Edited by Celeste Brown
Structural engineer Bianca Casem, P.E., M.ASCE, says one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is the humanity behind each project — something she didn’t realize she could experience in the beginning of her career.
Casem is a 2023 New Faces of Civil Engineering-Professional.
You are a design engineer at Degenkolb Engineers in Seattle. What does your day to day look like?
My focus at Degenkolb is on building forensics, which entails examining and repairing existing, damaged buildings. What I do is help with repairs. That means I’m doing the repair drawings and then working with the city, county, or permitting agent to make sure that rebuilds can begin as soon as possible. I’m currently overseeing a single-family home that experienced a tree strike. About a quarter of the roof is gone, so the people who live there are temporarily displaced.
What made you want to be an engineer?
I have always been fascinated with architecture, so I wanted to be an architect originally. But because my dad’s a structural engineer, he steered me in the direction of engineering. The transition to structural engineering within the building industry was an easy one.
How does your position at Degenkolb differ from your previous roles?
My first five years in the field I worked for two firms that specialized in new construction projects. Those were typically apartment buildings or commercial buildings. I worked on those projects from the very beginning with the architects to the end of construction. So, I got to see the full life cycle of construction.
Now, I work on smaller, more people-centered projects with Degenkolb. And because these projects are much smaller, budgets matter a lot more. I really try to make things as cost effective and code compliant as possible for the owners. Whereas with the large construction projects I had before, there was often a lot more money available.
What are some of your favorite projects you’ve participated in with Degenkolb?
One that comes to mind is a theater project in a small town about two hours outside Seattle. It is an old wood-frame building that experienced snow impact, and parts of the roof were starting to fail. For a while, the owners didn’t want to replace the whole roof, so we tried to find solutions to mitigate that. Ultimately, the owners decided it would be cheaper to replace it.
Another one is when an older lady was learning how to drive, and she accidentally hit two houses. I helped repair railing and fence damage mostly. What I love about this kind of work is I get to learn the stories behind what I do instead of simply knowing the engineering-specific details about the projects.
What personal characteristics helped you get to this point?
I’ve learned to become comfortable in my own skin and confident in the knowledge and experience I have. For the industry that I’m in, there’s a need to be able to talk about our projects to all kinds of people. I’m not just working with contractors or architects but homeowners and smaller clients too. And then I’m also talking to the county or city and figuring out their expectations.
I’ve also spent five years in ASCE, and that’s helped to prepare me for where I am today.
You’ve been deeply involved in ASCE’s Seattle Section and Younger Member Forum for almost six years. How has your involvement with ASCE shaped your career?
I became a member of ASCE and the Society of Women Engineers in college. Once, I participated in ASCE’s Concrete Canoe Competition, and that’s where I was first introduced to ASCE. I learned about the Seattle Section and how incredible the community is. One of my first roles was serving on the committee for the Seattle Section’s Younger Member Forum Popsicle Stick Bridge Competition, and I served as a liaison for Seattle University, my alma mater.
The YMF supports local colleges, putting on career fairs and ensuring engineering students can get mentorships and interact with engineering professionals.
And for the last three years, I have been on the Seattle Section YMF executive board. I was secretary, I’m now president-elect, and I will be president next year.
All that has contributed to my ability to communicate well, to be comfortable in my professional roles, and to be confident in what I have to offer as an engineer. I do still get nervous sometimes, but once I get in the groove, I’m OK. And that is definitely because of networking and the opportunities ASCE has given me.
One of your favorite events every year is the Popsicle Stick Bridge Competition. Tell us more about that.
It’s one of our biggest events every year, and it’s when middle and high school students compete to build bridges out of Popsicle sticks. We partner with Seattle Public Utilities, and they bring in their press to determine the loads the bridges can hold. I enjoyed serving on the committee a lot. I still volunteer every year as a judge or emcee or photographer … whatever they need.
Before you joined Degenkolb, you almost switched from engineering to tech. What piqued your interest in tech, and ultimately, what made you decide to stay in this field?
Yes, I did a 14-week coding boot camp with the idea of applying to jobs in the tech space that developed the software we use as engineers. There’s been a good push for technological advancement within civil engineering to increase efficiency, which I think is really cool. It also includes tools such as drones or Matterport, which is a 3D immersive camera that can show you a space virtually. It cuts down on the number of times we have to go to job sites.
The reason I stayed is because a friend of mine connected me to Degenkolb. The company is well known for its seismic expertise. But I don’t have my master’s degree, which is a big deal in structural engineering. Degenkolb gave me a chance. They handed me an opportunity I never thought I would have. And I love my job.
What would you like to be remembered for as a civil engineer?
I want to be remembered for serving my community. I was diagnosed with a chronic illness right before I became an engineer, and many people stepped in to help me. All the small things they did for me were really impactful. So, if I can work on projects that serve one family or small business at a time and I can make an impact on their lives — help them through hardships — I’ll be really happy.
Celeste Brown is the writer/editor for Civil Engineering print magazine.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 print issue of Civil Engineering as “Smaller Projects, Greater Satisfaction.”