Serena Webber-Bey is the kind of engineer most people don’t think about when they hear the word “engineer.” That is to say, she works on oceangoing vessels, where collaborative support is limited and the challenges are great. I spoke with Serena between voyages about her job, and why young women should consider following in her footsteps.
So what’s a typical day like for a marine engineer?
Let me start off by saying there are no typical days in the life of a marine engineer. Whether at sea or tied to the dock, the plans are ever changing and the equipment has its own agenda. An ideal day would be one in which I make a morning round of the engineering spaces and find that everything is operating as designed. The engineers gather in the control room and have a meeting where we discuss any planned maintenance, issues encountered overnight, and the schedule for the day if it were to involve any maneuvering into or out of port, and/or bunkering (taking fuel). We then disperse and go about our respective jobs and break for lunch and dinner; most likely coming down after dinner for some overtime. Now that I have advanced my license to sail as a first assistant engineer I find myself also having to do paperwork, computer entries and helping to guide the other members of the department. Throughout the day, we could be doing anything from oil changes to auxiliary engine overhauls. This is the norm for motor ships. On a steam ship, we need to have licensed engineers monitoring the propulsion and generating plant 24/7. So we would go down in 4 hour shifts and stand a watch. The engineer on watch must be able to respond to regular adjustments or any emergency and always remember to pick up the phone and call for help. Two things you can always count on, sweating and running up or down the stairs all day.
What drew you to engineering in general and what particular about marine engineering?
I was drawn to marine engineering for the grittiness, the importance of the industry, and the learned ability to adapt between the various types of power and propulsion plants, whether they are on shore or at sea.
Did you encounter a lot of resistance when you first started?
When I was in school training, there was some immature behavior towards the only 5 girls in my class working towards an engineering license and degree. Once I entered the working world, I encountered people who waited for me to prove myself before they would take me seriously. I now do the same for any ‘new’ engineer I work with so I doubt it was entirely sexist. The challenging part is that I often find myself the only female on board, I have never had a female supervisor, and I am surrounded by males. Not just in the engine room either, but everywhere on the ship.
Who are your role models?
My role models are educators. Thanks to New York City public schools, I picked up many skills. I danced in junior high, and learned fashion/business in high school. In college, we were taught how to effectively troubleshoot, and rarely given an easy break. If I hadn’t gone through such a rigorous education, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Many of the people in my family, including my mother, work in education. If I were to switch careers from practicing engineering down the road, I would like to teach.
What do you love most about your career?
I enjoy the vacation time between ships, the exotic ports, and the view from the bridge at sunrise or sunset. Most of all I love using my brain and my hands at work.
As a woman, what are some of the challenges you face in your industry?
I find that my expectations of the people I work with are high, and I take it personally when they aren’t met. The ability to have a family, if I so choose, would mean a pause in my current career path. I don’t work in the best environments, so I would have to take off considerable amounts of time.
What has been your best or most inspiring experience since you’ve been working?
I think the first time the chief engineer said to me “You got it,” as a statement of trust, and not a question– and then left the engine room. It was one of my most nerve wracking and proudest moments.
Why should girls and young women pursue a career in marine engineering?
Marine Engineering is a great career, and it should be pursued by all. Particularly young women and girls because the skills you gain would help you in many aspects of life.
What advice would you give to girls and young women moving in this direction?
For girls and young women working towards a career in this field, I would recommend taking available higher level math and physics classes. The degree that I earned alongside my coast guard license is a valuable tool that can be used in a number of shoreside engineering careers to support the maritime industry. My freshman year I was staring at the chalkboard as a diesel engine was explained to me for the first time and I had that “deer in the headlights” look about me. If available take a tour of a power plant so you can place your eyes on the machinery you may one day design, install, operate and/or maintain.
Note: Role Models for Girls is a series of interviews highlighting women in science, engineering, and other non-traditional fields and is designed to encourage girls and young women to cast aside hypersexualized entertainment-based role models in favor of real women succeeding in male-dominated fields.