Alumni Profile: Laura Amundson, (BCE 1978) Vice President & Project Manager, WSP
By Deb Barnes
LAURA AMUNDSON has been designing, inspecting, and rehabilitating bridges for more than 40 years. She still remembers her first class. “My first class was the introductory soils course, taught by Dr. Miles Kersten. I was a bit of a lost lamb!” recalls Amundson. “I think he saw that I was struggling with something, and he helped me. He had a demeanor of, ‘you can do this!’ He got me going, and I thought, ‘okay, I can do this!’ He was a very good teacher, and a gentleman.” And she remembers her first university field trip. Professor Ladislav Cerny believed the students in his prestressed concrete class would benefit from a visit to a construction site to be able to visualize how the prestressed components were constructed. “It was important to see how it was done in the field,” says Amundson.
Since her graduation in 1978, Amundson’s entire career has been spent in consulting engineering, first as a design engineer, and the last 31 years at WSP where now, as vice president, she serves as a structures leader and project manager in the firm’s Minneapolis office. Her career path had its roots in the math and science classes she was drawn to early on. “At the time, my dad was in the burgeoning computer industry, so he suggested engineering,” she noted. “Civil was something I chose on my own. I love seeing the projects that I have been involved with being built. You don’t stay in this career for long if you don’t love doing that,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work on some pretty tremendous projects with WSP.”
A project that stands out in her mind was the rehabilitation in the early 1990’s of the 7,975-foot John A. Blatnik Bridge over Saint Louis Bay, which carries traffic on Interstate 535 between Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin. The bridge, which crests at nearly 120 feet above the water, accommodates the seaway shipping channel. Its 600-foot through-arch on the main span carries a suspended deck structure over the channel; deck trusses support the approach spans. “It was a real growth opportunity for me,” she said. “Rehabilitations are fussy types of projects, with a lot of details. It was really fun to be able to see those details at that stage of my career.”
Amundson continues to be involved with the Blatnik Bridge. She is leading a project to look at the condition and the load-carrying capacity of the structure to fill the knowledge gaps in the structure’s condition. Core samples have been taken of the deck to determine its compressive strength and chloride levels; grout samples were extracted from the post-tensioned pier encasements installed back in the ’90s and tested; the paint’s been analyzed. Last summer, her group teamed up with the University of Minnesota-Duluth to perform a shortterm load test using strain gauges. “We ran loaded dump trucks across the bridge from 1 o’clock in the morning until 5 o’clock in the morning. We tested a couple of the approach spans, and then we tested the truss and gathered some interesting data that’s helped us hone the load rating and modeling work we’re doing.”
Like many other Departments of Transportation, MnDOT and WisDOT would like more detailed information on the condition of their larger structures. Modern technologies — like the use of drones outfitted with GPS systems and high-resolution cameras to inspect the underside of bridge structures — have streamlined their ongoing efforts to monitor their infrastructure and prioritize bridge replacement projects. But Amundson’s not at all surprised at the juxtaposition of old-school techniques — running dump trucks over a bridge span, for example — with modern technologies like using ground-penetrating radar on Blatnik’s bridge decks. “It’s been an interesting mixture of high-tech and low-tech information gathering,” she noted.
Following the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007, WSP served as prime consultant to MnDOT and inspected many of the agency’s bridges. Amundson served as project manager. “I’m really proud of how we and our subconsultant partners rose to the occasion to support MnDOT in that effort,” she recalled. “We had 50-plus people in the field at one time traveling around the state.”
Amundson’s long involvement in professional organizations began back when she became an ASCE student member. She served as the Minnesota Section’s president from 1995-96, the first woman to do so. “ASCE is about maintaining technical excellence, and I did a lot of networking,” she said.
As a member of Minnesota Surveyors and Engineers Society, Amundson has actively fundraised for student scholarships. “It’s for the good of the industry, and it’s just been really fun.”
She is also an active member of Women’s Transportation Seminar. “Its mission is to advance the careers of women in transportation, and they do that so well,” she said. “We have a very active WTS chapter in Minnesota.”
Lately, Amundson has invested more of her energy into Engineers Without Borders. “Professional organizations give you a chance to learn and grow your leadership potential,” she noted. “EWB’s a great opportunity to give back in a meaningful way.”
She’s worked with EWB’s Chicagoland Professional Chapter on a large water project near San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The residents of tiny Armenta only received water one day each week. The complex project involved construction of a small dam at the water source, transmission lines, bridges to convey the piping system, and a 55,000-gallon tank
Amundson believes it is important for alumni and professionals to interact with students. “It’s important for students to really see and understand the world beyond school. School can get insular, and the world beyond it is the workday world that we’re in. That’s why internships are so important. And it’s important for me to understand the things that students are doing: the curriculum, the classrooms, what they’re studying, changes in the world.”
For the past year, Amundson has served as a mentor to EWB’s UMN Student Chapter. A current project is the two-phase construction of a water distribution system in the small town of Paraxaj, Guatemala. Residents were unable to source water from the town’s hand-dug wells during the region’s dry season. An EWB-UMN student team traveled to Paraxaj in 2017 to collect data to help determine an optimal location for a new, mechanically drilled well. Last August, Amundson accompanied the student group and installed a holding tank, a 2,000-foot supply line from the new well, 5,000 feet of distribution piping, and six public-access tap stands throughout the community. Amundson will again accompany student members this spring as they begin installing 163 tap stands at individual homes, a project scheduled for completion this summer.
“You have to hone in on certain technical skills, but as a corollary to that, hone your soft skills: people skills, speaking skills, leadership skills. employers and your colleagues view them as important. I’m an advocate of being involved in a professional group, it’s an important part of developing those skills. Be a lifelong learner. give back to your community, whether it’s through a professional group, your church, or your neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to get out there!”
Mentors play a significant part in quality assurance, she said, so she takes her role seriously. She recalled a recent visit to Saint Anthony Falls Laboratory, where EWB-UMN students constructed prototypes of the tap stands to select the best design idea. “This prototype development, it’s so important. They built them to see where the challenges lie, to see how much time it takes — because 163 tap stands is a lot! I give them so much credit for doing that: there’s a learning curve, how to use power tools, and things like that. The students are very well organized and they’re incredibly thoughtful, but there are some practical and pragmatic things that mentors can help them with.”
She freely admits it’s a learning experience for her, too, as it differs from her managerial role on the dozens of bridges and highway projects she has led through the decades. “This is a student-led organization, and I’m a mentor, so it’s less about me being a project manager and saying, ‘Nope, we’re doing it this way’ — it’s more about me being there and asking questions. ‘Does it really make sense to do it this way?’ and ‘What are you going to do with the rebar?’ And they’re so collaborative and supportive of each other! The travel team knits itself together pretty quickly. Every night we got back to the place where we were staying in Guatemala, and everybody sat down and asked, ‘What worked?’ ‘What didn’t?’ ‘What can we do better?’ Every day, there was that reflection. You have to let them make a few mistakes here and there and then learn from it, and they did.”
And how about her Spanish? “Oh, I’m good at pantomiming,” Amundson said, laughing. “I have one year of high school Spanish, and I rely heavily on our interpreters, but in all seriousness: pantomiming goes pretty far when you’re building stuff.”
Amundson’s experience managing multidisciplinary transportation projects has served her well on the Metropolitan Council’s Southwest Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, where collaboration has been critical to the project’s success. She served as the structures lead on the $800 million civil bid package for the “structures-rich” project, which broke ground in December. The 14.5-mile double track will extend the Green Line route from Target Field in Minneapolis to Southwest Station in Eden Prairie. When the dust settles, the structures tally will stand at 29 new bridges, six pedestrian tunnels, seven modified bridges, two cut-and-cover LRT tunnels, and more than 100 retaining walls.
Chief among her challenges over the four-year design project was ensuring technical and plan consistency: the design work was parceled out to different firms, and multiple design teams worked within each firm. “A lot of people really rose to the occasion,” she said.
Teamwork is key to managing a project of this magnitude, and Amundson credits an array of life experiences for preparing her for her role. She recommends that every civil engineering student do as much as possible to gain a wide variety of experience while they are still in school.
“You have to hone in on certain technical skills, but as a corollary to that, hone your soft skills: people skills, speaking skills, leadership skills. Employers and your colleagues view them as important. I’m an advocate of being involved in a professional group, it’s an important part of developing those skills. Be a lifelong learner. Give back to your community, whether it’s the professional group, your church, or your neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to get out there!”
Deb Barnes, PE, is owner of Little Red Pen Publishing, which offers technical communication and editing services. She can be reached at email@example.com.