a trust-based relationship may offer professional advantages for me and my firm, I truly hope that it helps to create better results for my clients. Ultimately, I find it to be a personally rewarding experience.

Q. How do you explain your career at parties?

A. When people hear “mechanical engineer,” they often think of “mechanic.” So I usually end up explaining that I do not work on cars but that I design HVAC systems. I then have to explain what “HVAC” stands for. I think a lot of people might imagine this type of career to be, well, rather dull. Once I tell them about some of the exciting, interesting. and challenging projects I’ve worked on such as The Chesapeake Bay Foundation Headquarters, The International Spy Museum, The National Academies of Science and The Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building, being a mechanical engineer suddenly looks pretty cool—or at least I would like to think so.

Q. How did mentoring affect you most?

A. Being a member of Generation X (and employed by mostly Baby Boomers), I didn’t receive a lot of hands-on mentoring. I was often left to my own devices to figure things out, but did so knowing that my more experienced colleagues were there to offer feedback or suggestions when needed. This type of relationship allowed me to learn new skills and think for myself.


Who : Cindy Cogil, PE, LEED AP

What : Principal, SmithGroup

Where : Washington, D.C.

Why : Short answer: Read her 2008 40 Under 40 profile (at www.csemag.com/40under40 ). She is an ideal role model for aspiring engineers and students, and she’s inspirational.

About : A graduate of University of Kansas and Penn State architectural engineering programs, Cogil’s projects include the U.S.’s first LEED Platinum building, the International Spy Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. She survived brain surgery to remove a tumor, leaving her deaf in one ear and sensitive to sound and light. Her experiences have helped her on projects for Gallaudet University (for the deaf) and National Intrepid Center of Excellence, dedicated to those suffering from traumatic brain injury.