News Feb 21, 2018

Take it from this Engineer and Movie Star...if You Can Dream It, You Can Be It

Engineers in hardhats at top of skyscraper with skyline behind them

In the early morning hours of Aug. 17, 1999, as the Kocaeli earthquake shook her apartment and home country of Turkey, Menzer Pehlivan – a teenage girl with dreams of becoming an actress – awoke in fear.

Even though the epicenter was nearly 200 miles away, Menzer says her high-rise apartment in the capital city of Ankara shook strongly as the 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked much of the country.

Luckily, her family survived the earthquake mostly unscathed. Unfortunately, their country had not. A huge portion of northwest Turkey was reduced to rubble. City block after city block had collapsed, more than 250,000 families were without a home, and the death toll climbed by thousands. Though just 13-years-old, Menzer was not content to process the earthquake through the eyes of a typical teenager.

She wanted answers. She wanted to help. And that’s how her civil engineering career began – with curiosity into the possibilities of what if… what if life safety and building design went hand-in-hand, if site conditions and uncertainties influenced planning and response, if we could prevent future devastation?

She began studying civil engineering at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. During her undergraduate work, Menzer reviewed the Kocaeli earthquake and was amazed to discover - thousands of lives could have been spared if the structures had been designed to satisfy life safety criteria.

For her master’s research, she focused on the phenomenon of soil liquefaction, one of the main causes of the failures caused by the Kocaeli earthquake. Later, during doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Menzer looked at the effects of variable site conditions and associated uncertainties on site response and on incorporating those uncertainties into the probabilistic prediction of ground response during earthquake shaking.

But while it seems like Menzer was destined to follow the engineering career path from the start, she met hesitation at first.

“In high school, one of my teachers asked the class what we wanted to be. Most of the boys said they wanted to become an engineer, and that’s what I said too,” she shares. “But my teacher’s immediate response was, ‘Menzer, come on. You cannot be a civil engineer.’ And my gut reaction was, ‘Well, why not?’”

To be accepted into a university that offered civil engineering, you needed to score within the top 2,000 of 2.5 million students to get into the program, she explains.

She shares, “I was the only one of my classmates to become a civil engineer. There’s something really triggering when someone says you cannot do something, and it was a huge encouragement for me.”

That’s one of the messages at the heart of the IMAX film, Dream Big: Engineering Our World, which takes viewers on a journey of discovery from the world’s tallest building to a bridge higher than the clouds, showing more than the ingenuity behind these marvels by revealing the heart that drives engineers to create a better world.

Dream Big shows that engineering is not just about math and science, but it’s more about imagination, innovation and creation – and of course problem-solving,” says Menzer.

The film addresses these points in a creative way, using the personal stories of four different engineers – one of them Menzer herself – to show the world a new way to look at engineering.

“My hope is that viewers walk away from the movie with a better understanding of what engineers do that make our lives better every day,” says Menzer. “The daily things we’re using, and doing and living in are actually the creation and imagination of an engineer.”

Since the film’s release nearly two years ago, Menzer’s mission – when she isn’t helping with reconnaissance efforts following the Sept. 19, 2017, central Mexico earthquake, presenting her research findings at international conferences to help advance findings in earthquake engineering, or in the office working on challenging infrastructure projects – has been continuing to spread the film’s message to a more diverse generation of engineers of all ages, ethnicity and gender.

Interestingly, her civil engineering experience has helped Menzer fulfill her childhood dream of becoming an actress with a starring role in a major movie. Since the movie’s premiere, millions of people have seen Dream Big, and Menzer has attended more than 400 different screenings, events and television and radio shows in cities around the U.S. and Canada. She has been the invited keynote speaker at conferences and events including the 2017 Hot Firm Conference, Microsoft Imagine Cup 2018 World Finals, an event in the Dominican Republic and 2018 Engineers Without Borders annual meeting where she talked about women in engineering and ways to attract next generation, especially the girls and children from underrepresented backgrounds into engineering.

“After my keynote at 2018 Engineers Without Borders annual meeting, many female students came to meet me – thanking me for sharing my story and sharing that hearing me talk encouraged them and helped them realize they are not alone in the challenges,” says Menzer. “This is a very important message we need to keep sharing. But, the most magical moment was when one female Duke University student came up and told me that after watching Dream Big, I inspired her to become a civil engineer and she changed her major to civil engineering. There are no words to describe how humbling this whole experience and journey has been.”

Dream Big can now be streamed on Netflix and ASCE made sure that every public school in the U.S. has a copy of the film, so that every kid has a chance to be inspired. Since the Netflix release, Menzer says she has been receiving messages from around the world thanking her for sharing her story and inspiring them. “These messages that come all around the world, give joy to my heart and further remind me the importance of providing role models for the next generation; because they cannot be what they cannot see,” she adds.

“Children often don't understand that examples of engineering are all around them,” she adds. “Dream Big shines a bright light on some of the world’s most exciting and thought-provoking infrastructure and teaches students that if they can dream it, they can be it.”

Menzer Pehlivan, Ph.D., P.E., is a Jacobs geotechnical engineer specializing in seismic hazards analysis, seismic resiliency and performance-based earthquake engineering design of infrastructure systems, hospitals, nuclear facilities and other structures. One of the American Society of Civil Engineers 2016 New Faces of Civil Engineering Professionals and 2017 recipient of ASCE’s President's Medal, she has been actively involved with pioneering research projects advancing the state-of-art and state-of-practice of geotechnical earthquake engineering. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, and a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.