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Q&A: Talking with Jacobs STEAM, Latina Influencer Paula Silva

Paula Silva, a Jacobs hydraulic engineer talks career, STEAM and her upcoming expedition to Antarctica.

Today, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) skills are more necessary than ever to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.

While jobs in STEAM are increasing, there's still a gap of individuals pursuing these careers to fill demands. And, the gap is even wider among the Latinx community where students are less likely to aspire to follow these career paths without strong role models and support.

At Jacobs, our global Enlace employee network works to change the narrative. Enlace, which means “link” in Spanish, has partnered with our clients and organizations promoting STEAM education in the Latinx community resulting in multiple outreach events. Recently, adapting to the COVID-19 restrictions, Enlace has been hosting a weekly Virtual STEAM Hour to support distanced learning. Enlace’s mission is to leverage our unique and vibrant Latino talent contributing to our company’s growth profitable strategy, attracting and retaining Latinos, while fostering leadership, community involvement, diversity and cultural pride.

In honor of International Women in Engineering Day, we’re connecting with our team of thinkers, dreamers and doers around the world to showcase the work we do every day to #ShapeTheWorld.

For this interview, we connected virtually with Jacobs hydraulic engineer and former Enlace chair Paula Silva to talk career, STEAM and her upcoming expedition to Antarctica.

What’s your favorite part of your role?

I’m a deputy group lead in the San Diego office, project manager and global lead for the Integrated Water Resources Management community of practice.  As a hydraulic engineer specialized in integrated water resources management, I do extensive water system modeling to provide technical support to water supply managers and basin stakeholders facing complex water planning challenges.

My favorite part is probably developing the modeling approach, the teamwork associated with this task and the model troubleshooting process. But the greatest satisfaction is when a recommendation or a decision is made based on simulation scenarios produced by the model.

We’re publishing this article in honor of International Women in Engineering Day. What sparked your interest in a STEAM career? 

The short answer is: my appetite for answers and solving problems.

My math teacher in high-school, who also happens to be my uncle, played an important role as well. He thought of math as the language to explain how the world works, I was fascinated by this definition of math and the possibilities it brings. I decided to study engineering knowing I was going to use Math as my “conversation” tool. I went ahead despite of being something “different” for a girl… And it was different indeed, I was normally the only girl in my class. That was back in the 90s… Luckily, this trend is changing! I see more and more girls pursuing STEAM careers. Gender stereotypes and biased attitudes should not limit education choices of female students and compromises the quality of their learning experience.

This year’s #INWED theme is #ShapeTheWorld – your work as a water resources engineer helps protect one of the world’s most critical, life-sustaining resources. Can you share how water planning and systems modeling shapes the world around us?

Water is key to sustainable development. Successful water management involves resources planning and serves as a foundation for the achievement of many of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as for SDG 6 – which is to ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.’

We need to shape the world around us and take action through effective water resources management! A 2017 U.N. Global Compact Publication stated that ‘Business as usual’ will mean the world will miss water-related Sustainable Development Goals by a wide margin; up to 40% of the world’s population will be living in seriously water-stressed areas by 2035; and the ability of ecosystems to provide fresh water supplies will become increasingly compromised. Water resources engineers use water system modeling to identify actions and measures to ensure water supplies meet demands in the future for all users that share the same water sources, including the environment.

Tell us a bit about your involvement with Homeward Bound.

This program started in 2016 and is a ground-breaking global leadership initiative set against the backdrop of Antarctica. It aims to train ten cohorts with a total of 1,000 women leaders acting towards the sustainability of our planet and every year. This year, two Jacobs employees, myself and Kim Lawrence, were selected from a pool of global applicants to participate in the fifth cohort of the Homeward Bound encompassing more than 25 nationalities, all STEAM fields and a huge variety of occupations.

We’re embarking in a year-long leadership development, culminating in an 18-day voyage to Antarctica. The program focuses on leadership development through in-depth training in five streams: leadership, science, visibility, strategy and wellbeing. The ultimate goal of the program is to heighten the influence and impact of women in STEAM addressing climate change and sustainability. I feel very proud and excited to be part of this expedition, a leadership journey on sustainability, that will benefit not only ourselves, but also Jacobs and make a ripple effect in the world. For a program overview, visit here.

Why Antarctica?

Antarctica is showing the fastest responses to some of the global sustainability problems we currently face. It offers an unparalleled opportunity to observe firsthand the influence of human activities on the environment and provide critical insights into the global-scale change required. This iconic environment has captured the imagination of leaders in the past and the expedition experience of the Antarctic component of the Homeward Bound program creates strong bonds between participants.

If you aren’t in the office, what would we be most likely to find you doing?

Dancing in the kitchen with my kids, talking and connecting with my family and friends. Whenever there is a chance, we have family visiting or friends at hour house. I know it’s a stereotype of Mexicans to say “mi casa es tu casa…” But in my case, it’s true.

On that note, what’s a story that your family always tells about you?

When I was 10 years old, we had a terrible car accident on Christmas night. My parents and my older sister were unconscious. The paramedics relied on me to get our contact information and decide what relatives to call.

I grew up listening to my parents saying how well I handled the situation and I took care of my too younger brothers. The frequently told story, combined with my own recollection of the event, had a tremendous impact on the role I play within my family and how I like to help others.

Most interesting career moment?

From the professional development experience, an interesting career moment was my participation in the multi-stakeholder coordination and workgroups meetings for the Colorado River Basin. This was a unique opportunity to get a deeper understanding about the challenges involved in a participatory decision-making process and the relevance of effective technical communication play.

Over 100 stakeholders, spanning all water use sectors (municipal, agricultural, environmental, etc.) were engaged through these workgroups to identify opportunities and proposed actions to address projected supply and demand imbalances that have broad-based support and provide a wide range of benefits.

What’s something you learned in the last week?

I had the opportunity recently to facilitate a panel on Climate Change Impacts: a perspective from human rights and gender equity. During this talk was discussed how climate change is jeopardizing basic human rights like health, nutrition and housing and most importantly, how some groups and locations are more vulnerable to forced mobility.

In 2019, a total of 24.9 million new displacements by disasters weather related were recorded in 145 countries and territories, U.S. alone recorded more than 916,000 new disaster displacements. This is three times more than displacements by conflict and violence. Threats and pressures on the environment and its resources amplify gender inequality and power imbalances in communities and households coping with resource scarcity and societal stress. Promoting gender equality and protecting the environment can be positively linked in ways that contribute to securing a safe, sustainable and equitable future.

Most proud career moment?

Last year, my colleague Jorge Camacho and I had the opportunity to present to the Jacobs Board of Directors and Executive Leadership Team representing Enlace, Jacobs’ Latino employee network. It was the perfect opportunity to highlight how Enlace is aligned with our corporate sustainability strategy bringing benefits to our company, to our clients and to our people.

I felt very proud of representing my Latino colleagues and become a collective voice supporting Jacobs’ ongoing efforts to grow our inclusion and diversity culture.  I have found in Enlace an effective platform to fulfill my purpose of giving back and have a direct impact on our work environment.

People would be surprised to know that I….

I grew up in a small town in Mexico and started travelling around the world at the age of 13 years. Since then I’ve visited over 40 countries, in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America. I’m truly curious and I like to explore the world.  

What do you enjoy most about being part of the Jacobs family?

The commitment and passion for the work that we do that I see in the majority of my colleagues. I enjoy being able to find an expert on almost any field within our community of practices that is willing to share their knowledge or point you to the right resources. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to exercise creative and critical thinking and innovation.

What drives you drives us as we work to build a better world – together. At Jacobs, every day is an opportunity to make the world better, more connected, more sustainable. We’re powered by more than 55,000 people across the globe who deliver innovative scientific, technical, professional and program-management solutions for public and private clients around the world.

 

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