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Q&A with Dayna Johnson '03, '12 MEM | Valparaiso University

We sat down with Dayna Johnson '03, '12 MEM, accomplished Valpo alumna, President of Society of Women Engineers and Emerging Technology Programs & Operations Leader at GE Gas Power, to talk about her career in engineering, her best advice for tomorrow's professionals, and of course baking cakes. 

 

Q: When did you know you wanted to be an engineer?

A: I was one of those kids that was always good at math and science and finally enough people told me that I should look at engineering. And I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, until I was at a Valpo student visit day and I was sitting in a big group session in the College of Business and I had this realization of “I could do waste water engineering.”

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Q: What would be the advice you would give to women who are unsure about getting into engineering?

A: If you think you have the resilience to do it, start. You can always take a different path throughout your career. The amount of people that would want to hire engineers, because of the way they think, is endless.

 

Q: What is your experience as a commercial manager?

A: This was the role that I had the most adrenaline rushes in. I’m super type A, competitive personality and it was an opportunity for me to showcase that. Commercial management is hard, and it’s a job where you have to know that you won’t win every work bid you go into and have the strength to get up the next day and start all over again. We would go in and try to bid for work, we needed partners to finish certain projects and seeing the proposal through from start to finish was really exhilarating. It takes a lot of grit and resilience but it was meaningful work.

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Q: Can you speak about your experience as a civil engineer?

A: Early in my career I worked for really small companies and now I work for GE, so I was able to get a lot of experience. I was working on stormwater projects, roadway projects, and budgeting and planning that go along with those processes, so it was a really great learning ground. But my favorite was the wastewater treatment, and early on in my career, I was able to be the resident engineer out on site for the wastewater treatment plant expansion. And I’d go home and I’d be hot and tired and exhausted, but I learned so much by being out in the field. Getting out there and getting your hands dirty and seeing your projects come to life is just so much more exciting than anything else! You get to see the culmination of all the work you do.

 

Q: What kind of support did you find at Valpo that helped you along on your journey?

A: So, first and foremost, the SWE section. I made some of my best friends in that SWE section and I don’t think I realized at the time how valuable that support system would be. My class was gender balanced, but then after graduation I had culture shock when I would be the only woman in the office. Having that network to call upon was really valuable for me during those times. Other than that, we had a really strong network of professors that were willing to help. Whether it was a bunch of us going to a professor for help on homework, or just going on your own, the campus community really fostered that feeling of “you can ask for help when you need it and you aren’t alone,” which was really valuable to me.

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Q: How would women who are in engineering right now benefit from joining SWE?

A: Scholarship opportunities! We give away over $1 million a year — it’s huge. Also, professional development opportunities, especially if you look at the fact that we span so many disciplines. We have soft skills, or broader engineering skills that you need like project management. And we always have experts in the area who are willing to share their knowledge, and our conferences are huge. We just left Houston back in October and we had over 14,000 people in person. The opportunity to network with that many people, and go to all of the sessions we were offering is just so valuable.

 

Q: What are some of your interests outside of engineering?

A: I have been making cakes. It’s fun and if you mess it up, you can just take the frosting off and start over. It really stemmed from making my kid’s birthday cakes. I was shocked at how much people would charge for specialty cakes, but now that I know what goes into making them, I know why they charge that much! And I fully appreciate the art, but I was also like “I can give this a try, it’s my family they won’t make fun of it if it doesn’t look too bad.” And so probably a year ago I started watching a show on Netflix called Baking Impossible, where they paired up a baker and an engineer, and if you haven’t seen it check it out! It was a blast. I loved it so much that I ended up reaching out to one of the winners, and we did a podcast with SWE with her and we actually had two engineers and two bakers come out for the closing SWE reception at the conference and bake a cake. It had a spaceship that landed on this landscape and an astronaut Dayna came out of it, and they had little rovers going around and it was just a blast. So, I’ve been chipping away at making my skills a bit better. And that’s the A in STEAM! It all ties back together.

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Q: What does a typical Friday night look like for you?

A: So, I have  5- and 8-year-old sons, and I would say that Friday nights now look a lot different than they did 5 years ago, but we usually grab dinner and we do family movie night. I’m grateful that they have started having more interest in movies that I have interest in so we moved away from super animated kids’ movies to Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter. So, stuff that adults can enjoy too. Don’t get me wrong, Frozen was great, but you can only watch it so many times before it starts wearing you down.

 

Q: If you did not pursue engineering, what would your day job be?

A: Theoretically, I could have been a math teacher. I haven’t seen a ton of female math teachers growing up, so I saw it as a really powerful position to be in.

 

Q: What is your most valuable advice that you would give to women in STEM?

A: Don’t give up, find a way to work through whatever is coming your way. If it means changing your career, expanding your network, asking for help, do it.

 

 

 

 

 


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