Transportation & me: Interview with a bridge engineer

Meet Katelyn Freeseman, a bridge engineer conducting research for two centers at Iowa State University’s Institute for Transportation (InTrans): the Bridge Engineering Center and National Center for Wood Transportation Structures, both located in Ames, Iowa.  

Katelyn’s job is to “promote and advance multidisciplinary research within InTrans and with cross-disciplinary campus groups,” which means she is always collaborating, learning, and pushing the limits on what could be done with future research.

I sat down with Katelyn to talk about how she became an engineer.

Freeseman working in the office. Photo by Hannah Postlethwait
Freeseman working in the office.
Photo by Hannah Postlethwait

What got you interested in engineering?

In high school, I really enjoyed math and science, so it stemmed from there, I think, but I also really liked design and creative topics as well. Back then, you’d sit down with your guidance counselor and talk about what you like, then they’d tell you what to try. My guidance counselor was confused, because I liked well…everything. She ended up telling me that no matter what I did, I would be okay. So, I thought about it and decided that architecture could be a good combination. I was only in the architecture program at Iowa State for a few days when I realized that I wouldn’t need to take any more math courses—something I knew I was going to miss--so I ended up switching to civil engineering and haven’t looked back since.

What got you interested in what you do now?

I started interning at InTrans as a freshman doing traffic research, and I enjoyed the research side of things but felt like there was so much more that I wanted to do. I ended up transferring over to the bridge group during my junior year. Then I went on to do graduate school at the University of Minnesota, and now I’m back where it all started.

How did you know you were in the right field of study?

In college, I loved statics and mechanics, and now I’m actually teaching statics at Iowa State, so I’ve come full circle. I really enjoyed those core engineering classes. I knew that civil engineering was right for me, and specifically structural engineering, because I enjoyed those classes the most.

What skills do you need for the field?

In y particular field, since it’s research-based, verbal and written communication skills are extremely important, because no matter how smart you are or how good your research is, if you can’t convey your findings then it doesn’t really help anyone.

What are some types of things that you get to do as a research engineer for the Bridge Engineering Center?

What I like about doing research here is that you get to see all sides of the project. We do a literature search first (to get a better handle on what’s already been done), and then we figure out where the problem exists, and then actually attempt to solve the problem. At the Bridge Engineering Center, there’s fieldwork involved, so I get to do instrumentation of bridges and look at bridge sites first hand. It’s nice to get out of the office and see the engineering actually being used.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to go into engineering?

Don’t get overwhelmed with your coursework. Specifically, I remember freshman year. The physics class I took was kind of overwhelming, because it was the first class that really challenged me. Most engineering students feel like that, but it gets easier, especially as a junior and senior, when you get to take more specialized classes that are closer to what you really want to do.

Has graduate school helped your career? How so?

Towards the end of my undergraduate education I was a teaching assistant for a mechanics class, and through that experience, I knew I wanted to eventually teach. But I knew for that, I needed graduate school. The career that I envisioned for myself couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone to graduate school and if I didn’t push myself early on to find something that truly interested me.

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer