Menzer Pehlivan grew up in Ankara, Turkey where in 1999, at age 13, she experienced the devastating 7.6 earthquake that sparked her desire to help prevent future tragedies on that scale. “That was the seed,” says Menzer, “that planted in my head early on that I would become a civil engineer focusing on seismic safety. It had a big impact on my future.”
Despite being told by her teacher that women don’t become engineers, she began preparing for a career focused on earthquake engineering. She received her Ph.D. degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013 with a doctoral thesis on the vital subject of assessing seismic hazards in nuclear facilities.
As a geotechnical engineer, Menzer has worked on numerous geotechnical and earthquake projects in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. She has given back as a volunteer in major earthquake reconnaissance efforts, including after the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, where she traveled with the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association (GEER).
“As an engineer, you actually get to use your mind to change the world–and you can actually see it change,” Menzer enthuses. “You can build a skyscraper that changes the skyline of a big city or a treatment plant that helps keep that city’s water clean. You can build stuff, you can help people, and you can even save lives as an engineer. If you engineer a building that is still standing after an earthquake, you have just saved hundreds of lives. I think not enough people really know this side of engineering. There is so much personal satisfaction from improving people’s lives.”
Menzer currently works in the Seattle office of CH2M, a global engineering firm that provides consulting, design, construction services for corporations and government. After joining CH2M, Menzer was appointed Chair of the new “Engagement and Outreach Committee” of the ASCE Geo-Institute. She was also recently named to the ASCE’s 2016 list of New Faces in Civil Engineering.
For Menzer, defying stereotypes is part of who she remains as a person. The daughter of a dress designer, she loves fashion and style almost as much as engineering and does things her own way. “I’m never happy with the ordinary,” she laughs. She recalls meeting one young student while filming Dream Big who could not believe her appearance. “This little girl was looking at my heels and hair and she asked, ‘Are you sure you’re an engineer? You’re not just an actress playing an engineer?’ She said, ‘I didn’t know engineers could look like you.’ I think this is something too many people misunderstand. You can be an engineer and wear heels and dresses and be a ‘girly girl.’ Or you can be the opposite. Anyone can be an engineer.”