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Q&A: Talking with ENR National Top 20 Under 40 Class of 2020 Honoree, Menzer Pehlivan

ENR’s 2020 National Top 20 under 40 winner, Geotechnical Earthquake Engineer and Jacobs’ OneWorld Employee Network Global Co-Chair Menzer Pehlivan talks career, earthquake recovery and resiliency, cultural inclusion and global connectivity.

This year, Jacobs is proud to have six Engineering News-Record (ENR) Top Young Professionals to congratulate. We're so proud of how they're each bringing our tagline: challenging today, reinventing tomorrow to their roles. 

Join us in celebrating John Parham, Chitwan Saluja, Menzer Pehlivan, Katie Warner, Robert Poche and Amirpasha Peyvandi with a series of interviews with these young pros. 

In honor of International Women in Engineering Day, we connected virtually with Jacobs Geotechnical Engineer, star of “Dream Big”, Global Co-Chair of Jacobs OneWorld Employee Network, and ENR’s National Top 20 Under 40 and ENR Northwest Top Young Professional honoree Menzer Pehlivan to talk career, earthquake recovery and resiliency, cultural inclusion, and global connectivity.

What’s your favorite part of your role?

My favorite part is actually having the ability to hold several roles and work on several areas I am passionate about. As a geotechnical engineer specializing in earthquake engineering, I get the opportunity to contribute to increase the seismic resiliency of communities I live and work in by being part of major projects. I am also one of the members of the ASCE 7 Building Code Updating Committee on Seismic Ground Motions and through that involvement I have the opportunity to contribute advancing state of the practice in earthquake engineering. As the Global Co-Chair of Jacobs’ OneWorld Employee Network, I get the opportunity to advocate for inclusion around cultural and ethnic diversity and raise awareness around cultural intelligence across our company, and work with an amazing global team. I also have the opportunity to drive the inclusion and diversity within the industry, as the founding chair of the Outreach and Engagement Committee of the ASCE Geo-Institute. As a member of the Future of Work core team, I’m now working with a visionary group from different technical backgrounds to drive an initiative that will have shape on how we will be working as a company in the future. I also am the member of the ASCE Preparing the Future Civil Engineer Committee that focuses on ensuring today’s civil engineers are equipped with necessary tools and knowledge to be successful leaders in future workforce with our Engineer Tomorrow Initiative.     

We’re publishing this article in honor of International Women in Engineering Day. What inspired you to explore your own career in STEAM?

There’s an entire documentary about it! [Author’s Note: Stream “Dream Big” now on Netflix.]

I believe inspiration can come from many different places and through our journeys our inspirations might change. The important part is to have the courage to go after our inspirations, and do not give up on them. My inspiration has been to be someone who makes a difference. As geotechnical engineer specializing in earthquake engineering, my inspiration is to make a difference by contributing to make our communities resilient to natural disasters after experiencing a devastating earthquake in Turkey, my home country while I was 13. As a woman in engineering, I am inspired to make a difference by inspiring the next generation to pursue careers in STEM overcoming stereotypes about what engineering is and what an engineer should look like. As a chair of a global employee network that focuses on fostering cultural inclusion and diversity and global connectivity, I am inspired to make a difference by helping increase cultural intelligence across our company while creating a more connected network across the globe. And as a team member of Future of Work initiative, I am inspired to make a difference by be a part of industry leading effort that will define how we work in the future not just within Jacobs, but also within our industry.   

This year’s #INWED theme is #ShapeTheWorld – as a geotechnical engineer and earthquake specialist you’ve been involved in several emergency recovery efforts to shape a more resilient tomorrow. Tell us a bit about what a typicalearthquake reconnaissance effort is like.  

While every earthquake reconnaissance effort is different and location specific, all have one thing in common – the response needs to be fast. The reconnaissance team needs to be deployed and act very quickly because the evidences with respect to seismic behavior, especially the geotechnical ones, are perishable. We often send deploy two teams, first team goes to the affected area and identifies areas where main failures were observed and develops relationships with the local experts and professionals. The second team is often deployed to visit the main areas of interest as identified by the first team and to make more detailed observations that can help advance the state of the art and the state of the practice of earthquake engineering. The team is on site for a limited amount of time and often a major earthquake affects a big region, therefore the team work between the reconnaissance members is very important. We divide the team into groups with specific focus areas, each team travels across the affected region during the day (sometimes couple days depending on location) and the team meets back to discuss the observations and findings. I have had the opportunity to participate in two earthquake reconnaissances with Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) team after 2015 Nepal and 2017 Mexico Earthquakes. GEER is a non-profit organization funded by National Science Foundation (NSF) formed of members of geotechnical earthquake professionals. During the Nepal earthquake I co-lead the reconnaissance efforts related to basin and site amplification and response of Hydropower plants during the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes and during the 2017 Mexico Earthquake our team focused on the subsidence effects on buried infrastructure.  The findings of the reconnaissance surveys revealed important information on advancing modeling of basin effects on predicting design ground accelerations for projects that are designed in deep basin areas, such as Seattle, WA.

Earthquake reconnaissance efforts are not only important because they play a key role in advancing the earthquake engineering profession but they also create a valuable opportunity for global connectivity across the with the local engineers and provide an opportunity to transfer the knowledge to help influence advancement in greater geographies across the world.

After each reconnaissance effort team quickly puts together a report documenting field observations, providing interested researchers and professionals data to do further research and analysis on.

If you aren’t working, what would we be most likely to find you doing?

I would most likely be traveling whether to give an invited talk, to lead or attend committee meetings of the professional organizations I serve at, to attend a tango marathon or to see my close friends.

That would be pre-pandemic times of course! If I am not travelling you would find me running around Lake Union in Seattle, sailing with friends in summer, snowboarding in winter, or dancing any season.

 Most interesting career moment?

Definitely the call I got from the producers of Dream Big, MacGillivray Freeman asking me if I would be interested in sharing my story and being a part of “Dream Big.”

What’s something you learned in the last week?

Basic phrases in Hindi. Our Jacobs OneWorld Network, which is focuses on cultural and ethnic inclusion and diversity at Jacobs hosts Language 101 classes. After a series of Italian 101, we recently had a Hindi 101 – great way for our people to connect across globe and introduce our colleagues to our different languages spoken across our Jacobs.

What’s a story that your family always tells about you?

I guess there are few popular ones they like to tell. One that I did not start talking until I was three. But when I did, I started talking with full sentences and without making any mistake in any words. My whole family uses this one when I achieve an award or success saying, “We all knew she was special then.”

Another where my mom took me to a jeweler to buy me earrings when I was three right around when I started talking. Obviously, I liked a pair that was different than the pair she wanted to get me. She being a mom tried to get me to want what she liked saying “We are either getting this pair (pointing the pair she liked) or nothing” and I replied saying, “Okay, your choice.  Then, I do not want earrings.” She and the jeweler were shocked by my response and after trying to convince me a bit more, she ended up getting me the earrings I liked. This is the story she tells when she reminds me that I always knew what I wanted and never settled for less.

Maybe the most popular one is the many times I got lost as a kid. My mom used to have a store in one of the summer towns in Turkey and we would spend summers there. Fantastic place. There were couple times I guess that they left me unattended, and I just decided going for a walk by myself when I was around five or six years old. In all, they have spent couple hours looking for me across the town! Once I was eating grilled corn at the entrance of the amusement park with a street seller, another time I somehow ran into the mayor of the town and was talking with him sitting on a sidewalk about my career aspirations. And yet another, they found me in a bus terminal. When they asked why I left, I said I decided wander around the tow – luckily nothing happened. I never like staying put in a place, still love wandering around places I live/visit.

People would be surprised to know that I….

Have a gold medal in snowboarding. I’m assuming everyone already knows that I star in a 3D IMAX film that is currently on Netflix!

What do you enjoy most about being part of the Jacobs family?

I really believe in our core values: we do things right, we challenge the accepted, we aim higher and we live inclusion. Working with a talented group of people driving initiatives and finding engineering solution with the same core values that not only bring positive change to communities we serve but also to industries we serve at. Another thing I truly enjoy is being able to connect with colleagues living across the globe and getting to make friends in new places that I have never been and learn about their cultures and customs.

What’s your advice to others looking to “dream big?”

Hard work always pays off and be courageous to take on the opportunities that  will push you out of your comfort zone. It’s important to be true to yourself, pay attention to things you have the energy for doing regardless of how busy you might be – those build your personal brand and help you realize your passions.

The best advice I can perhaps give for others is be their unique selves, believe in their potential, and hold on to their values and inspirations.

However, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of finding mentors, sponsors, and coaches. As one of my favorite quotes for Outliers by Malcom Gladwell says “No one-not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses-ever makes it alone.” We all need someone to believe in us when we cannot.


Inspired by her own experience with a devastating earthquake, Dr. Menzer Pehlivan, star of the film, “Dream Big” and Jacobs geotechnical engineer focuses her day-to-day on the possibilities of what if… what if life safety and building design went hand-in-hand, if site conditions and uncertainties influenced planning and response, if we could prevent future devastation? Meet Menzer.

About Jacobs
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At Jacobs, we’re always looking for dynamic and engaged people to join our team. Bring your passion, your ingenuity and your vision. Let’s see the impact we can create, together.

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