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Diana Nishi, S.E.
Structural Engineer

Who Builds Big? | Career Info Index | Engineering Webography

Diana Nishi is a registered civil and structural engineer in California. Her professional interest and expertise is in the design of concrete and steel structures, including hotels, regional malls, parking structures, office buildings, and mixed-use and institutional facilities. Since 1988, Diana has worked for Robert Englekirk, Inc./Englekirk & Sabol, Inc., a California-based consulting structural engineering firm, where she serves as Project Director on several current projects.

Check out a structure that Diana has worked on: J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California

Diana Nishi, Structural Engineer
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What do you do as a structural engineer?
I mostly work with commercial buildings, like retail buildings, medical buildings, museums. Basically I work with the architects as a team. And we do the structure for the building, basically the stuff that you wouldn't see: the beams and columns and the things that keep a building standing. And here in California, we engineer buildings to withstand earthquakes.

Diana Nishi, Structural Engineer
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What's a typical day like for you? Do you spend time in the office or in the field?
Actually, I do both. In my position, I'm a manager, but I still do a lot of the production. Basically we're a consulting firm; we work with the architects. So we produce drawings and blueprints that show all the structural systems and what the building is made of. The engineers have to do calculations first, and then we put all that information on the drawings. I work with a team of people that assist me in creating the documents. And I still do production myself. I still do some hands-on engineering because I enjoy it.

So a typical day would involve managing these people and then running calculations, basically doing the vertical gravity system, your floor system, and then the earthquake system. And part of it is going to team meetings to meet with the architect, the mechanical engineer, civil engineer as part of the team to get the whole project together. Then once the job gets into construction, we go to the site regularly to look at the job as it's being constructed. So that's a typical day, I guess.

Do you use any special equipment?
We just use computers. There are a lot of programs available to us to assist us in our engineering. We do computer modeling for a lot of the buildings if they're more complicated. We use 3-D models to assist us. We model the building to make sure that we understand the behavior, how the building is going to behave.

The geotechnical [engineer] on the job gives us the earthquake criteria. The geotechnical report has to have all this earthquake information and data to assist us in the modeling. There's software available where you model, basically, a stick structure, and then you can put that in a program and subject it to a certain kind of ground motion. And then it moves, and it gives you output that can tell you how much the building, we think, is going to move, and how this motion creates certain forces in the members. And then we design the members for these specific forces. We're looking primarily at the lateral system, this earthquake system that I'm talking about. In some cases it's a frame or x-bracing or cross-bracing -- that's a lateral system.

Usually, at the start of any project, we go over all the different types of options with the owner. Does this building want to be concrete, or does it want to be steel? And usually there's a consultant on board who's more familiar with cost, a contractor perhaps, who would say "If you do it this way, you could save money here." We usually do a schematic, which gives them a bunch of different structural schemes, using cross-bracing or using this other type. Then they price it out, with all the other architectural and schematic packages, too, for the owner to get an idea of how much this is going to cost.

When did you know that you wanted to be an engineer?
In high school, I really loved architecture and art. I thought that I was an artistic type of person. I also loved math. I was really good in math. And to be honest with you, I didn't know. I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and the major was called architectural engineering. And the description sounded exactly what I thought I wanted. "Oh, look, I can combine architecture with engineering and have the best of both worlds." And I was lucky in that I liked it, because up at that particular school you can't be undeclared. You have to declare a major. So the course is actually in the school of architecture. And the first couple of years you take a lot of design courses with architects. And the other disciplines were landscape and construction and I think planning and then engineering. So we all had to take courses in each individual discipline to get an idea.

Anyway, I realized I wouldn't have been very good as an architect, thank goodness. I love it, but I'm not a very creative person. I'm much more mathematical/engineering based. So once I started taking the engineering courses, I realized that's what I wanted to do. So I was really lucky. It was just it sounded good, and I decided, "I think I'll try that." It's a very practical school. They give you things that you will be doing when you get out of school so there's no confusion or misunderstanding about what you're going to be doing.

Later, I got my Master's. Because [Cal Poly San Luis Obispo] was a practical-based school, I felt a little weak in theory, so I worked for a couple of years, and then I went back and got my Master's degree at UCLA.

I think some of the schools that are more theory-based, I don't think they really understand what you're going to be doing, that you're really sitting at a desk for a large portion of your day just crunching numbers. And I think a lot of people think, "I'll be building buildings; I'll be out in the field." And you will eventually, but it takes time to build up to that.

What's the thing you like most about your work?
Seeing a building being built. Seeing what you designed and engineered being actually built and finished and being occupied. That's exciting to me: seeing something that you've engineered being actually built.

I'm curious what advice you have for kids who might want to pursue a career in engineering.
Math. Make sure they keep up on their math skills. I was very, very good in math. You know, the multiplication contest and things. Math is really important. Also, tell them that it's not as hard as you might think it is. Engineering always seems to scare people away. But really it's just problem solving; that's all it is. My father was an electrical engineer. But I didn't have any idea, really, what engineering was. I didn't know what it was when I was in junior high or high school. I'd go, "My dad is an engineer," but what is that? It's really just problem solving.

Whether you're structural or electrical or civil or whatever, it's just solving problems in whatever field it may be. And in my case, it's building buildings. I'm just solving all the problems of how to build buildings. So my biggest advice, I guess, is it's not as hard or scary as you might think.

And then I would tell all the women that I've never had any problems, ever, all along the entire way. Where I'm at now, it's pretty much still a man's world. I mean, a construction site, there's not a whole lot of women. But the world is actually changing a lot, and most men are actually pretty open now about accepting you for who you are. I think nowadays whether you're a man or a woman you still have to prove yourself to anybody and gain respect. It's not as hard as it probably once used to be.

What's the most interesting project you've ever worked on?
The J. Paul Getty Center, in Los Angeles. My firm, Englekirk, did all the structural engineering for all the buildings. I was on that project for probably close to eight years of my career. And I've been at the company for 12. So I learned from just a junior right out of college, a couple of years. And then I worked my way up to project level, which is basically running smaller-type projects. And I learned a lot of the field issues where you basically go out to the field and solve all the problems that happen when they try to build it and it doesn't work for whatever reason. And basically I grew on that project. It was a very challenging project, and a very exciting project to work on. So that's probably my favorite.

What do you like to do in your free time?
Before I had twins? I took off a month before they were born, and I'm going back to work in November. I still love to garden. And I love antiques. I love collecting antiques and collectibles. And now I guess spending it with my children.