Melanie Calhoun began as a chemical engineer at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration and today leads MSHA’s Directorate of Technical Support. That means she is responsible for all the engineering, scientific and technical expertise provided to assist MSHA program areas. Her passion for engineering started as a young child who was inspired by science fairs and a love of chemistry. Ahead of International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb. 11, we sat down with her to learn more about her career path and advice for other women interested in STEM careers.
As of 2022, women comprised 27.9% of chemical engineers in the United States. When you were in college, what was the ratio of women/men students – was it notable or discussed?
In college, the ratio of men to women in the Chemical Engineering department was about 50/50. This was vastly different than the other engineering disciplines. It was not something that was openly discussed, but the differences were glaring.
What have been some challenges as a woman in engineering?
One of the biggest challenges is the fact that many times you are the only person who looks like you in the room. Engineering, no matter the discipline, is still a male dominated space. So when you are the only person that looks like you in the room for extended stretches of your career, it can bring on “Impostor Syndrome.” It makes you question why you. This is something I have had to deal with in my career. I remind myself that although the voice I am hearing sounds like me, it is not me. It is the voice of some in society who doubted the fact that someone who looks like me should be taking up space in the rooms that I am in. I have had to deal with this throughout my entire career, but I have been fortunate to be able to confide in female colleagues who have dealt with the same thing.
Was there a mentor who played a role in your success?
I have been fortunate to have mentors at every stage of my career. Deborah Green, Roslyn Fontaine, John Seiler, William Francart and John Faini are just a few of the Labor Department employees who have helped guide me during my career. Their guidance is why I feel so strongly about mentoring and its importance in employee development.
What is your favorite/best piece of advice that you either received or you give to young women in engineering?
My advice is to never forget that little girl inside of you who dared to believe that she could do anything she put her mind to. Remember her fearlessness when you encounter obstacles. Remember her audacity when the voices of doubters start to drown out your own. Remember her determination when things do not seem to be going your way. Remember her joy, remember her happiness, and if things ever seem to falter remember her resilience. It is important you never forget that little girl.
Any particular challenges at MSHA, working in the mining industry?
One of the biggest challenges was understanding the culture of MSHA and mining. I did not grow up in a mining community nor am I a mining engineer. I was fortunate to have some wonderful colleagues and mentors that helped to teach me.
Early in your career, you were part of a team that looked at two major mining disasters. How has that shaped your career as an engineer within MSHA?
The disasters where I responded shaped my career from the standpoint that I am a strong advocate for prevention work. That is why I think the work that we do in Technical Support is so important.
What advice do you have for young women entering the field (either engineering or MSHA)?
Trust your instincts, do not be afraid to ask questions, have a willingness to learn, advocate for yourself, get a mentor as soon as possible, do details to other positions, and when you start to climb the career ladder make sure you do mock interviews (you will thank me later).
Melanie Calhoun is director of technical support at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Follow MSHA on Twitter and Facebook.