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  • Writer's pictureCaleb Jost

Dr. Jenn Donahue: “Remain Calm”

By: Ben Ari

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenn Donahue.

Jenn Donahue, PhD is a civil engineer, entrepreneur and military reserve officer who works on large scale, high profile geotechnical projects. Jenn has led earthquake and tsunami reconnaissance missions in places like Samoa and Japan; designed the seismic plans for a bridge over the Panama Canal; and built roads in the coldest climes of Ketchikan. During her 26-year military career, Jenn has built a bridge across the Euphrates river in the midst of the Iraq war, commanded a 400-personnel Battalion in Afghanistan, and constructed combat outposts in the middle of deserts filled with insurgents. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, or any of its components.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I started my engineering career at the ripe age of nine years old. After saving up several weeks’ worth of allowance, I bought the Barbie® Dream Home. I really wasn’t that much into Barbies, but I loved that Dream Home. I stayed home one day and tore it apart, put it together, then tore it apart again, and reconfigured it probably about 30 times. I don’t think Barbie ever got to live in the house because it was constantly being remodeled. Over the course of my life, I’ve realized that it I love to build, starting with the Barbie house, and moving on to bridges, runways, and buildings. But today, building means something more; I am passionate about building new leaders.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I wear many hats in my life: an entrepreneur, engineer, and mentor. I am a seismic engineer, and the essence of my work is understanding the dynamics between an earthquake and how much your site is going to shake. For instance, I consider all of the faults that surround your site and their characteristics: how long they are, how much do they slip a year, what is the possible magnitude of an earthquake, etc. Then depending on how far away your site is and if it is on super soft soil or rock, I’m able to give a reasonable probability as to how hard it’s going to shake. One of the projects I’m currently working on is a statewide seismic risk assessment to quantify the hazards that earthquakes can cause for California’s gas pipeline infrastructure. Not to be a total nerd, but it’s a really interesting crossroad between cutting-edge science and engineering.

I was a Lecturer for several semesters with UC Berkeley and UCLA. I absolutely love being a seismic engineer and am excited to share my experiences. Through these teaching engagements, it became clear that I want to motivate younger generations. I also enjoy giving back to the community. As part of this I’ve started doing speaking engagements for programs that promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). My topics have ranged from inciting interest in technical topics to improving softer skills such as leadership and mentorship.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

Before I get started, I just need to state that the views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, or any of its components.

When I was a senior at Texas A&M, I witnessed my friends going to Houston for job interviews and realized I wasn’t ready for that. I needed to get out and see the world! I looked at the different uniformed services and found that the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) best fit my skill set. After graduating from Officer Candidate School in 1996, I got my wish and was stationed on lots of islands to include Guam, Puerto Rico, and Annette Island. CEC officers are in charge of building and maintaining the infrastructure for the Navy and Marine Corps. After leaving active duty, I remained an active reservist. I have served in multiple Naval Mobile Construction Battalions and have been recalled to active duty to serve in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have led teams of 4 to 400.

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