Jennifer Verde, P.E., is an advocate for becoming an engineer—and she doesn’t sugarcoat the choice.
“The academic aspect, working on a variety of projects, and working collaboratively with many different types of people and professionals, as I do, are all appealing,” Jennifer says. “But the work aspect of this job is challenging. You end up working a lot.”
Jennifer started in the first of her two stints at Altamont Environmental in 2005. She now runs Altamont’s Assessment and Remediation service line.
A Professional Engineer, Jennifer says she initially identified more with scientists than with engineers.
“When I started college, my viewpoint of engineering was negative—the idea that engineering was central to industrial development and has led to ecological destruction,” Jennifer says. “However, I became interested in remediation where you can work with the natural world through processes such as bioremediation—using bacteria to fix damaged systems. This type of applied science is why I went into the environmental field and why I decided to pursue engineering.”
She says she always had the intention of moving away from the building side of engineering.
“The fact is that we need engineers for so many vital things, from water distribution and management to designing bridges,” she says. “In the end, though, that’s not what drew me into the field.
Jennifer studied environmental health science and microbiology as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia. She took most of her classes with pre-med students. She loved microbiology, and she worked in a research lab for about a year and a half doing bacterial source tracking—molecular microbiology work.
She enjoyed doing research but says she ended up “working in a lot of dark rooms. The research was interesting, but I wanted to do something more applied. I enjoy solving problems, and it was hard to apply the research and see change in that field.”
Jennifer moved to Atlanta and worked for Geosyntec Consultants on Superfund sites. She worked as a staff scientist—doing sampling and analysis, GIS mapping, and database work—and realized that if she wanted to progress professionally, she needed an engineering degree.
She went to Boulder, Colorado, to attend the University of Colorado Boulder for graduate school.
“I went to CU-Boulder because the engineering department there seemed a little more diverse and progressive than at other large universities,” she says. Jen received her M.S. in civil engineering from CU-Boulder and also earned her E.I. designation in Colorado.
Jennifer started at Altamont in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2005.
“Back then the group was smaller,” she says. “Everyone had to be a little bit more of a generalist.”
She gained experience for 4 years and enjoyed it. Then she took 2 years off following the birth of her second child.
Jennifer returned to Altamont in 2011. She took her P.E. exam. “I was advised not to take the P.E. after having children,” Jennifer says, “But I did it and passed.”
“Engineering is still predominantly male,” she continues. “But the field is changing. Environmental and biological focuses, for example, attract more women. Right now, in my field, there is a movement toward biological solutions. This trend seems to bring more women into the field.”
One challenge Jennifer faces while raising her young sons is flexibility. “Clients are all working on different schedules,” she says. “You’re not necessarily done when the day is over.” Even after work, Jennifer says she is often thinking about how to solve work-related problems.
As the leader of the Assessment and Remediation service line, Jennifer works with a wide variety of clients, creates budgets, and oversees staff.
“I actually end up working with a majority of people in our office,” she says. Altamont has a staff of about 30. “Staff members have become more specialized. But at Altamont we still give junior staff the opportunity to try different things to see what works for them.”
Many of the projects Jennifer focuses on are for responsible parties—including industrial clients—for some process that has impacted soil and groundwater.
“They are often looking to assess how extensive the problem is,” Jennifer says. “The problem may lead to a need for remediation. As a company, we try to expand the options we offer clients in terms of remediation approaches. Traditional methods include things like pump and treat, air sparging, soil vapor extraction, and excavation. But we also now explore the suitability of processes like enhanced aerobic or anaerobic bioremediation—adding an oxygen source or organic substrates to a contaminated location to increase the viability of bacteria breaking down compounds like chemical degreasers.”
There is a movement away from physical processes to solve these problems, she says. “If you just pump and treat, you’ll see declines in chemical contamination. But it may never go away completely. Bacteria, on the other hand, sometimes do the work more inexpensively and quickly when conditions are right.”
Jennifer describes one 2016 project as an example. “We looked at an existing pump-and-treat system for solvents in soil at a manufacturing facility in a nearby county. We analyzed the costs to meet regulatory standards, and the timeline was on the order of 40 to 50 years until it would meet those standards. So we’ve started looking at enhanced anaerobic bioremediation. We are evaluating the geochemistry, the depth of contaminants, and what it would take to inject organic substrates and nutrients into the ground to allow bacteria that are there to thrive and break the solvents down. We’re still in the work-plan phase, but possibilities like these excite me—and provide our clients with more options.”
Jennifer says she also enjoys multidisciplinary projects. “When you’re working with geologists, attorneys, developers, biologists, etc., it keeps things interesting to have so many perspectives brought together to solve a problem,” she says.
And then Jennifer, who lives in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina, goes outside.
She loves to trail run and snowboard, and she says she is getting back into mountain biking now that her children are a little older. She enjoys playing all sports and being active with her kids—backyard soccer, basketball, and biking together are favorites.
Asked what advice she would give someone starting out on this career path, Jennifer offers both a caution and encouragement.
“It’s tough to go into the sciences without a master’s degree,” she says. “That has changed in the past 10 to 15 years. And the work in our industry is challenging.
“But if you enjoy solving problems and finding the best solutions possible, it can all be very rewarding.”
Jennifer Verde was interviewed by Altamont’s Melanie Kemp