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Q&A with Commissioning & Energy Expert Sarah E. Maston

Sarah E. Maston, PE, BCxP, LEED AP discusses what lead her to become an engineer and leader in the A/E industry, as well as her passion for energy efficiency and decarbonization.

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Q&A with Commissioning & Energy Expert Sarah E. Maston

Note: Portions of this interview have been reprinted courtesy of Engineered Systems.

How long have you been with Colliers Project Leaders and tell me about what you do?

I have been with Colliers Project Leaders (CPL), a division of Colliers Engineering & Design, since 2021. I am the Geographic Discipline Leader for Commissioning & Energy Services in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Prior to CPL, I owned my own company, which allowed me to pursue the types of projects I was interested in while providing me with the flexibility to spend time with my kids. Now my kids are older and in college, so I felt it was an opportune time to work for a larger, corporate entity and go after larger, more complex projects that I just couldn’t handle as a small business.

What attracted you to the A/E industry? What led you to become a commissioning expert?

I think I always knew I would be an engineer. Throughout my early schooling, I excelled in math and science. I had a lot of support at home, because my dad is an engineer, and I liked looking over his blueprints and going to work with him. He would always take the time to explain things and would help with homework, even if he “didn’t do it like my teachers showed me,” which was probably our biggest argument growing up. In high school, I attended a college-sponsored, weeklong, “Girls in Engineering” program, where I was with other girls interested in engineering. That was a great experience, and I think it solidified my interest in pursuing engineering as a career. In my early college years, I applied for and received a summer internship with the company my dad worked for. I interned with them for two summers, first on a multidisciplinary team focused on process improvement, and the second to help with the implementation of the new process in the manufacturing facility. I found this to be so interesting, thus I knew I was on the right path.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

I enjoy the problem-solving and team building that is core to commissioning. Commissioning can be tough if you do not take the time to build relationships with team members. When issues do arise, and they always do, being able to work with the team to make them right, instead of pointing fingers, gets the job done faster. What is important is that issues are corrected early and quickly so that the project can stay on budget and schedule.

In addition to your position at CPL, you are currently the 2022-23 ASHRAE Vice President and Technology Council Chair. What does this position entail?

ASHRAE, is a 52,000+ member, global professional society, whose vision is “a healthy and sustainable built environment for all.” The members are all volunteers who work together to provide standards, guidelines, and educational programming focused on thermal comfort, indoor air quality, pathogen mitigation, energy efficiency and decarbonization. ASHRAE looks to share sustainable technologies and best practices from around the world to lead the industry into the future.

As a Vice President, I am one of seven members of the Executive Committee and one of thirty-one members of the Board of Directors. ASHRAE’s structure consists of three councils, of which the Technology Council is one. I chair this council, and with the assistance of my Vice Chair, we encourage strategic discussions of the future technologies of our industry, including decarbonization efforts, as well as assist all our technical committees with direction for implementing Presidential initiatives and other strategic goals.

Through my volunteer efforts with ASHRAE over the last 20+ years, I've gotten to know many people in the industry, both locally here in New England and internationally. This past fall, I attended the International Building Decarbonization Conference in Athens, Greece, as well as the Global HVAC Summit in conjunction with the Region-at-Large Regional Conference in Istanbul, Turkey. The Global Summit took on complicated world concerns, such as Decarbonization, IEQ/Wellness, Climate Crisis Mitigation, Energy Security, and Workforce Development. There were great discussions, and action items that ASHRAE is investigating. I also just returned from four days of meetings and leadership development in Egypt, where I met many members in local chapters there. My horizons have truly been broadened by volunteering my time in ASHRAE. I know it is cliché, but ASHRAE has made me the engineer that I am today.

What motivates/inspires you to come to work every day?

To do better than the day before and to serve my clients to the best of my ability. Also, to be the best role model I can be for my kids and the kids that I encounter every day. I led my daughter’s Girl Scout troop from second to 12th grade. I tried my best to introduce them to many different programs – arts, engineering, history, computer programming, etc., so that each girl found something she was interested in. We also camped and travelled. We fundraised throughout their high school years and were able to travel to Belize in 2019 for a real adventure! Zip lining through the jungle, cave tubing, meeting and playing with local school children, learning about endangered local animals, and visiting active Mayan archaeological digs were highlights of our trip.

In addition to being a troop leader, I also coordinate and lead an engineering badge workshop for our Girl Scout council every year. The latest program was just held this past week, and we had 60 girls (K-fifth grade) participate. I tell the girls to be brave enough to “suck at something new,” which is very hard for teenage girls to do. A few years ago, our troop completed a high-ropes course. This was not every girl’s strength, but we did it together. I have learned that not every girl will become an engineer, but by just opening the door and introducing them to it, some will continue to walk through to a world they didn’t know existed.

I also serve on the parent review board for our high school’s engineering curriculum. As local engineers, we review senior design projects and give students feedback on the design process, materials selection and testing, and marketing products. It is so inspiring to see the progress these young men and women make over the course of the year, and many go on to pursue engineering in college.

What challenges have you had to overcome as a woman in the A/E industry?

This is a difficult question because I think every female engineer’s story is different, yet we all have had some similar experiences. When I was a young engineer and found myself doubting my abilities, I thought it was just me. But after I attended a meeting where an ASHRAE colleague, Dr. Julia Keen, presented her doctoral research on these exact questions, I found I wasn’t alone, and that inspired me both to do better and to help all my colleagues a little bit more.

This quote, from Verna Myers, resounds with me: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” I think the current conversations in the greater society, and apparently around the world, on diversity and inclusion are healthy and exciting. This is not the end of a much-needed discussion but the beginning. Many industries are working to diversify and be inclusive of under-represented people, and we are making progress. I think more companies realize the benefits of diversity and importance of having different points of view at the table, and I have seen improvements in the 20 years I have been in the industry.

We have to take it one step further though. We have to show women they belong in the industry. I think most women still do not feel valued as engineers and as individuals. We might feel tolerated, but we do not yet feel as though we fully belong. Being tolerated is a precarious place to be because we tend to hold back and do not participate as much as we could, or should, in brainstorming or strategic meetings. We do not want to lose the gains we have made. I think when women feel like they belong in the industry and can bring their whole selves to the table, women will stay.

Over the duration of your career, have you noticed any changes or evolution in how women are perceived in the A/E industry?

I think generally we've come a long way, but I would also say we have further to go. The entry-level bar has come down a little bit and it doesn't seem like such a reach for a woman to be an engineer. Engineering has become more of a known entity as STEM and STEAM programs are gaining traction in grade schools, providing a much-needed introduction to engineering for many students.

I was lucky. My dad's an engineer, so I knew early on what engineers did. But when I was studying mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the ratio was four to one, men to women. By the time kids get to college, it's often too late. It's truly something that you must start building from the elementary school level and up. Even today there is still unconscious bias like, “Susie's smart, she's well read, and she’s good at math. She'd make a great teacher.” There’s a paradigm shift that still must happen to overcome that unconscious bias so that people can suggest capable girls potentially follow an engineering career path among others.

Where we've made gains in getting more young women to start on the engineering pathway, we lose them when they want to have families. The field of engineering historically has not been very flexible; there's one path and if you don't fit that path, then you kind of stall. But I think that is evolving as well with the greater adoption of more flexible work policies.

What role models have inspired you along the way?

I have had three really influential mentors in my career, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. There have also been many others who have extended a helping hand to assist me over a hurdle or two, and I am forever grateful to all of them. Howard McKew was my group leader for many years and introduced me to the commissioning process. Before I worked with Howie, I had been a design engineer. I had done this for many years, but wasn’t excited about it anymore. Howie taught me about commissioning and project and business management. He also introduced me to ASHRAE, where my first “job” was editing a handbook chapter under his guidance. He also told me that, someday, he thought I could own my own business, which I thought was hilarious at the time, but did happen. Over time, he encouraged me to get more involved in ASHRAE’s technical committees, which is where I met my next mentor, JR Anderson.

When I met JR, he was the chair of the Commissioning Technical Committee, TC 7.9. JR was so welcoming and truly the nicest guy you would ever meet. You had no choice but to volunteer to help; so, I did. I became the programs sub-chair for the committee, and, from there, my ASHRAE education took off. JR would always take the time to check in with me to see if I had any questions. He was a great resource to me as a young engineer.

Through these two fine engineers, I met my third mentor, Paul Tseng. Paul was a friend to both Howie and JR and was also involved in ASHRAE. Paul owns a commissioning firm in Maryland, and when I left the firm that Howie and I worked for, I went to work with Paul. I was still based in Massachusetts but managed projects for clients with multiple sites outside of Maryland, including San Antonio and Huntsville, Alabama. Paul trusted me to work with clients and set up my own projects locally. I became his Boston office and supported work in the Eastern U.S. I would not be where I am today without Howie, JR, and Paul. All of them took the time to mentor a young engineer who they thought demonstrated promise. They treated me as an equal and encouraged me to believe in myself and my abilities.

What advice would you give to any young female looking to enter the A/E industry?

I have learned so much over the years from both my successes and failures, so it is hard to know where to even begin answering this question. I guess it would be to find your “squad.” Find other young engineers who you can grow with and learn from. Join a professional organization in your industry that will further your informal education. Never stop learning and find a good mentor. Many companies have mentoring programs, but the best mentors are the ones you seek out. This type of outreach often is hard, because it makes you vulnerable, but it will be the best thing you can do for your career. You can also give me a call, as I’m always happy to help.


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