New Face ‘bridges the gaps’ – both literal and figurative

Danielle Schroeder is a structural engineer focused on bridges.

Her official job title is pretty straightforward: associate bridge engineer for Pennoni.

But perhaps Schroeder’s inner poet is stronger than she realizes, because lately she’s been viewing bridges in a more metaphorical light.

Danielle Schroeder

Bridges, as she sees them, are not simply the literal structures she works on every day. Bridges also describe the different roles she plays as a practicing engineer – her work that connects communities, her countless hours of STEM outreach with students, her leadership positions in various organizations including ASCE and the Society of Women Engineers.

She doesn’t simply work on bridges. She is the bridge.

“I see a lot of my roles beyond work as bridging the gap for people,” Schroeder said.

ASCE has honored Schroeder, EIT, ENV SP, A.M.ASCE, as a 2021 New Face of Civil Engineering.

The number of bridges she has built – both literal and figurative – is remarkable for someone so early in her career. The list of just her ASCE activities is difficult to fathom for one person: Committee on Developing Leaders? Check. MOSAIC? Check. Leadership Training Committee, Committee on Precollege Outreach, ASCE Collaborate topic moderator, and resume coach? Check, check, check, and check.

She’s played a key role in planning the ASCE Structural Engineering Institute Structures Congress, particularly its student scholarship program. She was active in leading K-12 outreach efforts as a member of the Philadelphia Younger Member Forum. When she moved two hours west? You guessed it. She got involved with the Central Pennsylvania Section and now serves as its Younger Member Group president.

Many, many bridges.

“I just really appreciate all the mentors who believed in me and encouraged me to continue to apply for ASCE leadership positions that have helped me get to this point, and I want to pay it forward to help the next generation to succeed in their own career journeys,” Schroeder said.

She spoke recently with Civil Engineering Source about her career.

Civil Engineering Source: Is there a bridge or project that you’re most proud of?

Danielle Schroeder: My favorite project has been the retrofit for the Burlington-Bristol Bridge [which spans the Delaware River, linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey across the Delaware River].

The Burlington-Bristol is a cool project because it’s a moveable truss bridge. Specifically, it’s a vertical lift, so it moves up and down like an elevator so ships can pass underneath it.

I believe it’s about 90 or so years old, and recently it needed to be fully repainted. As part of the repainting process, you need to add tarps and access rigging, which adds extra load to the bridge, so several truss members on the bridge needed to be strengthened. Ultimately, 28 repair locations were needed, comprising three types of retrofits: top cover plates, bottom cover plates, and side cover plates.

I got to design most of the 28 retrofit plates to be put on the Burlington-Bristol, and the cool part about it is, because design and construction were completed within a tight one-year schedule, I also got to be part of the construction process and go out in the field and make sure that the things we designed on paper aligned with what was constructed.

So it was so cool to see both sides and really see something that I designed brought to life.

Source: What about professional accomplishments? Does one in particular stand out?

Schroeder: In 2019, I co-authored a technical paper about that project. It goes without saying, I wouldn’t be able to do that so early in my career without mentors helping me. One of my mentors and fellow leader in ASCE, Jesse Gormley, was a co-author on that paper, and without his expertise and help throughout the entire process, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this goal.

Of the 80 papers published for the conference that year, I was one of two EIT authors, which made me feel very accomplished.

Source: How have you been able to take on those big responsibilities – whether it’s a technical paper like that or a leadership position – at a young age?

Schroeder: I was watching ASCE Thurdays @ 3 the other day and [Region 4 Director] Bob Cagle, who I really look up to, was talking about the topic of mentoring. And he said, “None of us got where we are without the help of others.”

I really think that’s the best quote about mentoring.

Much of the success I’ve had so far is through those mentoring relationships I’ve made, and the biggest thing about finding mentors is just not being afraid to ask.

A quote that I go to a lot in many facets of my life is by Wayne Gretzky – and for people who love The Office, Michael Scott also quotes it. It’s “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

And for most of things I do, especially as an introvert, I don’t know if I’m going to get it, or I don’t know how well this is going to go. But if I don’t try, I’ll never know. The answer is “no” because you didn’t ask.

I try to keep that in mind whenever an opportunity arises. It leads me to do things that are definitely outside of my comfort zone, but then still doing them anyway and asking for help when I need it.

Source: Your volunteer resume is impressive. What drives all of that work?

Schroeder: I have a variety of leadership roles through ASCE, but the ones that I am most passionate about are the ones that involve STEM outreach.

I didn’t learn about engineering until late into my high school experience. You kind of go into things you’re familiar with, so before I learned about engineering, I thought, “Oh, I’m going to be a teacher like my mom.” And I liked math and science, so I thought I’d be a math or science teacher.

I love anything that involves STEM outreach. I really appreciate the chance to share what I know so students can learn about engineering maybe earlier than I did.

But ASCE has also given me awesome opportunities for leadership – whether it was going to the Younger Member Leadership Symposium or currently as a member of the Committee on Developing Leaders. And it’s giving me opportunities to impact the future of our profession and help take what I know and share it with fellow civil engineers.

One of my leadership experiences I’m most proud of is working with ASCE’s MOSAIC [Members of Society Advancing an Inclusive Culture] and putting together our “best practices” guide. It’s been a lot of time, a lot of hours we’ve all put in, and I’m really proud of my part working to help the Society move forward.

Source: What’s one piece of advice you would go back to the ninth-grade you and offer?

Danielle Schroeder leads a group of students through a hands-on engineering activity.

Schroeder: I don’t think I realized how accessible social media would be when I was in ninth grade, and social media is only going to continue to play a bigger role in our lives in the future.

But I would tell myself, if you see someone who has a career or is doing something that sounds awesome to you, don’t be afraid to reach out. Send them a DM if it’s social media or connection on LinkedIn or even in-person when it’s safe to do so – “Can we chat for few minutes? I want to ask you some questions about you what you do.”

I wish I’d known that when I was younger and had explored the vast careers within civil engineering. There are so many different career paths you can take.

Source: If there were a movie made about your life – who would star as you and what would the name of the movie be?

Schroeder: My mind immediately goes to that infrastructure piece on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – if we made that into an actual movie. I remember in that Edward Norton says, “It’s time … for your biannual bridge inspection.” As a certified bridge safety inspector, it was neat to see bridge inspection featured and pretty on-target since the National Bridge Inspection Standards require safety inspections at least once every 24 months. Many bridges are inspected more frequently though.

As for picking a specific person, I would love Emma Watson, mainly because of what she stands for, that she was a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for gender equality as an advocate for their HeForShe campaign.

I don’t know about the movie title – how about Bridging the Gap? It would be about bridges in all facets, starring either Emma Watson or Edward Norton. [laughs]

Source: If we checked in on your career 10 years from now, what would we be talking about?

Schroeder: Ten years from now, I plan to have my P.E. license. I hope I will continue to work on awesome projects like I am right now, while continuing to gain more leadership and technical experience. Ultimately, I aim to become a project manager who leads large-scale projects and continues to make a difference in my community.

And something else that I really want to do is start some kind of scholarship for women and underrepresented genders that would help current students throughout their engineering studies.

Read more about the 2021 New Faces of Civil Engineering.

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