Thzaira Charles, P.E. is a registered Professional Engineer in the state of New York. She currently works for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency responsible for the regional infrastructure in the NY/NJ area including ports, airports, tunnels and bridges, as a Staff Services Environmental Engineer. In her role at the Port Authority, Ms. Charles is responsible for the environmental compliance management for construction projects for the New York Airports (John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Stewart Airport) and ensuring that the tenants of the Port Authority maintain environmental compliance. She received her Masters of Engineering degree in Chemical Engineering from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art Albert Nerken School of Engineering in New York City with a concentration in Environmental Engineering. Ms. Charles also received her Bachelors of Engineering degree in Chemical Engineering from Cooper Union.
On your daily commute, you may cross bridges, ride through tunnels, or pass airports, but you probably haven’t thought about the people who make environmental decisions for the construction and maintenance of those projects. Yet that’s precisely what Thzaira Charles, an environmental engineer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, does every day.
Why I Joined the UCS Science Network
This organization highlights the importance of thinking about how change is actually brought about in the United States, especially in areas that are either mandated by the government or required by regulation. It’s great to have ideas, but without policy makers and the change champions backing these great ideas and seeing that they are implemented, actual change on a national scale can be very slow if it happens at all. [We need to] frame ideas so that they are understandable by the general public—because let’s face it, techno-speak is very intimidating to the non-technical community. Since not everyone has the opportunity to work as a technical person with non-technical team members in the public sector, UCS is a fantastic vehicle to gain that insight.
Building a stronger STEM workforce
Communication skills are just as essential for engineers as they are for other professionals, and Charles uses her communication skills to foster positive professional relationships and environmental awareness among other engineers. When she was a student at Cooper Union, Charles joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and enjoyed the opportunity to meet other engineering students when the challenging course load would otherwise have made it difficult. As a member for 24 years, she now volunteers as the director of the Environmental Engineering Special Interest Group, where she focuses on generating environmental awareness in the technical workplace.
One of the projects Charles currently oversees is the creation of an Education Advocacy Workgroup, which will provide speakers, presentations, projects, and mentoring to the South Bend Career Academy. Charles is also excited about developing an international workgroup that will build programs and facilitate collaboration between the NSBE groups in the U.S. and in the international African community.
In the future, Charles would like to see more collaboration between NSBE’s Environmental Engineering Special Interest group and the Public Policy Special interest Group, so that the environmental engineers will be able to be more active in the policy-making process. To this collaboration as well, she brings her belief that it all boils down to communication. Sometimes technical experts get so bogged down in the data that “we forget the message—we don’t realize the message is the most important thing.” When talking with policymakers, “the data is the back-up. Scientists tend to think the other way, ‘Show me the data!’ but we have to realize that we need to get the message out there.”
Innovating and communicating in service to the public
Charles grew up in New York and developed a strong interest in math and science at an early age. After finishing her college, she realized that the emerging field of environmental engineering would provide more chances for innovation in her career and took her first environmental engineering position at the former Woodward-Clyde Consultants Group.
Today at the Port Authority, Thzaira manages a variety of environmental aspects of large construction projects including storm-water management, environmental regulation compliance, and waste management. Working on such large scale projects, Thzaira has learned the importance of being able to communicate technical concepts and ideas to a non-technical audience.
“Something I learned is that technical people speak a language all their own, and they think that everyone speaks that language,” Charles asserts. In these situations, she has found it helpful to think of her sister, “who is a fantastic cook—while I barely get around the kitchen. There are some cooking shows I watch, and it’s like, ‘I can’t watch this. My sister would appreciate it, but I have no idea what all of this chopping and dicing and roasting is.’ It helps for her to put herself in those shoes, of an outsider looking in. “I’m just trying to find a simple, everyday language,” she explains.
Working in the public sector for almost 15 years has provided Charles with the opportunity to learn about a wide range of subjects above and beyond engineering, as she has worked with both technical and non-technical professionals. For Charles, these experiences have reinforced her belief in the importance of effective communication, and whether it’s at her job or her volunteer work, she will continue to strive towards improving communication between engineers and the public.