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Take it from this Engineer and Movie Star...if You Can Dream It, You Can Be It


In the early morning hours of Aug. 17, 1999, as the Kocaeli earthquake shook her apartment and home country of Turkey, Menzer Pehlivan – a teenage girl with dreams of becoming an actress – awoke in fear. 

Even though the epicenter was nearly 200 miles away, Menzer says her high-rise apartment in the capital city of Ankara shook strongly as the 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked much of the country.

Luckily, her family survived the earthquake mostly unscathed. Unfortunately, their country had not. A huge portion of northwest Turkey was reduced to rubble. City block after city block had collapsed, more than 250,000 families were without a home, and the death toll climbed by thousands. Though just 13-years-old, Menzer was not content to process the earthquake through the eyes of a typical teenager. 

She wanted answers. She wanted to help. And that’s how her civil engineering career began. 

She began studying civil engineering at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. During her undergraduate work, Menzer reviewed the Kocaeli earthquake and was amazed to discover - thousands of lives could have been spared if the structures had been designed to satisfy life safety criteria. 

For her master’s research, she focused on the phenomenon of soil liquefaction, one of the main causes of the failures caused by the Kocaeli earthquake. Later, during doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Menzer looked at the effects of variable site conditions and associated uncertainties on site response and on incorporating those uncertainties into the probabilistic prediction of ground response during earthquake shaking.

But while it seems like Menzer was destined to follow the engineering career path from the start, she met hesitation at first. 

“In high school, one of my teachers asked the class what we wanted to be. Most of the boys said they wanted to become an engineer, and that’s what I said too,” she shares. “But my teacher’s immediate response was, ‘Menzer, come on. You cannot be a civil engineer.’ And my gut reaction was, ‘Well, why not?’”

To be accepted into a university that offered civil engineering, you needed to score within the top 2,000 of 2.5 million students to get into the program, she explains.

She shares, “I was the only one of my classmates to become a civil engineer. There’s something really triggering when someone says you cannot do something, and it was a huge encouragement for me.”

That’s one of the messages at the heart of the IMAX film, Dream Big: Engineering Our World, which takes viewers on a journey of discovery from the world’s tallest building to a bridge higher than the clouds, showing more than the ingenuity behind these marvels by revealing the heart that drives engineers to create a better world. 

“Dream Big shows that engineering is not just about math and science, but it’s more about imagination, innovation and creation – and of course problem-solving,” says Menzer.

The film addresses these points in a creative way, using the personal stories of four different engineers – one of them Menzer herself – to show the world a new way to look at engineering. 

“My hope is that viewers walk away from the movie with a better understanding of what engineers do that make our lives better every day,” says Menzer. “The daily things we’re using, and doing and living in are actually the creation and imagination of an engineer.” 

Since the film’s release nearly a year ago, Menzer’s mission – when she isn’t helping with reconnaissance efforts following the Sept. 19, 2017, central Mexico earthquake, presenting her research findings at international conferences to help advance findings in earthquake engineering, or in the office working on challenging infrastructure projects – has been continuing to spread the film’s message to a more diverse generation of engineers of all ages, ethnicity and gender. 

Interestingly, her civil engineering experience has helped Menzer fulfill her childhood dream of becoming an actress with a starring role in a major movie. Since the movie’s premiere, more than 1 million people have seen Dream Big, and Menzer has attended 14 different screenings and events in cities around the U.S. and Canada. 

“Children often don't understand that examples of engineering are all around them,” she adds. “Dream Big shines a bright light on some of the world’s most exciting and thought-provoking infrastructure and teaches students that if they can dream it, they can be it.”

Menzer Pehlivan, Ph.D., P.E., is a Jacobs geotechnical engineer specializing in seismic hazards analysis, seismic resiliency and performance-based earthquake engineering design of infrastructure systems, hospitals, nuclear facilities and other structures. One of the American Society of Civil Engineers 2016 New Faces of Civil Engineering Professionals and 2017 recipient of ASCE’s President's Medal, she has been actively involved with pioneering research projects advancing the state-of-art and state-of-practice of geotechnical earthquake engineering. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, and a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.