When asked what makes a good engineer, Cathy Dunn has a simple answer.
“I always tell potential engineering students that, to me, an engineer needs to like to work puzzles because they are going to be doing them a lot,” Dunn said.
It makes sense that she would use that example. Her resume looks a lot like a jigsaw puzzle. The individual pieces alone show many jobs but together they build a complete picture of a career filled with twist and turns.
It started while Dunn was a student at Mississippi State. During the school year, she worked with the university’s Student Activity Council to arrange ski trips and bring professional wrestling matches to campus. In the summer, she scooped ice cream at her mother’s Baskin-Robbins franchise—the first on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
Following graduation in 1975, she began working towards a master’s in civil engineering and held jobs in the clothing, chemical, marine construction and metal refining industries before landing at the Port of New Orleans. There she established the country’s first industrial engineering department at a port.
“You don’t find a lot of industrial engineers working at ports but it’s a good fit,” Dunn explained.
Named deputy director of port development in 1998, Dunn oversees engineering, construction management, contract management and maintenance for the organization, including its 28 million square feet of cargo-handling and storage areas and four movable bridges. She also helps find funding sources for the port.
“A lot of industrial engineers end up working in management because we like working with people and because we understand the big picture,” Dunn said. “It ends up being kind of a catchall for a company’s needs.”
In her time at the port, Dunn has headed the IT department, special projects and even spent time in marketing—tasks that are a little different from what industrial engineers traditionally do. But the variety, she said, is what makes the job fun.
Much of what Dunn oversees are issues specific to the New Orleans-based port. On a weekly basis, she helps develop and maintain port facilities that service cargo ships and cruise liners bringing thousands of tourists to The Big Easy. She also has had to learn to manage the problems that come with the port’s location, such as taking care of employees in the wake of severe storms and flooding such as occurred after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
“I was in Houston when Katrina hit and, within two days, I was working. My job was to track all of our employees who were spread around the country. We had to find people to be able to send their paychecks,” Dunn recalled.
“My first project at the port was to set up a way to track costs,” she continued. “That played heavily into how we moved forward after Katrina. In addition to tracking employees, we had to track leave balances and setup a leave sharing system, and also setup a system for assigning temporary housing for port employees.”
She since has helped the port develop a comprehensive disaster-response system to prevent payday delays and help keep track of employees in the event of future evacuations.
Dunn said it was the people-based nature of industrial engineering that first attracted her to the profession. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., she moved to New Orleans with her family while in high school. She said she had considered majoring in archeology, but, when Tulane offered a scholarship, her engineering roots won out.
“My father was an engineer and I can remember being in second grade, sitting beside him while he showed me how to use a slide rule to work problems,” Dunn said. “I guess I was destined to be an engineer whether I knew it or not.”
After starting the general engineering curriculum at the New Orleans-based school, Dunn knew she was on the right path. But it wasn’t until she visited her then boyfriend—now husband–at Mississippi State and saw what the Starkville-based university had to offer that all of the pieces began falling into place.
“Mississippi State had a lot more for students and the atmosphere was more accepting of women,” Dunn said. “It also offered industrial engineering as a major. I liked that industrial engineering majors took psychology and work with people and machines.”
She added, “We like to say industrial engineers are engineers with personality and that was the right fit for me.”