Lindsey Roberts McKenzie: Water Resources Engineer

  • Name: Lindsey Roberts McKenzie

  • Education: M.E. Engineering Management, University of Colorado at Boulder; B.S. Civil Engineering, North Dakota State University
  • Target Audience: Middle School

Sometimes you have to swap your umbrella for a raft! On average, 80 people in the US die each year due to flooding caused by heavy rainfall or dam failure. Lindsey Roberts McKenzie, and other Water Resource Engineers around the country work to keep us safe from flooding through floodplain management and dam engineering. Read on to learn why water resource engineering may be the perfect the career for you!

What is your job? 

imageI work as a project and water resources engineer in our Heavy Civil Department. A majority of the projects that I work on relate to flood control and flood plain management. I have also worked on projects to help mitigate invasive species in Minnesota lakes.

Why did you choose this career?

I initially wanted a career in architecture, but decided that I was lacking the creative piece that architects need. There's a joke that architects make buildings pretty, but engineers help them stand up. So, before entering my first year of college I decided that I was better suited for a career in civil engineering. I felt that civil engineering was a natural step away from architecture.

Explain what an average day at work is like for you.

When I wear my project engineer hat, my main role is to act as a line of communication and leadership between the technical design team and the project manager. My job is to support the project manager, as well as bring all of the parts of the design from each technical team together into one complete design package. When I wear my water resources engineer hat, some of my tasks include hydrologic and hydraulic modeling, floodplain mapping and analysis, and the design of storm water management features as part of permanent flood control systems.

What do you like best about your job?

A typical day can include project construction site visits, design meetings with technical team members, progress meetings with clients and design time on my own. I am also fortunate to have a company who supports my efforts with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and my current status as a graduate student, so I also spend some time during the day working on items as part of my SWE job and my course work.

I really enjoy seeing projects from start to finish. It's also quite satisfying knowing that the projects I work on help protect people and their property, as well as help make their lives a bit easier. Making life easier for everyone is the goal of every engineer.

imageWhen you were a kid, did you like science, engineering and/or math?

I liked both science and math. I really enjoyed science because it allowed me to problem solve and work with my hands. All of my science teachers used a lot of hands on activities, which made class fun and engaging.

Was there a moment when you knew that you wanted to become an engineer? Tell us about it.

There wasn't really one defining moment in my life that led to engineering. I think my thoughts of becoming an engineer/scientist started when I was fairly young and evolved throughout my younger years. I really liked building and making things. I loved Legos and did a lot of word and number puzzles, as well as the typical kinds of puzzles. I was also active in 4H, where I learned things like cooking, canning, baking and sewing. Though the activities I did in 4H don't really associate with engineering, they all have math and science components to them. I was also heavily involved in sports, so I knew I wanted to work in a team atmosphere that had challenges.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an engineer? 

I think just getting started in the civil engineering program at North Dakota State University was my biggest challenge. I found that the program was much more difficult than anything I had encountered in high school. My courses in college required an entirely different level of preparation for class. I feel like I spent my whole freshman year of college studying.

Was there a person who inspired or convinced you to get involved inimage your field? 

I think it was a combination of people. My uncle, Randy, is also a civil engineer, so he enlightened me on what a civil engineer does as a professional and what I could do as a career with a civil engineering degree. My parents, noticing my interests as a child and teenager, encouraged me to seek a career in a science or math field. There are many people in my family who have science based careers - my dad is an agronomist, my mom is a nurse, my sister is a nurse, my step-dad designs fire trucks and my step-mom is a teacher. My grandmother had a nursing degree and my grandfather had an engineering degree as well. Also, I have many aunts, uncles and cousins with science/math based degrees.

Do you have any suggestions for how kids in middle school can gain real world experience in your field?

I think office visits and shadows are great at this age. Continuing to be part of youth groups like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts is also beneficial. Keep a watch out for any summer based programs or camps geared towards STEM too - in addition to learning something new you can keep your brain working over the summer. You are never too old for a science museum!


Which courses would you recommend to incoming high school students?

Take as many science and math courses as possible and take advanced placement courses if available. Not only could these courses count towards college credit within your program and save you money on your tuition, they will help you be better prepared for the first and second year courses required for engineering students. Also, take any classes that allow you to work in teams doing hands on activities, like shop class. In addition to course work, participating on extra-curricular teams, whether it is sports, drama, band, etc. will help you become better prepared for team-work in a job. It's important to learn to listen and respect others, as well as to collaborate and work toward a common goal.

Are there exciting things happening in your field that could involve kids who will enter the field in 10-15 years?

I think the biggest challenge that will face new engineers in 10-15 years will be how to support our earth's growing population in terms of infrastructure. Civil engineers will continue to be in charge of creating adequate roads, bridges, clean water systems and sanitary systems that can support the needs of the world's population - while making sure Mother Nature is kept safe and clean as well.

A Flood of Facts:

  • Flash floods can catch people unprepared, as they occur within six hours of a rain event, or after a dam or levee failure.
  • Hurricane Katrina and the following flood was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with the estimated cost of damages rose above $81 billion. Eighty-one percent of New Orleans was underwater.
  • In terms of total number of flash flood reports in the U.S., the state of Texas comes in with the most reports, at an average of 587 per year.

(adapted from,

Water-Wise Words:

Agronomist - deals with the cultivation of land, soil management, and crop production
Flood - a great flowing or overflowing of water, especially over land not usually submerged
Flood plain - a nearly flat plain along the course of a stream or river that is naturally subject to flooding
Hydraulic - operated by, moved by, or employing water or other liquids in motion
Hydrologic - distribution, conservation or use of the water of the earth and its atmosphere, particularly at the land surface
Invasive Species - non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.
4H - an organization sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, established chiefly to instruct young people, originally in rural areas, in modern farming methods and other useful skills, as carpentry and home economics.

(adapted from