In the last couple of decades, the career fields of architecture, engineering, and construction have seen a spike in women joining the field. Hardworking and determined women have paved the way in these career fields for future generations, and Akemi Bauer is no exception. Bauer sat down with AMP and shared her story, from near Olympic swimmer to Environmental Director of Air at ECCI.
Bauer was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. Growing up, competitive swimming was her main focus. Swimming was more than a pastime: Bauer was incredibly good at it.
“I qualified to compete in National Swimming Tournaments for six years while I was in junior high school through high school. I was .02 seconds away from qualifying for an Olympic tryout competition once. When I was in college, I retired from competitive swimming and became a swimming coach for kids.”
Bauer graduated from Nihon University with a bachelor’s degree in applied biology and came to the United States in the summer of 2000 for graduate school. She studied at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and earned her master’s degree in environmental engineering. While studying there, she met her husband, Michael Bauer. The two lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico for three years, and Bauer worked for an environmental consulting firm as a field engineer on multiple remediation projects. One of her most notable projects was the North Railroad Avenue Plume Superfund project, for which she published a paper in The Applied Environmental Science Journal in 2021.
Bauer and her husband moved to Little Rock in 2006 for her husband’s graduate school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. At that time, Bauer started working with ECCI as an Environmental Engineer. In 2009, shortly after welcoming their first child, Bauer took and passed the Professional Engineer (PE) exam.
“I became a PE licensed in New Mexico and Texas. When I tried to transfer my license to Arkansas, the board denied my application due to my foreign non-engineering bachelor’s degree, which was not considered equivalent to an accredited four-year engineering education. In order to fulfill the requirements, I began the process of enrolling in an accredited engineering school and completing the deficiency classes.”
But Bauer found another surprise.
“In the middle of applying to an accredited engineering school, I learned that I was pregnant with my third child. My morning sickness was awful, so I had to put off my schooling and rest a little. I continued working as a Senior Environmental Engineer at ECCI and became a mother of four,” Bauer recalls.
In 2021, when her fourth child entered kindergarten, Bauer decided to go back to school to get her Arkansas PE.
“I learned that the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville offered a 100% online graduate school program in engineering. It was a perfect program for me as a full-time worker and full-time mom of four. I started the program in May 2021, completed taking all of my deficiency classes in December 2021, and I received my Arkansas license in March 2022. I became the Environmental Director of Air and am currently supervising multiple clean air act permitting and compliance projects.”
Bauer shares that her next goal is to continue to expand the business in the sustainability field in carbon footprint evaluations and sustainability program development.
Bauer elaborates on her decision to enter the architecture, engineering and construction field.
“When I started college, I knew I enjoyed environmental microbiology, but I felt my career options could be limited to the laboratory. When I took an ‘Introduction of Environmental Engineering’ class, I was fascinated by how microorganisms can decompose contaminants in groundwater and soil. I found that environmental engineering can actively help clean up contaminated sites,” Bauer said. “In addition, this class taught us about many of the U.S. superfund sites. This made me want to go to the U.S. and get hands-on experience with these remediation projects. This class played a pivotal role in why I chose environmental engineering and ultimately came to the U.S. I am now approaching having lived in the U.S. longer than I did in Japan. I worry I cannot refer to myself as a ‘Tokyo Girl’ anymore!”
Bauer walks us through what a day in her work life looks like.
“The majority of the time, I am in the office working on projects. I occasionally visit our industrial clients’ facilities for a site walk-through or to conduct an environmental audit,” she says. “My office tasks include performing calculations for air contaminant emissions, reviewing environmental regulations for applicability and compliance determination, preparing necessary paperwork for air permit application, and preparing environmental reports.”
Bauer highlights some of the challenges that she has faced as a woman in the architecture, engineering, and construction field.
“Since AEC is such a male-dominated industry, all defaults are set for men. For example, the required fire-retardant jacket that I had to wear on-site at a facility was giant! The facility was not accustomed to someone of my petite size needing that equipment. However, there is no challenge that will stop or hinder me from completing my assigned task,” Bauer says. “This is not necessarily a challenge, but oftentimes when I call a client for the first time, the client will seem surprised and say, ‘I thought you were a male.’ I understand that ‘Akemi’ is an unfamiliar name in the U.S.”
STEM careers, and especially architecture, engineering and construction fields have come a long way here in the Natural State. Bauer testifies that she has seen some of these changes firsthand.
“I definitely have seen an increase in the female representation in the AEC field. I believe this is because schools are doing a great job at focusing on STEM education and outreach efforts to underrepresented people such as women,” Bauer theorizes. “In addition, the schools are providing many more opportunities for females in this field. My oldest daughter joined ‘Girl Power in STEM Day’ last year in her junior high and was able to directly interact with women in the AEC fields.”
Bauer offers a piece of advice for individuals interested in entering her career field.
“My advice applies to those who want to be an engineer. You should strive to obtain your PE license and become a Professional Engineer. The board exam is not easy, and you will have to study hard. The best advice I have is to first take the Fundamental Engineering exam while you are in college or immediately after graduation. For the Professional Engineering exam, you will need to really allot serious study time, maybe even a year in advance,” she says. “Lastly, being a female in a typically male-driven field is sometimes not the easiest task at times, so be confident in yourself and your abilities, and continue to work hard and prove that you belong.”