two photos of women in civil and environmental engineering on blue background
Undergraduate student Maya Ramirez, left, and Associate Professor Katerina Ziotopoulou. (Steven Trinh/UC Davis)

International Women’s Day Spotlight on UC Davis Women in Civil and Environmental Engineering

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, the University of California, Davis, College of Engineering recognizes women in engineering, their journey to and in the field, and how they promote a diverse, equitable and inclusive world.

Meet some remarkable women in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and learn how they inspire inclusion in engineering.

  • Maya Ramirez, Undergraduate Student
  • Katerina Ziotopoulou, Associate Professor

What inspired you to pursue engineering? Describe your journey to UC Davis.

Ramirez: During high school, I took a couple of engineering electives and through hands-on projects and enthusiastic teaching Mr. Dyerly made engineering exciting and understandable. Mr. Dyerly took the time to know students, tailoring his approach to help us discover our strengths and interests. His dedication and encouragement sparked my interest in engineering, giving me the confidence to pursue it further. Thanks to him, I found my passion and set off on a path that continues to shape my academic and professional journey.

Ziotopoulou: I pursued engineering because it met my passion for math and physics as well as public/civil service. I was particularly touched when the Athens earthquake of September 7, 1999 struck my hometown of Athens in Greece and I witnessed first hand the importance of civil engineering for society. So not only did I pursue civil engineering but also geotechnical earthquake engineering in particular!

I had no idea about UC Davis, let alone Davis, until I was close to my undergraduate graduation and my research advisor at the time suggested it for graduate studies. I applied, came first as an M.S. student from 2008 to 2010, continued as a Ph.D. student from 2010 to 2014 and just when I thought I was done with Davis, I was hired back as an Assistant Professor in 2016.

Describe your current research and its impact.

Ziotopoulou: Theme-wise my research focuses on geotechnical earthquake engineering with an emphasis in liquefaction and cyclic softening, dynamic soil-structure interaction to assess their impacts on geosystems, and their mitigation. Methodologically speaking, I focus on the development and advancement of numerical modeling methods and tools (like constitutive models!) for the analysis of geotechnical systems. I also pursue experimentation in our geotechnical labs and our Center for Geotechnical modeling (a national shared-use centrifuge facility) to produce data that support my numerical modelin. Lately, I have been combining data-driven and physics-based modeling approaches to improve the accuracy and reliability of predictions in geotechnical engineering.

Ultimately, I believe that by advancing the predictive capabilities of our discipline, my work with my graduate students can improve the design and maintenance of geotechnical structures, leading to safer and more resilient infrastructure overall.

The 2024 International Women’s Day theme is #InspireInclusion. Why is it important to "inspire inclusion" in the engineering field?

Ramirez: Inspiring inclusion in engineering is crucial for bringing together diverse perspectives and talents. Embracing diversity ensures a richer pool of ideas and problem-solving skills. By promoting equal opportunities, we create a collaborative environment that reflects the broader society and leads to more effective solutions. Closing gender gaps and encouraging participation from underrepresented groups not only promotes fairness but also strengthens the engineering community.

Ziotopoulou: Where do I begin?! Inspiring inclusion can really have cascading effects from increasing and broadening the diversity of backgrounds (and thus opinions to be contributed!), to providing access to more talent, and creating the necessary conditions for addressing bias and discrimination. Any resource you read (from educational books to National Academies Press reports) will tell you that diverse teams are more innovative and perform better than homogenous teams. Inclusion can lead to better collaboration, increased creativity, and improved problem-solving abilities... After all, isn't that what engineering is all about?

What people or programs have inspired inclusion throughout your journey in engineering?

Ramirez: Engineers Without Borders (EWB) inspires inclusion in engineering by encouraging engineers to use their skills for global good. They focus on projects that directly help communities in need, fostering collaboration among students. By working closely with these communities, EWB promotes inclusivity, respecting different perspectives and cultures. This approach not only makes engineering projects more effective but also creates a more inclusive and culturally aware engineering community.

Ziotopoulou: It will sound quite cliche but my mentors, friends and students have been the ultimate source of inspiration of and for inclusion throughout my journey in engineering. The people who put me “in the room,” the people who told me to send that email and raise my hand and speak up, the people who told me, “Yeah! You can totally do that!" And then the students and mentees who have voiced their own concerns and issues that provided even more angles to my perceptions and more drive to support them. I will also point out that programs like the “Two-day Diversity Awareness Workshop” and “Mental Health Gatekeeper Training” of UC Davis have been unique eye-opening experiences in this journey.

How do you make others feel welcome in engineering and promote diversity and equity in the field?

Ramirez: EWB collaborates with clubs like the Females Association of Civil Engineers. Together, we create a more inclusive culture by hosting joint events, and workshops. By collabortating we create a diverse environment where everyone feels welcomed.

Ziotopoulou: My passion for mentoring and promoting DEI has informed all my actions and all my interactions in teaching, research, public service, and training inside and outside of the university a.k.a. by mindfully existing and talking really... I never hide who I am, where I come from, and how my life is. I share my happy moments but I also share my struggles and their source(s). I am transparent with my thoughts and actions and lead by example. In my interactions in the classroom or in larger or smaller groups within and outside of the university, I always promote diverse perspectives and backgrounds. I collaborate with people that share my values and ensure that everyone has equal access to opportunities for education, training, and career advancement. Alas, this is not a linear journey... You need to always be reevaluating your approaches and your actions. Thus, apart from actively seeking for input and growth opportunities, I strive to be open to feedback such that anyone can tell me where I have been wrong and work on that.

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