It should be a comfort to everyone to know that the person who made sure the remodeled Fred Meyer building is structurally sound graduated at the top of her high school class.
What makes it more special is that her high school is right here in The Dalles. Sohaila Starks graduated from The Dalles-Wahtonka High School in 2009, then went on to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Oregon State University.
Having interned for Makenzie, a Portland engineering firm, during college, Starks moved right into a full-time job there as a structural engineer—a subset of civil engineering—after getting her master’s degree.
Her specialty is making sure buildings are built strong enough to support themselves and withstand the conditions in which they are built. For The Dalles, for example, that means the structure has to withstand certain snow loads, wind strengths and seismic forces.
“It was cool getting to work on a project that was in my hometown,” Starks said. “There’s not a lot of structural scope in a lot of the remodels we do, but this one had a little bit more because we added a new elevator, so that was definitely structural. We had to make changes to the framing on the mezzanine level and the roof level to accommodate that elevator.”
She picked structural engineering because it appealed to her love of math and problem solving.
In high school, she toyed with becoming a math teacher—like her favorite teachers at TDW, Tim Brown and Ben Lin, who both worked to make math fun and understandable, she said—but settled on engineering toward the end of junior year.
She also enjoyed physics in high school, “so I was really interested in forces and things like that. That’s what my job is now. I think the combination of math and that type of physics is what I really like, and that’s what drew me to this field.”
She explained the role of forces in her work. “When I’m designing buildings there’s two different types of forces that you have to design for. One is gravity, which is vertical loads, and that is weight, basically. You have to make sure the parts of the building can support all the weight that’s going to be on them. And the second one is lateral, which can be either wind forces or seismic forces from earthquakes.”
Because the Pacific Northwest has “a lot of fault lines,” seismic forces are the key consideration in the region, although Starks said the Oregon Building Code does require builders to design for higher wind forces in the Gorge.
“We do get windy, but when you think about other parts of the country, there are places with tornados and hurricanes and they have higher wind forces than we do,” she said.
While architects design buildings in terms of footprint, layout and number of stories, for example, it’s up to structural engineers to “do the math to figure out” how large the walls have to be, as well as the framing members that support the floor, “that sort of thing,” she said.
“We have to make sure that, for instance, if you’re looking at a floor, there’s the weight of the floor itself, like if it’s concrete or whatever it is, so you have to design it for the weight of itself. And then you’ll have people walking around, or equipment, so you have to factor in loads for that, and you have to be sure the beam is strong enough to take that load and will span to columns where the bearing walls are.”
She added, “We have to make sure that the connections are good too. You can’t just size a beam and have a wimpy little connection that’s not good enough for the load.”
The remodel of the Fred Meyer store presented its own challenges, since a remodel can actually be more difficult than a new building because sometimes elements that are listed in building plans never actually get built as shown.
In fact, Starks recruited her parents to go take a picture of the store at one point because there was something in the existing drawings that wasn’t making sense compared to what she remembered seeing there.
Her mom, Kendra Curtis, a math teacher at TDHS, said of Sohaila, “She has always been a detail oriented person and always gives 110 percent in everything that she does. These traits have helped her to be successful in her career. I also know that she has a heart to help others and encourage girls to pursue careers in math. She was involved in a program to go into the local high schools and help educate girls on careers in engineering. She has also helped tutor high school students in math. I love that she is doing so well in her career and wants to pay it forward to others. I’m just incredibly proud to call her my daughter!”
Starks started work on the Fred Meyer job in August 2018, and her only on-site visit was a “scope walk” with architects, mechanical, plumbing and electrical engineers, and the client.
She finished design work by winter, and construction started in spring.
While this remodel was exciting because it was in her home town, doing structural engineering for new buildings is also a thrill. “I remember the first time that I did the design of a building and it got constructed and yeah, it was really exciting, and it still is; it’s just that I have a few more of those now than the first time it happened.”
She’s worked for Mackenzie for five and a half years now.
Starks is passionate about encouraging girls to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Math, Engineering) jobs like the one she has.
“I really love to see girls go into these fields and I’m always rooting for more girls and women getting into these fields. I feel like if you’re interested in STEM and that’s something that you know you want to pursue, you just have to go for it. You can’t let other people’s opinions get in the way or stop you.”
She said the reality is that the fields will be “mostly guys, and some of them are going to think that they know things better than you do. And you have to know that’s not necessarily true. You are just as good as they are; you have to be ready to stand up for yourself.”
She said one of the most important things she found helpful was having female friends in the field. “You get a lot of encouragement and support from finding other women that are pursuing similar things as you.”
Most of the men at her 160-employee business are “very supportive” of their female colleagues, she said. “It’s not a matter of gender; it’s a matter of how hard you work, how seriously you take it.”
She took her studies seriously also. “Maybe I wouldn’t say I’ve always enjoyed school, but I’ve always enjoyed learning and I’ve always taken it pretty seriously. I’ve always been into my studies.
“I like to be prepared and I’m very organized,” she said. “I suppose those have contributed to my success.”
She didn’t spill the beans on being valedictorian (her proud mama did), but she did describe herself as an academic. She actually scored higher on the grammar and punctuation part of the SATs than on the math part, “by a little bit.”
Her work seeps into her personal life too. She admits to sometimes checking out the construction of a building if it’s got exposed ceilings. “That definitely happens sometimes, my sister makes fun of me for it occasionally. I do like it when the structure of a building is exposed.”