When Ewa Bauer studied for her degree in civil engineering in her native Poland, then a communist country, the available textbooks were from Italian highway design and from Caltrans. Little did Bauer know she would eventually cross the Atlantic in search of a fuller possibility in both engineering and her own personal freedoms and work her way up the ranks at Caltrans to become the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District.

Before she made the journey, however, Bauer was inspired by her father, Grzegorz, who worked as an architect in Poland.

“I basically grew up next to his drafting table. I would often grab at his pencils and tools, which is one of my first concrete memories,” Bauer said. “Even before I could communicate, I could see how to draw and paint from viewing him.”

Taking this inspiration, coupled with a heavy interest in math and science, Bauer enrolled in university originally to study physics, aspiring to ultimately study astronomy. However, after the first few months, Bauer was struggling to connect with some of the more abstract material. “It ended up being too much theory for me. I discovered I wanted something more practical, which involved creating with my own two hands,” Bauer said.

She promptly made the switch into engineering, enrolling the following year in Swietokrzyska Polytechnical University, where she earned her Master of Science in Civil Engineering. She followed this with achieving another Postgraduate diploma in residential architecture from the Warsaw Polytechnical University in 1983.

“Though I was still and continue to be fascinated by the larger questions of physics, there’s nothing like the feeling of doing something yourself, which was definitely helped by growing up with my father, who gave me a broader perspective of what engineering can be as it’s a really creative process,” she said. “So I’m more at ease working within many disciplines of design and technique when covering large structures.”

Bauer incorporates this concept when approaching a large project — with tasks ranging from the initial general approach to the smallest aspects, which still remain essential. “Those minute details fuel everyone involved. If all of the details are excellent then you’ll have an excellent final product,” Bauer said.

A circuitous route

The route Bauer has taken over the years is hardly one free of hardships, but she admits to having a fair amount of luck on her side. After first visiting Italy on a tourist visa, Bauer applied for and received a green card for permanent residency in the United States, where she dreamed of living to escape the oppressive government in Poland.

“At that point I had two options: One was to stay and complain for the rest of my life in Poland. The other was to escape,” Bauer said. “I wanted to go to the United States, which I thought [of] as a place where you can be who you are, provided you take responsibility for your own actions. You have the opportunity to create your own life.”

Bauer had friends in San Francisco who helped her in finding an apartment and even gave her an in to attaining her first job at a small startup engineering firm in nearby Orinda. Most of her work at the firm revolved around larger office and parking structures, but Bauer was also challenged at this time by the transition to speaking and writing in English fulltime in a technical capacity.

“One thing that helped me was memorizing the 1983 UPC code. I was still thinking in Polish so I had memorized it in both languages as I was adjusting to English as my main language. But I was known around the office for having that code back and forth in my mind,” she said.

Soon after the construction field dipped, Bauer found herself without a job. She was quickly assisted by her former boss in finding another job where she began to shift into bridge design.

“While there I started working on federal bridges both in the U.S. and overseas. I was just a staff engineer but I was in seventh heaven as I got to learn how to succeed in an office and learn all about engineering in the U.S.,” Bauer said. “There really wasn’t a dull moment for me.”

Bauer also credits mentorships in these initial years as a reason for her success. “When you’re learning the ropes, having someone experienced to guide you is a really precious thing. I hope that this practice never disappears from engineering,” she said.

The move to Caltrans

With some encouragement, Bauer applied to work at Caltrans as she wanted to continue furthering her understanding of how the industry functions as a whole. Bauer started on a team in a design group in San Francisco where she spent the next six years.

“I devoted myself to the job, learning everything that I could. It was a great time just being exposed to new ideas,” she said.

Soon though, Bauer felt the familiar craving to again find something new, this time at a higher level. She was promoted to the deputy district engineer thanks to some encouragement from friends who advised her to seek out the position. “As a bridge we like to say we’re the most famous and the most beautiful, but we clearly have bias,” Bauer said. “It was an extensive interview process but once I got notification that I received the job I was overwhelmed. I came to the U.S. in January 1985 and began working on the Golden Gate Bridge in January 1995, so I like to joke that the January of the fifth year of each decade is my lucky time.

“My responsibilities as deputy district engineer were very vast as you’re the right-hand-man for the district engineer. But you’re also operating diverse facilities that always need upgrades or replacements,” Bauer said.

Bauer was also made the project manager for the Seismic Retrofit Project in her first year. The project was set up in stages and is currently in its second decade. “We’ve been quite successful in getting support from the government and we hope this continues as still ahead of us is the seismic retrofit of the suspension. First we fixed what was most vulnerable in the bridge, so we moved from North to South.”

Under Bauer’s guidance the Golden Gate Bridge Seismic Retrofit Phase II South Approach Structures Project won the 2007 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement (OCEA) award from the American Society of Civil Engineers. “We don’t get instantaneous awards in engineering. We have to struggle for years sometimes to get things done. But that moment in D.C., when they announced that award, it was probably the highest moment in my profession just to see my team so happy,” Bauer said.

A nod to basics

With the onset of technological design aids, Bauer still believes in knowing the basics behind engineering.

“There is great technology that’s shifting us into higher gears and possibilities, but you still need those practical skills. You can’t just rely on the technology because you need to exercise your own brain to have the ingenuity necessary to succeed,” Bauer said.

Bauer also offers the advice she received from a friend that she has used in her career: Focus on the you. “I’d advise anyone starting out, their whole job in life is to make yourself the best you can be and to never stop improving yourself through hard work and pursuing what you love,” Bauer said.

Even when faced with language barriers, Bauer continued to push herself into learning more and increasing her efficiency. “There were times where my brain would have actual aches and pains. It was different than just a headache. It felt sometimes like my brain was just too exhausted to do anything else. It took me about three years of fulltime work to make the switch,” Bauer said. “As you can imagine, it was intense emotionally and physically, but it was also an enjoyable change. It’s what I wanted and I had the chance right in front of me, so I was not about to let it go.”

Bauer also suggested not to worry about any detractors. In her native Poland, her engineering classes had an even split between male and female students, whereas the U.S. had far fewer females in the industry. “Thanks to my parents I was never bothered by some people asking if it was hard working in a ‘men’s profession.’ Many would ask me why I would choose something so difficult, but I would just reply with, ‘Why not? Someone has to.’ Plus all those who made my life somewhat difficult only made me stronger. Everyone needs challenges to ready ourselves for the next challenge.”

During short periods of time off, Bauer enjoys reading about the subjects that have continued to fascinate her, ranging from psychology, physics, to science fiction. “I love learning how our brains operate and what makes us human. Asking questions is so important,” said Bauer.

She also nurtures an affection for classic Hollywood movies, joking that if the television set is on in her house, it’s almost always tuned in to Turner Classic Movies. She also enjoys going on long hikes with her fiancé David and his two daughters. “The Bay Area is a hiking paradise to me. You can keep going further and further up so you can see the ocean and the coast with these vast open spaces of parkland. There’s nothing quite like it existing in nature,” she said.

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at Maureen.t.f@gmail.com.