Podcast: The Reed that Bends with Joy Altwies

How do you choose between academia and industry? How do you stay resilient in whatever position you might find yourself in? Today, we speak to Joy Altwies, PhD, PE, LEED AP+, program director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Office of Interdisciplinary Professional Programs, who's been at the forefront of the sustainable construction field.

With her roots in sustainability, she navigated her way through both industry and academia and shares insight on what to expect in each sector. She lends us wisdom on how she’s navigated many parts of her career, from keeping a strong network to staying flexible in tough situations, and shares what we can do to invite more girls into engineering.

Listen on SpotifyApple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsYoutube, anywhere you can find podcasts or listen below!


Headshot of Michelle ChungMichelle Chung | Host
Communications Specialist

Michelle first joined the Wisconsin Energy Institute in 2020 as a student intern. She has since graduated and joined the communications team full time and continues to find creative ways to tell the stories behind the people and research here at WEI and GLBRC. 

Headshot of Meg RikerMary (Meg) Riker | Host
Science Writer Intern

Meg is an undergraduate civil and environmental engineering student who seeks to learn about the career experiences of a range of women in STEM. 

Edited by: Michelle Chung
Produced by: Michelle Chung and Mary Riker
Music written and performed by: Mark E. Griffin


Michelle Chung: So, Meg, we've spoken to a bunch of people on this podcast. Now, here's someone who has worked in industry and works in academia teaching, but not in a professorship role, got their Ph.D. while working full time, all while being a tax aficionado and a pond garden artist. She's someone who's been part of the sustainable construction industry since its conception and has been able to grow with the industry.

Today we talked to the program director of UW Madison's Office of Interdisciplinary Professional Programs, Joy Altwies.


Meg Riker: From the Wisconsin Energy Institute and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. I'm Meg.

Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle.

Meg Riker: And you're listening to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women in energy at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW Madison campus, and our sister institution, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

Michelle Chung: Let's get into it with Joy Alwies.

Joy Altwies: My name is Joy Altwies. My pronouns are she and her, and I am a program director here at UW Madison. And my role actually involves two different aspects of the office that I am housed in is called the Office of Interdisciplinary Professional Programs, and we are housed in the Dean's office in the College of Engineering. And so we provide both noncredit professional development courses for working folks, people who are out there working and need to come back and get, you know, a short amount of time on a specific topic.

And those are noncredit courses and that's about 70% of my job. And then the other 30% is I am dedicated to the online master of engineering degree and specific only. I am the program director for the Sustainable Systems Engineering Master's degree. So my day to day is helping students select their courses. They do have some variety in the courses they can choose, and so I'm working with them on course plans a lot.

And then there's a lot of marketing. So of course I need to, you know, get the word out for people who are in their careers and might be considering getting a master's degree. I spend some time marketing, getting awareness of the degree out there in the professional world and also, you know, reaching out to students who are graduating from their bachelors.

So we do have a fair number of students who come straight from their bachelor's degree and go straight into the online program. I also teach so I teach I teach two courses. And the degree I teach those in the fall, every other fall. And that's fun for me. I enjoy that quite a bit. Teaching I found over the years has been something that really I didn't expect as a younger person to be doing, and it turns out I really enjoy it.

So that's good being in an academic environment, keeping the course content up to date and engaging for online students is a challenge. They, you know, they don't have the opportunity to be in class with each other or with me. So it's designing the coursework so that they have things that are interesting to do that are relevant to their day to day work.

Life is important. The area I'm in, which is sustainable construction is rapidly changing, so I can't leave it go for more than a year or so before updating everything because the content changes. The the technology changes. What's hot changes the new trends. I always have to keep that up to date for them. For example, right now the big trend is towards geothermal energy exchange systems for heating and cooling just because of the factor of electrification trying to move fossil fuel burning out of buildings.

So, you know, a lot of buildings have boilers and furnaces and things that burn various fossil fuels. So there's a big push right now to try and eliminate that as much as possible. And geothermal energy exchange systems are one way to do that. So that's kind of a big push right now. So that is a lot of what I do for the degree for my Noncredit courses.

It's similar, although the topics are more compact. You know, I'll teach one course just on building, commissioning or I'll teach and you know, it'll be three days or five days or another course on, for example, building controls or, you know, different individual things that professionals are coming back to learn. Both parts of my role are very different and distinct from a traditional academic position.

So I don't do research. Yeah, I have no research appointment at all. I often get student inquiries looking for, you know, a major advisor. And I'm like, I'm sorry, I don't have any research, so it's not something I do. So I don't have a research position. I don't I'm not in a tenure track situation. It's fully an academic.

They call it's an academic staff position. So a little bit different than a professor role.

Michelle Chung: So you wear many, many hats?

Joy Altwies: Yes.

Michelle Chung: When did you first become interested in sustainable building design and construction?

Joy Altwies: It wasn't something I knew when I was younger. I didn't know it was a thing. Honestly, in my undergraduate, when I was doing my bachelors in mechanical engineering, I chose mechanical engineering because mechanical engineering lends itself to a lot of different fields. There's a lot of things you can go into, and I just had no idea what I wanted to do.

I kind of knew I wanted to do something that benefited the environment, so I didn't wasn't sure what. So I went through my automotive art, my undergraduate career doing different internships, different co-ops. I spent most of those in the automotive industry, so I did internships actually in Michigan. I was at University of Toledo. So Michigan was very close by.

I'm one of those lucky people that actually got to drive the original EV1 electric vehicle at GM because I worked at the Proving Grounds in Michigan. And when I finally did graduate after four years, I think it was five because of the co-ops. I knew I wanted to do something in the environment. You know, definitely knew I wanted to do that.

So I actually applied to the solar energy lab here at UW Madison for my master's degree and was accepted. And so I came here. Been here ever since. So I was in the solar energy lab for, you know, two years doing my master's degree. And I was actually still not working on sustainable construction in any way. I was doing what they call demand side management research.

So I was looking at how to reduce the demand for electricity. My particular topic, my thesis at the time was on refrigerated warehouses and how they could shift their electric demand to nighttime instead of during the daytime. So that was my research. Then when I graduated with my master's, I went to work here in Madison for a consulting firm called Dorgan Associates and that's when I got into sustainable design and construction, because they had clients working on new construction and specifically working on LEED projects.

So as you may know, this building, there's a plaque in the lobby. This is a lead LEED certified building, and Leeds been around since the late nineties. That's about when I was starting my career at Dorgan. So I was assigned to work on projects with clients working, trying to do this new LEED thing. Very exciting time. So that's how I initially got into it.

Working on green building projects with clients. My first consulting.

Michelle Chung: Firm. Yeah, So you've always had that drive towards sustainability minded projects and then you like you happen to work with sustainable buildings. And that kind of started it all.

Joy Altwies: Yeah. And I have to say I was also always encouraged both here during my master's degree program and also in my career as a consulting engineer. All my mentors encouraged me to get involved with professional societies. So I've been an active member of ASHRAE, which is the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers. Since I was a grad student and I've been involved ever since, and they have technical committees that work on a lot of things, one of which is on building environmental issues.

And so I've been involved in that technical committee almost since I started as a as a student, and I'm currently the technical committee chair for them for that committee. I was also encouraged to get involved with the U.S. Green Building Council, which I did in the early years there with LEED. So staying active with the professional societies and the folks who are working on these issues is also, I think, really important.

Michelle Chung: Yeah, networking is huge.

Joy Altwies: Yeah.

Michelle Chung: So to where you are now, you're directing a professional development program. Did you see that in your career path when you started out on this journey, or how did that come to be?

Joy Altwies: No, I definitely didn't see that coming. When I first got my first job, first career position there here in Madison as a consulting engineer, I worked primarily with clients, so working on their building projects. And after a few years, my boss felt that it might be a good idea for me to start teaching a little bit of the things I had learned in these, you know, early lead projects.

So I was encouraged to speak at conferences, speak at ASHRAE, and also to speak at one of these professional development courses that we have here that I now run. So when I was still a consulting engineer, I was actually also asked to be a speaker in one of the courses here that my boss, my boss actually had two positions.

He was a program director here at UW Madison and during professional development, and he was also my boss at the consulting firm. So he he had two jobs, basically.

Michelle Chung: Yeah.

Joy Altwies: He was half and half. So after I'd gotten some projects under my belt, he felt that it would be a great idea for me to to speak. Do you know, do a one hour talk in his course on commissioning and green building issues. So that's what I did. And from there it just ballooned. I just kept, yeah, I found I had a knack for speaking in public.

I had a knack for teaching. People seemed to enjoy my talks and I enjoyed the traveling. And because sometimes we do courses in other locations, I enjoyed that aspect of it. And so and in 2004, when the position came open here to be a program director, that's why I went ahead and applied. I'd already had experience with how it worked from being a speaker in the class.

Michelle Chung: So you got that first taste of teaching and that really just projected you on this path. Yep. I noticed you mentioned that it was a mentor that encourage you to do that. And you've also mentioned before that mentors were the ones to encourage you to get involved in professional societies. So it seems like vendors have been a big part of your path and leading you to where you've been.

Can you talk a little bit about who those mentors were and what exactly those roles that they played in your success?

Joy Altwies: I have to start right at the beginning. My my parents big mentors. My dad is former Navy, so he was always a very technical person. He was a Navy pilot. I was encouraged as a kid to be his brain is I wanted to be and very much encouraged to excel and sometimes overachieve in schools. So that was great.

I blame them entirely for my lifetime of overachieving in school, for sure, especially as as I got to the master's degree level, my thesis advisor, Doug Reindall I certainly have to credit him for a lot of my success. He also initially encouraged me to join as a student and to be involved in in that and others in the solar energy lab at the time as well, such as Professor Klein, Sandy Klein.

Then actually when I went to work as a consulting engineer, both of my bosses were big mentors. It was a kind of a family run company. Dorgan Associates was Charles Dorgan and his son Chad, and both of them were great mentors for me in terms of not just encouraging me to stay involved in like professional activities, but like requiring it like we are going twice a year where we're all going as a company to do these meetings and we want you to present we want you to present topics.

We want you to stay out there, stay in front of people, share what you know. They always encourage me.

Michelle Chung: To share.

Joy Altwies: Your knowledge. So that was certainly a big help in my career. I can't stress that enough. Staying active with your professional society pick, pick one. There's many. If you don't have one, pick one, get involved. You know, stay knowledgeable about what's happening in your–in your industry, where the trends are, what the researches get to know, people outside of your company, outside of who you work with every day, make those connections is so important.

And that's a great way to do it because you're also learning while you're doing it and don't be afraid to, you know, submit a topic to present yourself. Yeah. And then, of course, when I came back for my Ph.D., Greg Nemet was my thesis advisor, so we certainly have to credit him for all the help making it through my Ph.D. program, which if those of you out there who have if you've done a Ph.D. program, you know how hard it is.

And then to be working full time while you do it is kind of nuts. Crazy. Yeah, kind of nuts, actually, but not impossible. Those of you are sitting there thinking, Oh, well, she's telling me not to do it. No, you can do it. It's just a little nuts. Expect your life to be crazy. Yeah. So I have to.

I have to thank him as well for all the advice and and steering. I guess this the right way, you know, nudging in the right direction for Ph.D. program is crazy. So. Yeah.

Michelle Chung: Yeah. If there's anything we learned from these interviews. So that's a really testing time.

Joy Altwies: Testing. Yes. Yeah, Literally and figuratively, Right?

Michelle Chung: Yeah. What part of what you do now brings you the most joy?

Joy Altwies: I would say I've mentioned it a little before already. The teaching. I enjoy it a lot. I like sharing, I like seeing how people respond to that new information. I even like presenting at conferences. You know, I know some people are terrified that that type of public speaking, but not me. I love being in front of a group of people.

Yeah, the more the merrier. I just think it's fun. I like to meet people. I like to share what I've learned. I like to talk to them about what challenges they're having. I like helping them. I think it's because it's helping. I really am drawn to helping people. I think a lot of us are, but I know when I'm helping people by teaching them something, it's going to solve some problem they're having at work.

You know, like in the noncredit classes, they're there because they're having some issue or because they need to learn this. For some reason, they're taking time out of their work to be there. So it's really exciting for me to help them in that way. I also really like the research part of it. I don't get to do a lot of research, as you know.

I'm not I don't have a research appointment, but I love doing the research content. Mhm. So I, you know, I have to keep the content fresh. Right. So I have to do research to do that every, every year and certainly with my, with my noncredit classes as well. So I like doing that research, I like looking up what's going on.

I like staying current with the new trends. Sustainable building design and construction is a really fun area because it's always changing, it's always hopeful. There's so much new great things that can be done with buildings, things that are not, you know, 40 years in the future, stuff that's possible right now.

Michelle Chung: That's so exciting.

Joy Altwies: Yeah, it's it's really it's really a nice area to be in.

Michelle Chung: And on the flip side, why are the maybe not so fun parts of the work that you do?

Joy Altwies: Well, believe it or not, um some aspects aren't fun. I admit I tend to be kind of an introvert person. I think a lot of engineers might be a little bit introverted. I think I'm a little more introverted than most. However, I do have the ability to sort of switch that off when I get up in front of, you know, a room to speak.

However, I do have a fair amount of dealing with the public that I have to do in my job, and some parts of that are not fun. You know, I have to do a lot of sort of logistics, dealing with venues for planning courses. Sometimes that's not very fun. It's not fun when I have to cancel a class due to low enrollment or something.

People don't like that very much. If they were the one of the few that was going to take it, they tend to get upset. So and the other parts that are not as fun. A lot of budget stuff. Yeah, I actually love doing budgets, but I don't like budget pressure. Nobody does. And so in my particular role, actually both parts of my role, the credit degree and the NONCREDIT courses vary depending on the economy.

So if the economy goes poor, our enrollments go down. It really puts a pinch on our budgets. So, I mean, we're we're not exactly fully self-funded, but we're partially self-funded. So a lot of our operating revenue in our in our office is dependent on those enrollments. And so if the economy takes a turn, it's tough to meet our budgets.

Each one of us has our budget to meet. So it's um that's not fun when it's not when I'm not meeting my budget. That's not too fun, right? The last few years have been okay, though, so it's not been a hold. That's not been a big pressure lately. But it's it's always in.

Michelle Chung: The past.

Joy Altwies: Has been in the past. Mm hmm.

Michelle Chung: I relate a lot to what you said about having to switch off your introversion and kind of switch it on in those moments where you have to, like, be in front of the public. But I am at heart very much an introvert, and so I feel you on that. It can be very taxing sometimes.

Joy Altwies: Yeah. On days when I have to be on whether I'm teaching a lot that day or if I'm perhaps giving a talk, at ASHRAE or something, I, I'm, I admit I'm very good at it. I'm, I love doing it, but when I'm done. Oh, I'm out cold. Yeah, haha, no people. Exactly. It's extremely draining. I think people often wonder why I, you know, when I'm doing a course or teaching, I don't really want to go out to dinner with them and I feel bad, but it's because I just can't take it anymore. I'm just tired.

Michelle Chung: Yeah, no, that's good. You kind of take that time for yourself.

Joy Altwies: Tough on the brain. Mm hmm.

Michelle Chung: You were talking about doing a Ph.D. while working full time. Can you talk a little bit more about that? And, like, what spurred you to make that decision?

Joy Altwies: Oh, well, that brings up another mentor. My boss here when we were in the engineering professional development, Phil O'Leary encouraged me to go back and get my Ph.D. At the time when we were a department in the college, we needed to have a certain number of tenured faculty to maintain our our existence as a separate department. And so they were always trying to encourage us, you know, they needed more faculty.

So they they were encouraging me to go back to get my Ph.D., to potentially get on the tenure track of being being a faculty member I was interested primarily in because I’d been out of school for ten years and I was curious if I could still do it. Oh, there's a sort of a personal challenge for myself. I really like the idea of doing the research and and getting the Ph.D. just to see if I could do it.

I had always been good at school and I wondered if I still was. Yeah. And I had a lot of, you know, experience under my belt now, like real world experience, working experience. And so I wondered if school was still going to be fun. For me, it was it was extremely challenging, though, to do it while also balancing everything else.

But I found I still loved it. I still loved learning. I still love in the classroom. So I was like, Oh good. It turned out that for other reasons, I didn't actually end up going on the tenure track for faculty. They decided to convert the what was the Department of Engineering Professional Development into an office under the dean.

And so it no longer was a need to have tenured faculty in the department. So that aspect didn't work out, but it was still a very good learning experience. I'm glad I did. It does allow me to do what I do now, which is to be the director of a degree program. Yeah.

Michelle Chung: What an ambitious personal challenge.

Joy Altwies: Yeah, I'm kind of. I'm kind of crazy that way.

Michelle Chung: I feel like with all of the people we've talked to going through their Ph.D. programs to be working full time while doing it is just another added stress.

Joy Altwies: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, honestly, the only reason I could do it was because my boss was so supportive. You know, if if my boss at the time had been like, well, you got to do it on your own time and don't, you know, make sure you don't, you know, don't take any time off the day you're on the day.

I don't know that I could have done it. Yeah. You know, if you don't have a supportive.

Michelle Chung: That's true.

Joy Altwies: Structure above you supervisor wise. Oh, I'm not sure. I'm not sure if you could pull it off. Yeah.

Michelle Chung: Yeah. It's crazy because pursuing your Ph.D. is in itself a full time job as well.

Joy Altwies: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. My husband had to bring me food sometimes. Oh, man. Yeah. Like, especially during the week where I was doing qualifiers. Qualifiers? Mm. Oh, my God. For those who've never been through this like qualifier exams or, you know, part of the gantlet for you know, your Ph.D. and the way I had to do it was a certain way that required me to, to write an essay on topic every day for five days.

And I had to spend the entire day researching that topic, writing it and turning it in by the end of the day, so each one of my committee members gave me a topic one every day for five days. And so literally my husband, you know, he and I, he knew what was what was going to happen. And he would every day he was bringing me food because I couldn't do anything except do the research.

Michelle Chung: You guys were a well-oiled machine.

Joy Altwies: Yeah. Yeah. So I definitely have to credit him as well for the support of that.

Michelle Chung: That's great. Did you ever in your career path want to change or completely turn to a different professional field?

Joy Altwies: Only on a bad day. Yeah, for the most part, no, for the most part. I've really enjoyed what I've done as a career. It's been fun. I've loved watching green buildings get built. I've loved watching the industry change and accept it. When I first started, this was not something people accepted. It was an uphill push to get people to say, Hey, let's try to do something a little bit more environmentally friendly in buildings.

So things are so much better now. I mean, it's so much less of a fight now. But no, I I've never really seriously wanted to change careers. On occasion I wondered if I missed my calling. I have a real knack for numbers. I've often wondered if I should have been in accounting or finance. Um, I could have probably made somebody really rich.

So, I mean, that's actually one of my hobbies. This is going to sound really sick and twisted, but one of my favorite hobbies is doing my taxes every year. I actually have a game I play where I pre calculate my taxes all year and, and I adjust my W4 every few months to make sure that at the end of the year it comes out within a few cents.

Wow. Oh, I can only imagine what the HR. Office must think of me here. Oh, that's a that's a sick hobby. I know.

Michelle Chung: I feel like I see a little bit of, like the engineering, analytical mind there as well, right?

Joy Altwies: Oh, my gosh. My husband thinks i'm crazy. Everybody thinks i'm crazy, but no, not really. Every once in a while, I dream of trying something different. Maybe in retirement. I don't know. I have some sick fantasy of driving a forklift. That's awesome. I would love to drive a forklift if somebody out there would like to train me to drive a forklift, you'd be my best friend.

Michelle Chung: You hear it now? Anybody listening in?

Joy Altwies: Oh, but yeah, I don't know. That's. I mean, just little things like that, right? You know, on a bad day, I'm like, Oh, I could go work for somebody in a warehouse right now and drive a forklift and just stack boxes. It would be lovely. But yeah, so it's been a great career.

Michelle Chung: Yeah, it's awesome that the field that you're in has had so much momentum and it's really grown and you have been able to like kind of push your career with that as well. So my co-host, Meg, she is a senior undergraduate in civil and environmental engineering and it's been a question for her the past couple of years. She doesn't know whether to choose between pursuing further education in academia or to go straight into industry or what menu of options she should choose.

And as someone who has worked in both spaces and who currently manages an academic program for those that want to advance in industry, what advice would you have for her?

Joy Altwies: First, it's a tough call. There's no right answer. So the fact that she's struggling is fine. She's not alone. For me, I as you know, as you said, I've been in both I was able to find a niche here in academia that I really loved, but it wasn't a traditional position. It's not a traditional academic professor type role, says parts of it, but it's not the main than what you would normally get into if you were going into academia.

My understanding right now, just the general state of the world, academia is in a transition phase a bit. A lot of colleges and universities are, for better or worse, are just out of necessity, switching away from the tenured professor professor model and moving more to I'm kind of an academic instructor type role. So there aren't I don't think there are as many of the traditional tenure track positions available out there.

That being said, there doesn't mean there aren't any there. There just I don't think there is perhaps numerous, as they once were. That being said, I do love teaching and I can certainly relate to anybody who wants to take that on as a career or especially if you like, doing the research to that's a great path. If those are if those two things really appeal to you and perhaps working with students, being an advisor, all of that, if that really appeals to you, academia is a great path.

At the same time, there's a lot to love about the private sector. The private sector, in my experience, is more flexible. There is less red tape, there's less bureaucracy. It's generally pays better. So the potential financial rewards tend to be a little higher. That being said, the benefits of academia tend to be really good. The pay just tends to be a little lower.

So there's pros and cons on both. I guess I would say I felt more happy in the academic, academic world just because I felt it was a lot more stable for me. I like the stability versus, you know, sort of the excitement of the private sector. I know people who are the exact opposite. They can't stand being burdened with a lot of, you know, red tape and rules, especially here are we you know, we're a state organization, so we have a lot of a lot of rules we have to follow.

It's just part of the game. And sometimes that prevents you from doing things you might have thought were a good idea or would have been great or what have really been an exciting thing to do. And you just can't do it because it's rule by rule. So you just have to if you you just have to live with that.

And if you can't live with that, then you need to be in the private sector. I've had colleagues who worked with me here for a few years who left. They just couldn't they couldn't handle the burden of, you know, being told they can't do this, they can't do that. This is a rule we just can't do. It's always been done that way.

So they needed the flexibility of the private sector to do things differently. Yeah, there is no right answer. Yeah. Try both. don't know that.

Michelle Chung: That's great insight into the limits of both and the pros of both. You've mentioned some of those, you know, hard days where you're like, Oh, maybe I can do taxes or something like that. When you have those hard days, what are the things that keep you going?

Joy Altwies: Well, honestly, the the introverted part of my personality tends to take over in my hobbies. Most of my hobbies are pretty much, you know, quiet things at home. I have to definitely credit my husband. He's a obviously a big part of my life. And he keeps me grounded and sane. We keep each other sane. His job is just as this is stressful as mine sometimes, and so we help each other cope.

I have several hobbies, of course. I think everybody does my weirdest one being financial, but I have a upon garden pond. Gardening is huge for me. If I if I'm up to my elbow in muck, I am a happy girl. Also. So spring, summer fall, I can do the pond gardening right now. It's a little bit just keep alive out there.

But in the winter time I'm a baker. I do a lot of baking. I love baking. It's very engineering focused, much more so than cooking. Cooking is an art form in my opinion. So I'm not so much the artist as I am the engineer. So baking is all about the precise measurement of things to make all the chemistry work an amazing, amazing things you can eat come out.

It's great. I love the baking. Yeah. Just, you know, sometimes just distraction is helpful and, you know, on a bad day, just doing something else, turning your mind away from it. Yeah, I think we all do that to some extent. I try to keep a philosophy of being flexible. You know, if something's not going the way I'd hoped or I've come up, you know, up against a brick wall, I just can't do this thing that I wanted to do.

I got to be I got to maintain that flexibility. Try thinking of it another way. Try going in a different direction. You know, choose a new thing to try to do. Bend and be flexible. Don't let anything overwhelm you too much. I try not to bang my head against the wall, so to speak, getting overly frustrated about things you know, I try to be flexible.

Kind of a personal philosophy of yeah, being being the read the bends kind of thing.

Michelle Chung: There's a certain element of like, go with the flow that helps you keep your piece.

Joy Altwies: Yes, exactly. So and I can't also, I have a 1972 super Beetle. Oh a super beetle? Again, this is a summer hobby. Oh, sorry. I don't drive it in the wintertime. No salt on the super beetle. I've had it since I was 16. So I have I've had it for over 30 years and it's just my pride and joy.

I talk to it and people are going to say I'm crazy about it. Sends me messages through the radio. Yeah, I love that. It's my love bug. I actually drive around. For those of you out in Western Dane County, beware. In the summertime, I drive it around with a giant stuffed rabbit in the passenger seat. And so just so you know.

Michelle Chung: Naturally there's a giant stuffed rabbit in the front seat. Of course there is.

Joy Altwies: Yeah. In case you didn't think I was crazy before or now, you know, between the taxes and the giant stuffed rabbit. Yeah. So.

Michelle Chung: So Joy actually shared some pictures of her super beetle. So check those in the show notes. It is magnificent, knowing all you know. Now, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Joy Altwies: Hmm. Interesting. You know, I thought a lot about this question and I was actually quite surprised and happy to feel that I don't have any major regrets to warn myself about a few minor ones, but nothing major. I've been really lucky. think.

Michelle Chung: That's great.

Joy Altwies: Yeah. I don't have any major regrets. There's a few minor things I would have done differently, but I can't think of anything I wouldn't tell myself, you know, to avoid even my even my regrets I learned from.

Michelle Chung: Right. That's such a great mindset.

Joy Altwies: You know, I wouldn't be who I am or what I'm doing now if I hadn't either made those mistakes or let myself make them. Yeah. Yeah. Great.

Michelle Chung: In your field, do you see any continuing obstacles for women?

Joy Altwies: Yeah, mostly from what I've seen, work life balance issues. Sadly, I see a lot of unequal home life. And how do you fix that? That's generational, I think. But I think I see a lot of my colleagues are working too hard, doing too much, burning themselves out, and I totally understand the desire to want to do everything, you know.

Michelle Chung: As a high achiever.

Joy Altwies: Oh yeah, yeah. To want to have a family, to want to, you know, be the top of your career or to do all these things. And my honest response to that is it's I appreciate the desire, but it's not realistic, not in my experience. I don't it's not worth it to burn yourself out. So I think seeing what I've seen, there's a lot of, as I said, on unequal treatment at home where, you know, a lot of women are still expected to do all the home stuff too.

So even if even if you're the breadwinner, I mean, even, you know, even if you're the major earner, I still see it. And it's kind of crazy. So how do we fix that? I'm not sure. Gender roles, that’s a big one. Yeah, right. That's not my area of expertise. Um, but even something as simple as making it okay for women to take a few years off and making it easier for them to come back, you know, if they want to have kids and have a few years where they're home with them, that's wonderful.

But we should make it easier for them to come back. Yeah, we don't do that.

Michelle Chung: There's a huge stigma.

Joy Altwies: Oh, yeah, it's terrible. We don't do a lot of, you know, part time reentry. We don't do a lot of job sharing things that would make it easier for people to ease their way back into, you know, their their career and their tech knowledge and everything. I think that would help if we if we could figure out a way to do it.

Um, I, you know, I'd love to see some bigger policies that would help. Mm hmm. Another obstacle, you know, to your original question that I see for women getting into STEM fields is how we treat girls when they're little, when they're really little. Do you encourage your daughters to play? What tools do you tell them? How to use tools?

Do you show them, you know, the things that you would show your sons? Do you teach them how to change their own oil? You know, stuff like that. Practical things, Yeah. How you encourage girls to be interested and curious in technical things. I don't think we do as good a job of that as we could. So that's an area.

Michelle Chung: Yeah, that. What else could you see being changed in the future for women in your field?

Joy Altwies: Oh, let's see. Well, letting women take a break and come back, you know, the reentry path, making it easier, making part time reentry paths to ease you out of, you know, taking care of the little ones. You know, in my particular industry and construction, I'd love to see just more women in construction in general. I'd love to see a lot more women owned construction business.

Yeah. One of the things I found over the years that I'm actually good at is masonry and welding, but only because I got to try them a few times. Yeah, I happened to be in a position where either I was in a class or whatever, where we got to try welding and we got to do some masonry work and I'm like, Wow, I'm actually good at this.

This is cool. I don't think a lot of women get that opportunity. We're not encouraged in junior high school to go into those kind of classes. At least we weren't in my day. I realize I'm getting old, so maybe the high schools today are better. I don't know. But we were not encouraged to go, you know, go do welding and so forth.

So I'd love to see that because you'd never know what you're good at, right? You never know until you try. So I'd like to I'd love to see that a little more. If your vacuum cleaner breaks, let your daughter tear it apart down to the very bottom. Just pieces, parts everywhere. Just, you know, it's broken. Anyway, let her try. Right.

Michelle Chung: Are you speaking from personal experience?

Joy Altwies: Yeah. You know, one of my favorite. I had a part time job in. In in college. Undergrad. I was. I used work the front desk at my dorm.

Michelle Chung: Yeah.

Joy Altwies: And I purposely would choose the early morning shift because nobody was up and it was very quiet and I liked it. And there were always, oh, waves, three or four broken vacuum cleaners, because we would check out vacuum cleaners in the dorm, like we wouldn't have to have our own vacuum cleaners. You just come down to the front desk and check one out, right?

Yeah. So we had like eight or ten vacuum cleaners and routinely six of them would be broken. Yeah. So I'd be bored sitting down there in the morning on my shift and I'd just start tearing. You wouldn't believe how easy some of them were to fix. Yeah. So, I mean, this is sort of like that is a sense of accomplishment, of doing something, fixing something, huh?

Um, you know, change a change a ceiling lamp, and not just the hands on stuff, you know, encourage your daughters to be smart. And so maybe they do now. I hope so. When I was high school, I was kind, uncool. I was smart. I was one of those smart girls, you know? So, of course, if anybody from my high school remembers me, they're probably like, she was not uncool.

Oh I felt uncool, let's put it that way. Making that okay. Good gosh. I gosh, I hope it's better now. I've been out of high school for many, many years, so I hope it's better now. I was talking one time to a masonry contractor and he said some of the best employees he'd ever had. On a rare occasion when he could get one were women, because they're very detail oriented.

Yeah, they care very much how the end product turns out, how it looks, and they love working with thing. So there's plenty of opportunity. We just don't think of that as a traditional path.

Michelle Chung: Mm hmm. And yeah, that example right there, it's the fact that, you know, women are going into these fields. Employers like him, they're missing out on 50% of the workforce.

Joy Altwies: Oh, yeah.

Michelle Chung: When we look at executive leadership in academia, there's a pretty large gender gap. What are some ways that we can address those?

Joy Altwies: I think leadership is born out of people having good long careers. They have a good career that can lead to a leadership or executive position. So if you can solve the problem of the career, we can end up with more women in leadership. So I think for me, I personally I think it goes back to how do we help women stay in their careers and, you know, not fall out of the career when they take time off and never come back.

All those things we talked about in terms of, you know, finding ways to help women rejoin the careers of their choice after taking time off or make it easier for them not to have to take time off if they don't want to. I know some do, some don't. If you can help women stay in their careers, it's going to provide a larger pool of women who are available for executive leadership, who want to be in it, who have the experience.

Michelle Chung: You know, that's interesting that those solutions, a lot of them are providing more flexibility for women to take different paths. What advice do you have for young woman in STEM wanting to enter your field?

Joy Altwies: MM This is a great field. If you have an interest, join it. It's great. Yeah, it's fun. For those of you who are younger, if you're good at math and science or one or the other and you like it, stick with it. Don't let anybody make you feel like you don't belong because you do. You just haven't found your people yet.

Just stick with it. It'll be hard sometimes, but you can do it. Listen to your instincts. Your instincts are probably right if you feel like what you're doing is good, great. If you feel like you need to change positions, don't be afraid to do that. In my particular field, Sustainable construction. I guess the advice I would give is if you want to break into this field, if you're in the engineering world, especially if you're if you have a mechanical engineering background, get some.

Take a class in energy modeling, become an energy modeler. Every firm I know that does engineering for green buildings needs somebody who knows how to do energy modeling. Yeah. So if you know how to do that. Oh boy.

Michelle Chung: That's a hot skill, right?

Joy Altwies: Skill. Hot skill. Especially if you combine that with this younger generation who seems to know a lot about coding. Right. And software development. Oh my gosh, if you know how to do software development and energy modeling for building your ticket, oh my gosh, you're going to be a hot commodity. So that would be my advice. And if you can do it, always max out your 401K.

Michelle Chung: A little bit of financial advice.

Joy Altwies: Gotta stick that financial in there or your 403b be in our case.

Michelle Chung: So Meg, what stood out to you about my conversation with Joy?

Meg Riker: I think it's more about what didn't stand out to me. There were so many interesting and fascinating things that she said during this interview, and I just got more and more intrigued about her views on life as I listen to this, this conversation. I said to you earlier, I think she could write her own life advice column, but I feel like she really, truly could.

She was so fascinating. But one thing that really stood out to me were that she talked about how we don't help ease women back into the workforce after they've been out of it. And this just really stood out to me because I feel like anybody who's a parent would have that perspective.

Michelle Chung: This has come up in like almost most of our interviews, either with women that have children or women that don't have children, like the women that don't have children see it as a problem where it's like a breaking point in your career on whether or not you're going to have a kid and how you approach that. So, you know, having that buffer, changing the culture so it's not like you're going to be thrown out like last yesterday's trash.

If you choose to pursue something very personal in your life, then yeah, I think that would be a huge change.

Meg Riker: I do too. And I think flexible work is definitely a way that at this can do it. And you're talking about this, but it's definitely a way that we can help young mothers like letting work remotely to be able to take care of their kids at a young age is one way we could approach this as well. I think giving people and trusting people enough to know that they'll be able to do their work, but also giving them the flexibility to see their children grow up in these young years.

Michelle Chung: Yeah. So Joy was so crazy, but in such a great way. I thought it was so awesome how she was unapologetically a weirdo when it came to, like, her tax hobby. Yeah. And everything. And how she was honest about how crazy it is to do a PhD while working full time. 

Meg Riker: I can't even imagine. Yeah, but I haven’t done a PhD, you know, like, Yeah, why?

Michelle Chung: That's crazy. But it was good to see her. Like she said, it was crazy. I was crazy for doing it. But then her also saying that the only way I could have done it is because I had like, full support from like, every my boss and in my personal life. I think that was really good to hear because it wasn't just like I powered my way through it.

It was like I had people that helped me power my way through.

Meg Riker: Yeah. And it goes to show that I it would be impossible if you didn't have support to do it.

And sometimes we hear about people having really negative experiences when they've done a Ph.D., and that's because that support isn't there. So it's really not the act of doing the Ph.D. itself. Yes, that's difficult, but it's the act of what is surrounding the person doing the Ph.D. that really impacts their experience with it.

Michelle Chung: Totally. Yeah. She was awesome to talk to. I loved her philosophy. She had this, like, air of optimism about her. And, yeah, she just had a lot of great points to share.

Meg Riker: She said.

Michelle Chung: This is a great conversation.

Meg Riker: Absolutely.

Michelle Chung: And that's our show. Thank you again to our guests, Joy Altwies. And thank you to all of you listening in. Please subscribe, rate review and share this podcast with a friend.

Meg Riker: You can find the Wisconsin Energy Institute at Energy.wisc.edu and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at glbrc.org

Michelle Chung: This episode was produced by Michelle Chung and Meg Riker. We'll see you next time. On Propelling Women in Power. What is your superpower?

Joy Altwies: Oh, personally, I would say that my superpower might be optimism. You know, the world is a rough place. It always seems like seems to some people. Like it's always getting worse to me. Oh, my gosh, It keeps getting better. There's so much cool stuff coming. We're living in an age of super science. It's amazing technology, doing all kinds of things.

We may even have flying cars before long, you know? So I'm very optimistic to the point of insanity sometimes. I'm also very empathetic. I'm always able to put myself in another person's shoes and kind of see things from their point of view. However, this may also be my greatest weakness. It's like my kryptonite. So I'm I'm constantly able to see, you know, how why someone is thinking what they're thinking and be able to relate to that and see their point of view.

But I think that is a superpower.