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Connie Crawford '78 *81, Chief engineer for MTA, New York City Transit

Civil Engineering

Why I chose civil engineering

My high school guidance counselor suggested that I consider a career in engineering, given my strength in science and math. I didn't know what engineering was, so she sent me to a program for high school junior girls featuring a panel of five women engineers. All I recall was that one woman was an aerospace engineer who had flown there in her own helicopter. That was enough to convince me to go into engineering!

At Princeton, I found the course of engineering study difficult. The prerequisite math and science courses, with lengthy weekly homework sets gave little flavor of the interesting parts. However, I always felt I had the support of my professors. Professor David Billington's course sophomore year gave me my first glimpse of how interesting engineering could be. Junior and senior years were better, but I ended my undergraduate years thinking that I probably would not practice engineering.

I stayed at Princeton for graduate school, primarily because I wanted to train with the U.S. rowing team for the 1980 Olympics. Professor Billington asked me to help out as a preceptor for a couple of courses. Much to my surprise and delight, I loved engineering in graduate school! The problems were more real, and there was more time to study what I enjoyed. I also treasured getting to know my professors better. When I finished my master's, I was ready to go to work at an engineering firm.

My professional life

My first job was with Steinman, a small engineering firm in New York City that specialized in suspension bridges. I was the first woman engineer at the firm. Throughout my career I have been the most senior woman engineer at every place. At Steinman, I worked on many interesting projects, including rehabilitations of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Queensboro Bridge, and the Williamsburg Bridge, and a major innovative bridge project in Lisbon, Portugal.

After 17 years at Steinman, I jumped to the public sector as chief engineer for the New York City Department of Transportation, where I was responsible for design, construction, and maintenance of 875 bridges and seven tunnels. With a budget of about $600 million per year and an 800-member staff of engineers and laborers, this was a position of tremendous responsibility and endless challenges. I loved being in civil service, surrounded by people who cared deeply about keeping the city operating day after day.

Two years later I moved to a major international engineering firm, Parsons Corporation (which had since purchased Steinman), to manage operations in the New York - New Jersey region. The projects were in all areas of transportation engineering, giving me additional exposure to rail and transit sectors. Three years later, I was selected as deputy chief engineer for MTA New York City Transit (NYCT), which runs the subways and buses. After two years I was promoted to my current position as chief engineer, responsible for the $2-billion-a-year capital program to build the city's transit infrastructure. With a staff of 1,600 engineers, architects, and other professionals, supplemented by countless consultants, we design and construct passenger stations, rail tunnels, power distribution systems, depots and maintenance shops, and signals and communications systems. The wide variety of projects stretches my engineering knowledge far beyond civil engineering.

Three months after I started at NYCT, the World Trade Center attacks brought the towers down. I spent a good portion of my time assessing the damage to our subway lines, protecting our tunnels and the demolition workers from further collapse, and then rebuilding the crushed subway to reopen just a year after the attacks. I also have been involved in planning and designing major new subway facilities to be built in lower Manhattan as part of the major rebuilding effort. This work -- and all the other work we do -- is essential to making New York City run. Ninety percent of New Yorkers use public transportation on a regular basis. I feel fortunate to have a role in this city's renewed greatness.

How my studies helped prepare me

Fresh from Princeton, I was not as prepared as many of my co-workers. At Princeton we had one or two classes that mentioned bolted connections, while Lehigh University students had two courses devoted to the topic. However, I found that whatever I needed to know to do the work of the day, I could quickly learn from books or more experienced engineers. At Princeton I learned to work hard and to find information. One of my strengths is creative problem solving, and I give Princeton credit for this. My colleagues who learned about bolted connections did not always understand the overall behavior of a structure. Sometimes when you understand the underlying principles, but are not hampered by schoolbook solutions, you are more creative in finding solutions.

I value the nonengineering courses I had at Princeton, and have kept an interest in diverse subjects because I had the luxury of learning about them in college. My French studies helped me get assigned to a wonderful suspension bridge reconstruction project in Montreal, a project that led to subsequent promotions. And my national team rowing career was launched at Princeton and had a major impact on my self-confidence. I learned that I could push myself to incredible limits, and when I did so, I could accomplish almost anything. That knowledge has enabled me to take on difficult assignments and weighty responsibilities.

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