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Vanessa Galvez helps communities weather storms and rebuild after they strike
DEBBIE EGAN-CHIN/NY DAILY NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES
AFTERMATH OF THE STORM: Hurricane Sandy caused severe flooding in Queens, the New York City borough where Galvez grew up.
Vanessa Galvez had just started her first job out of college when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in October 2012. The hurricane’s winds created a record-breaking 4 meter (14 foot) storm surge that submerged waterfront areas around the city. The floodwaters damaged homes, businesses, and vital infrastructure like power lines and the subway system.
As a civil engineer, it’s Galvez’s job to oversee the construction of community infrastructure. After Sandy, that included managing the installation of hundreds of small plots of vegetation and soil that soak up excess stormwater. Working for the New York City Department of Design and Construction, Galvez helped create these bioswales in the borough of Queens—where she grew up. These tiny plots of land will help prevent future flooding.
“PROJECTS LIKE THESE HELP COMMUNITIES BECOME MORE RESILIENT.”
Galvez now works for Jacobs, an engineering company in New York. One of her current projects is to help manage the construction of a new park in another New York borough, the Bronx. That involves developing more than a dozen acres of land into playgrounds, basketball courts, athletic fields, walking paths, and pedestrian bridges. Galvez spoke to Science World about creating public works to improve the lives of people in the largest city in the U.S.
NYC DEPARTMENT OF DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
ON THE JOB: Vanessa Galvez
How did you become interested in engineering?
As a kid, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I really liked taking things apart. I’d wonder if I could put it back together. Or if something wasn’t working, could I fix it? Then in high school, a teacher showed my class a documentary on Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees—walls that hold back water—in New Orleans. That was my introduction to civil engineering. Right away I was hooked.
How did Superstorm Sandy influence your career?
One of my first projects was in a part of Queens that was hit hard by Sandy. We upgraded the stormwater pipes, making them larger and increasing the amount of water they could hold. I had seen the consequences of not having good infrastructure in place. I learned a lot and enjoyed working on something really important.
Working on bioswales was a similar experience. We were creating these little gardens that can absorb rainwater and excess runoff water from the ground’s surface. Projects like that help communities become more resilient to big storms.
1. PLANTS WITH A PURPOSE: Galvez has helped construct bioswales like this one in Queens. The plants and soil help absorb stormwater.
2. LET IT FLOW: These curb cutouts allow water that might otherwise flood the street to enter the bioswale for drainage.
How does a project go from initial design to finished structure?
Civil engineers who specialize in design create the plans for the projects I work on. Sometimes they work with architects as well. I’m part of a team of engineers who manage construction. We verify that all the materials and products needed meet city and state standards. Next we meet with the community to make sure anyone who will be affected is informed about the project and its timeline. Construction can sometimes be disruptive—streets are temporarily blocked or there’s noise—but we always try to minimize inconvenience to people nearby.
During construction, engineers visit the site daily to inspect the work and address design changes that come up. As sections are finished, we make detailed drawings showing exactly how they ended up being built. That way, if future construction is required, people can refer back to those records.
How have your personal experiences shaped your goals?
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador. At home, I was taught not to take my education for granted. My mom didn’t have the chance to finish high school, and my dad didn’t even get to finish junior high. They helped me understand that school is an opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered.
A PLACE TO WALK: Galvez is helping oversee the construction of a new park in the Bronx, including this pedestrian bridge.
What advice would you give to students who wonder if they can be engineers?
There aren’t many Latina women, like me, in engineering. But something like that shouldn’t hold you back. The minute you start thinking, “There are so few women or people of color in this field,” that’s when you can start to doubt yourself. As long as you put in the work, and you’re serious about it, you can do it—no matter who you are or what you look like.
Median Salary: about $87,000
Educational Requirements: Typically, this job requires a Bachelor of Science with a focus in engineering. Some positions also require passing a test to obtain a professional engineer license.
Gearing Up: Join school science or engineering clubs. In college, look for opportunities to intern or volunteer with engineering labs, local companies, or public works projects.
SOURCES: U.S. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS, VANESSA GALVEZ