Women engineers at Hanford guide others toward career success

November 8, 2021, 7:00AMRadwaste Solutions

A group of women engineers with Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) has established a series of monthly lunchtime presentations aimed at empowering and mentoring other women engineers. WRPS is the Department of Energy’s tank operations contractor at the Hanford Site, near Richland, Wash.

“Engineering is a very competitive field,” said Elaine Porcaro, chief engineer for the DOE’s Office of River Protection tank farms projects. “It is inspiring to see that these women have taken the initiative to establish a forum to support and promote each other, sharing their successes and key learnings in order to pave the way for other women to be successful.”


Stages: During the most recent virtual presentation, former Air Force captain Bree Smith shared what she has learned as a military leader and an engineer at Hanford. Smith and her husband, Greg, started working at WRPS after wrapping up their careers in the Air Force.

“In the military, we were 100 percent equal,” Smith said. “Here, we have had different opportunities, but only because we’re in different groups, and management opportunities opened up for him before they did for me.”

Learning process: Smith admits that it took her a while to vocalize her career goals. “When I started at WRPS, I was working on the 242-A Evaporator,” she said. “It didn’t take me long to realize that I don’t like pipes and valves. It was a different type of engineering than I had trained for, and I was timid because I felt inadequate in the mechanical engineering realm.”

Since its construction in 1977, the 242-A Evaporator facility has removed more than 81 million gallons of liquid from the site’s waste tanks.

Smith was determined to learn everything about the 242-A facility, as well as about waste tank operations. She was intentional about identifying her weaknesses, establishing a plan to overcome them, and then clarifying her career goals before sharing them with her manager and reaching out to other managers at WRPS.

“I had the opportunity to attend the Waste Management conference and meet fellow WRPS engineers, and that’s when I learned about other aspects of engineering on the site that were more to my liking,” Smith said.

Current work: Smith now works in the engineering group for the waste feed delivery operations and planning group at Hanford. Her presentation as part of the monthly Women in Engineering Speaker Series outlined foundational elements that women should consider while navigating their career paths:

  • Relationships: Establish workplace partnerships and mentorships with your coworkers and managers.
  • Engagement: Get involved in your company by volunteering for projects that may be outside of your normal scope or comfort zone.
  • Education and growth: Be curious about other aspects of your project and other projects and departments; ask for feedback from all avenues and find ways to apply it.
  • Enthusiasm: Seek out responsibilities that will help you gain experience and maturity; define your passions and correlate those to your professional goals.

Smith encourages women to be intentional about volunteering for leadership roles in their workplaces. She also seeks out opportunities to reach out to others through programs like the Women in Engineering Speaker Series to provide encouragement to other engineers who are trying to navigate their careers.

The speaker series, while led by and focusing on women engineers, is open to men and women in other career fields as well.