Lover of All-Things Organized, Metallurgical Engineer - Allison Peck
“I remember crying one night over a lab report because I was pulling an all-nighter, and I didn’t think I could do it. I legitimately thought I was going to fail out. There is a lot of pressure on you because you are one of a handful of women in your field and are expected to know how to do things and expected to be good at it. I didn’t make a lot of friends for six months or so, and I didn’t know what I wanted or what I was looking for, or what engineering was. And so that was a real struggle.”
Name: Allison Peck | Occupation: Metallurgical Engineer | University and Year of Graduation: Colorado School of Mines Metallurgy & Materials Engineering, BS 2015
You know how when you meet someone and you think to yourself, “Wow, I am really going to get along with this person!” Well, meeting Allison for the first time created that moment for me. She’s extremely down to earth and in some ways reminds me of myself: witty, playful, sensitive, and a perfectionist. She came to our meetup and headshot photo session with her interview questions in hand, with notes and bullet points of the things that she wanted to say. I told her that was such an ‘engineer’ thing to do. She laughed.
Like many people living in Charleston today, Allison is a transplant. She grew up in a small town in the middle of Iowa. Her dad is a farmer, her mom a graphic designer. Similar to my story, she wasn’t sure of what kind of career she wanted to pursue until the idea was presented to her. “I grew up in rural Iowa on a farm and I learned to do a lot of things by myself. I knew I wanted to do something technical, and I like understanding how things work at really fundamental level. It helps me understand things. When I was in high school, a lot of people told me that I should do engineering because I was good at math, and I was like ‘What’s that?’ One day, we actually had someone from Iowa State come to our high school and do a material science demonstration. I felt like that field was a good starting point, and I could always change my mind. So ten years later, here I am. But that demo was really the day that I thought engineering could be interesting. I like being hands on and solving problems.”
Allison currently works as a metallurgical engineer. She is one of three female metallurgists at her company in the state of South Carolina, which I think is an amazing accomplishment. If you’re not sure what a metallurgical engineer actually does, Allison has the explanation down to a science (pun intended): “Metallurgy is the science and application of understanding how materials work, specifically metals. At my company, I guide people on what tools and materials are best to use for whichever parts we are working on.”
Sipping on our beverages and sitting outside at Metto Coffee & Tea, Allison was willing to share the challenges that she has personally gone through when I asked her about her experience as a female engineer. “So I would say there’s been a lot of challenges but I tend not to focus on them too much. In the beginning there was a lot of competition, and I really wanted to better than the boys. And I guess with that, you don’t spend a lot of time with other female engineers. And that was a downside for me because I didn’t know what I was missing out on.”
I felt a lot of sympathy for Allison when she told me that. Personally I was very fortunate at UMass because I had a network of other female engineering students who I could go to for support, and I realized that I took it for granted once I entered the working world and was a minority. Allison shared with me that she recently attended Women in Industry Day here in the Lowcountry and thought it was the most amazing thing she’s done in her career: “I actually would say that one of the biggest rewards was seeing all these women achieve greatness in their careers.”
Another challenge? Lack of self-confidence. “I remember crying one night over a lab report because I was pulling an all-nighter, and I didn’t think I could do it. I legitimately thought I was going to fail out. There is a lot of pressure on you because you are one of a handful of women in your field and are expected to know how to do things and expected to be good at it. I didn’t make a lot of friends for six months or so, and I didn’t know what I wanted or what I was looking for, or what engineering was. And so that was a real struggle.”
“Did you ever have any doubts that you were in the right major?” I asked her.
“Oh for sure! My mom is a graphic designer and I would help her with her work quite often. I wanted to do a double major in graphic design and engineering but they wouldn’t let you declare that. So I just kind of kept going with engineering because it was too difficult to just switch to something else at that point. I would say perseverance was really important because at that point I was just determined not to let the time I already put into it be a waste. And I figured I can get through my life hating engineering sometimes but I can’t get through life hating one of my hobbies. Engineering, even though it’s a challenge sometimes, can be really rewarding.”
It (engineering) is challenging sometimes, but aren’t all jobs? It doesn’t help that society doesn’t glamorize being an engineer like it does for doctors or lawyers. A lot of people don’t even know what engineering is, never mind really talk about it. And why would they? Engineering isn’t necessarily a sexy occupation, but it’s the backbone to our efficient and healthy lifestyles: clean and running water, roads and traffic lights, refrigerators, airplanes, plastic - you name it. And ultimately, it’s assumed that most women who go into engineering are huge nerds, antisocial, and unattractive. If you’ve come this far in my blog series, I hope I’ve disproved that assumption for you.
What would you say to your 18 year old self if you could go back in time? “Ah man, there’s so many words that I would say to my 18 year old self, none of which I would listen to,” she laughed. “Probably one of the biggest things is that you don’t have to know everything in order to keep moving forward. It’s okay to try and not be perfect. And just breathe. I always felt like I was expected to do more because I was that person who broke out of that small town and needed to break out of those stereotypes associated with it. If I failed, then I would just be that small town girl who dropped out of college and had to move back home. But you don’t have to figure it all out.”
I noticed that even though Allison has experienced a lot of internal struggles on her journey, she confessed that she feels a sense of pride when she tells people that she is an engineer. And then this led to my infamous identity question that I love to ask other women: Do you feel that you are labelled strictly by your occupation and that it has become your entire identity?
“I definitely agree that who I am as an engineer is significant as far as my identity. For the longest time it took all of my energy to just push through. I do feel like I get labelled strictly by my occupation but don’t know if that’s other people’s faults or mine. Because again, I was so focused on engineering and getting to the end of that road, getting a job, and getting to the real world that I didn’t focus on anything else. When I do go back to my home town, people only see me as the engineer and the know-it-all “city slicker.” That’s really frustrating to me because it sucks when you don’t have anything to talk about with your old friends. There are worse things, I know. People being really impressed with me being an engineer really motivates me though. I feel kind of vain about it but I enjoy someone saying ‘This is Allison, she’s an engineer.’”
And when I asked her if she would recommend engineering to a young girl, she responded: “I think I would still do it all again. I think it challenges me in a way intellectually that other things can’t. Even on those days where it’s not fun, I’m still proud of my accomplishments and skills that I’ve learned. I would probably say yes I recommend it. It’s not for everyone but you can do anything you want to and engineering proved that to me, and I proved it to myself. I would say go into it knowing what it’s about because it’s deceiving in school. If you’re going to spend four years in school doing something, you might as well do something you know more about so that you don’t end up switching majors half way through and dealing with all of the implications.”
“Implications? Can you tell me more about that? Do you think that’s more of a mental thing or societal thing?” I curiously asked her.
“Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. I would be really disappointed in myself if I quit. I went on a blind date one time with this guy who used to be an aerospace engineer but switched to accounting, and I judged him so hard and thought ‘What, you just quit?’ He just came off as lazy to me for doing that. And I know that’s not always the case and it’s not for everyone, but I was just so vividly aware of how it would look to other people, and I just couldn’t deal with that.” I found myself in multiple flashbacks to while I was in school thinking the same way about people dropping out of engineering to another major. I think we are our own worst enemies sometimes.
As for Allison’s passions and things that give her joy: organization, order, budgeting, and sewing. “I like budgeting, video games, and actually recently I’ve taken up sewing. Sewing machines are expensive I’ve learned. I actually can’t wait to start right after this interview!”