Trudging through sewers may not be part of every little girl’s dream job, but U of M Civil Engineer Cathy Abene takes pride in the U’s network of storm tunnels.
“I have access to the most interesting infrastructure that dates back to the turn of the last century,” said Abene. “You can see the history of how municipal systems were built by what we’ve done here on the campus. It’s just big enough to be interesting, but not so big that it’s unmanageable."
Abene likes the fact that her job encompasses the past, present and future of the U. She helps maintain the decades-old, and sometimes century-old, infrastructure of the Twin Cities Campus.
“The storm tunnels are eighty or ninety years old and they look like new,” said Abene.
After graduating from the U in 1999 with a degree in Civil Engineering, Abene became the first female engineer to work at Hennepin County in its 150+ years of existence. She moved on to the City of Seattle transportation department before landing back at the U in 2008.
Originally enrolled as a film student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), the Benilde St. Margaret’s alumna became frustrated with the sacrifices she and her classmates had to endure just to make ends meet . During her extended college years, Abene worked as a painter, taxi cab driver, telemarketer, courier and Christmas tree sales person.
“I could have probably been working in film today if I was willing to make the sacrifices it took, but I guess I didn’t want to do that,” remembers Abene. “I knew I wasn’t going to do what it took to get that far. So, I thought I would do something more practical, like civil engineering. I’ve never been without a job since graduating from the U.”
When trying to decide what to do after leaving art school, Abene was intrigued by stories about municipal infrastructure.
“I’m very interested in the way things work,” said Abene. “I remember reading an article about buried subway stations in New York City and thinking, ‘that is the coolest thing ever!’”
Art school did come with some benefits, though. Abene met her partner Maren while studying at MCAD. The two now live in South Minneapolis with their son Moritz, 11, and seven-year-old twin daughters Antonia and Harriet. They have bought renovated and sold several houses, but plan on staying in their current home for a while.
Abene is also passionate about civic engagement. She has volunteered for several campaigns doing everything from answering phones to knocking on doors to painting signs.
“I think it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on, because otherwise things happen right under our noses,” commented Abene. “My new favorite quote is, ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.’”