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Environmental engineering alumna speaks at Ada Wilson Lecture

Photo of Karen Flournoy speaking behind a podium.

Karen Flournoy talks about her experience as a woman engineer at the Ada Wilson Lecture. Flournoy is a 1977 civil engineering alumna. Photo by Jennifer Hollis

Her interest and skills in water quality and environmental engineering led Karen Flournoy to a 30-plus year career with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that still is going strong. She spoke about her work and offered advice for soon-to-graduate seniors as the guest speaker at the 2016 Ada Wilson Lecture and Mizzou Society of Women Engineers Green Tea.

Photo of Taylor Hudson, Mikayla Miller, Karen Flournoy and Kate Trauth.

From left, Taylor Hudson, Mizzou SWE co-director of events, Mikayla Miller, SWE president, Karen Flournoy, Ada Wilson Lecture guest speaker, and Kate Trath, SWE adviser, post for a photo next to the diploma of Ada Wilson after the annual Mizzou SWE Green Tea. Flournoy also is holding a plaque commemorating her lecture. Photo by Jennifer Hollis

Flournoy, BS CiE 1977, is the director of the Water, Wetlands and Pesticides Division of EPA Region 7, which encompasses Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. Her lecture discussed her past as a Mizzou student — she was the only female civil engineer in her graduating class — her journey into engineering and her career path with the EPA. She also shared tips to engineers entering the workforce from personal experience.

“I remember a lot of the advice that I got, and what it was like for me [entering the workforce], so I would like to offer up some suggestions for you,” she said.

Growing up in Kansas, she kept taking increasingly difficult math and science courses. She became aware of engineering when a high school best friend also considered being an engineer.

“People just sort of laughed at her, like ‘girls can’t do that,’ but I wasn’t deterred. ‘No’ wasn’t really an option for me,” Flournoy said. She started college at the fledgling engineering program at University of Missouri-Kansas City. She managed to save enough money to come to Mizzou for her senior year of college.

“I never looked back on the decision to major in engineering in spite of more than one person telling me, ‘That’s not possible. You can’t do it. Girls aren’t smart enough.’

“That was all it took for me to want to prove them wrong,” she said.

She worked for a consulting firm for a brief period after graduation, and joined the EPA in 1978. She worked in the Construction Grants Program, which was a program in the late 1970s and early 1980s that provided grants for community drinking and wastewater treatment systems. Flournoy then began working in waste management, which became a hot-button issue in the 1980s. For two years, she worked for the EPA Region 7’s office of public affairs, helping to restructure the organization after the previous director stepped down.

“Two years later, I went off to spend the majority of my time working with agriculture in our four states on environmental issues,” she said.

Flournoy has spent the last 15 years working on the issue of nitrates – specifically too much nitrate and phosphorus — in groundwater, investigating the sources, impacts and control methods for the issue.

Her three main tips to engineers about to join the workforce are: Recognize the learning curve and find a mentor; take on assignments outside of your normal job; and be approachable, credible and inclusive.