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INWED 2022 - A Conversation with Caitlin Patterson

September 19, 2022
Caitlin Patterson, engineer, Thornton Tomasetti
A high-altitude plateau in the Italian village of Seiser Alm, one of the most stunning locations where Caitlin has competitively skied.

To honor women engineers at Thornton Tomasetti, Women@TT's Global Programming Committee is sharing stories about remarkable women. Caitlin Patterson is an engineer in our Portland office, working in the Structural Engineering practice. She has been at Thornton Tomasetti for about five months. Thornton Tomasetti values diversity and Caitlin’s background illustrates the richness that comes from her extraordinary experiences outside engineering. Linda Warren, Director of Learning, conducted the interview.


Linda  Caitlin, tell me about your background – your experiences before you joined Thornton Tomasetti.

Caitlin  I took undergrad engineering courses at the University of Vermont and graduated in 2012. I took a detour before getting my first full-time engineering job here at Thornton Tomasetti. In college, I was a Division 1 athlete in cross country skiing. While I liked engineering a lot, I had a passion for skiing so upon graduation, I joined a professional ski racing team based in Craftsbury, Vermont. Starting out I did not expect to spend 10 years as a skier, but I kept getting better and really enjoyed the training and racing. While I had the knowledge and skills to compete, there was room to grow so I trained hard every day and made many incremental improvements. I won my first US National Championship title in 2016 and qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics, where I raced to 26th place in the 30k Classic in Pyeongchang, South Korea. In the years since, I’ve been a member of the US delegation to the 2019 World Ski Championships and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, as well as adding several more titles for a total of 11 US National Championship titles in cross country skiing and two in ski mountaineering.

Linda  That’s impressive! You were focused on something so different from engineering. As you were immersed in skiing, did you do anything in engineering?

Caitlin  Yes, during college summers I spent time in Alaska and did an engineering internship there. In addition, while training with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project team in Vermont, I interned with an architect and helped work on the design of a ski lodge. We did everything from considering pedestrian traffic flow to thinking about the purpose of the structure, use of space and sustainable materials. I was able to attend project meetings, and even had the chance to personally help lay radiant floor heat tubing in the concrete slab. It was a great perspective to see a local project from the start through completion and use. Work on this project made me aware that I wanted to get back into engineering when the time was right.

Linda  Has it been a challenge to work as an engineer 10 years after getting your undergraduate degree?

Caitlin  Yes, it certainly has been a challenge, to wake up my intellectual side and be able to problem solve and learn new methods and skills. It helped that two years ago I enrolled in a master’s degree program online through Johns Hopkins University, which started to re-orient my mind towards engineering tasks again. I’ve taken five courses and have several more to go with that program, and I’m looking forward to combining on-the-job practical skills with the more theoretical focus of academics.

Linda  What is it like to move from being an elite athlete to starting over as an entry-level engineer?

Caitlin  I have to say it's a little bit uncomfortable at times. I'm not used to being really slow at something or to being a novice. Right now, I'm very slow at reading codes and problem solving, but I'm also seeing improvements and there are definitely parallels to athletic training. I know there is a lot of room for growth, and with effort, I’ll make progress, as the small steps every day contribute towards a bigger goal of expertise and the ability to efficiently contribute my help to project teams.

Linda  Does your experience as an athlete have any influence on how you work as an engineer?

Caitlin  Each year in skiing I would set goals — a result goal or a process goal or some of both. Working every day in training, making small steps towards my goals, helped me keep the daily sessions in perspective and give them purpose. I know what it’s like to take small steps in the right direction and how that leads you towards a big goal. This sense of perspective has big parallels to the engineering realm, as we need to keep in perspective the big projects and big goals that we’re working on, through everyday calculations and work. I’m learning all the time here at Thornton Tomasetti, reading resources and asking questions as I work through the process. I know it will take time to get to where I want to be as an engineer and to pick up expertise, just like it will take all of us many months or years to see a project from start to finish.

Linda  What’s your first impression of working in the Portland office?

Caitlin  It's great to be here in the office in Portland, where everyone is focused on the important projects at hand but also very gracious with their time and happy to help as I learn the ropes. It’s fun to be here with the Structural Engineering practice in addition to the Sustainability practice, so that I am hearing conversations about green building standards such as LEED as well as insights on structural design. I’m excited to see greater interactions and intersections between Structures and Sustainability in the future.

Linda  As we wrap up, I’m wondering if your skiing and worldwide travel have exposed you to influences that will shape your approach to engineering.

Caitlin  I've done quite a bit of traveling around the world for ski racing. My time in Scandinavia left strong impressions, as they use lots of wood and have a distinctive and efficient building style. I’m very excited to be in Portland with Thornton Tomasetti especially because of the expertise with mass timber in this office. I hope I can apply what I’ve seen and learned about building types, flow and patterns. Starting out in this field, it is a bit overwhelming to get up to speed with so much specialized knowledge and terminology; however, it is exciting to be part of this new team and to have the chance to contribute to many fantastic projects coming up.


Working every day in training, making small steps towards my goals, helped me keep the daily sessions in perspective and give them purpose. I know what it’s like to take small steps in the right direction and how that leads you towards a big goal.
—  Caitlin Patterson, Engineer, Thornton Tomasetti

Linda  Does your experience as an athlete have any influence on how you work as an engineer?

Caitlin  Each year in skiing I would set goals — a result goal or a process goal or some of both. Working every day in training, making small steps towards my goals, helped me keep the daily sessions in perspective and give them purpose. I know what it’s like to take small steps in the right direction and how that leads you towards a big goal. This sense of perspective has big parallels to the engineering realm, as we need to keep in perspective the big projects and big goals that we’re working on, through everyday calculations and work. I’m learning all the time here at Thornton Tomasetti, reading resources and asking questions as I work through the process. I know it will take time to get to where I want to be as an engineer and to pick up expertise, just like it will take all of us many months or years to see a project from start to finish.

Linda  What’s your first impression of working in the Portland office?

Caitlin  It's great to be here in the office in Portland, where everyone is focused on the important projects at hand but also very gracious with their time and happy to help as I learn the ropes. It’s fun to be here with the Structural Engineering practice in addition to the Sustainability practice, so that I am hearing conversations about green building standards such as LEED as well as insights on structural design. I’m excited to see greater interactions and intersections between Structures and Sustainability in the future.

Linda  As we wrap up, I’m wondering if your skiing and worldwide travel have exposed you to influences that will shape your approach to engineering.

Caitlin  I've done quite a bit of traveling around the world for ski racing. My time in Scandinavia left strong impressions, as they use lots of wood and have a distinctive and efficient building style. I’m very excited to be in Portland with Thornton Tomasetti especially because of the expertise with mass timber in this office. I hope I can apply what I’ve seen and learned about building types, flow and patterns. Starting out in this field, it is a bit overwhelming to get up to speed with so much specialized knowledge and terminology; however, it is exciting to be part of this new team and to have the chance to contribute to many fantastic projects coming up.

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