Published: March 19, 2023 By

Katie Chambers

Katie Chambers

When Katie Chambers finished her environmental engineering undergraduate degree at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in 2016, she was not entirely sure what she wanted to do next. 

Most of the environmental engineering jobs she wanted around water and sanitation required higher degrees that would be expensive to complete. That was when she first heard about the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program from the U.S. Department of Education. It provides fellowships to graduate students with excellent academic records who demonstrate financial need and plan to pursue an advanced degree in a field designated as an area of national need in the United States. 

In CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, the GAANN program trains future scientists and engineers in areas that relate to resilience in the face of natural or manmade disasters at home and abroad.

“The University of Colorado Boulder offered me a full ride through the GAANN program to do a PhD and it was hard to say no to that – especially with the beautiful location,” said Chambers. “But I would say the opportunity to learn and work with (Professor) Sherri Cook – who is so committed to her students – on topics related to resilience was a huge part of why I came here. It was a great opportunity I couldn’t pass on in so many ways.”

Chambers (PhDCivEngr’21) studied water, sanitation, and hygiene in low-income settings for her PhD. Her research eventually focused on sanitation reconstruction in Ethiopian communities that had suffered from regular flooding – seeking ways to better build resilience into the infrastructure in the area.

“I was a part of Engineers Without Borders as an undergrad, so this research was a sort of natural extension of that work, and I was able to travel there and work in the field as well,” she said. “I certainly had an interest in sanitation resilience and reconstruction in hazard-prone areas before coming to CU, but Sherri really helped me put together a great PhD thesis from that during my time with her.”

Today, Chambers works for the U.S. Government Accountability Office as part of the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics Team. As a part of the legislative branch, the Government Accountability Office provides Congress, the heads of executive agencies, and the public with timely, fact-based, non-partisan information that can be used to improve government and save taxpayers billions of dollars. 

Katie Chambers at the U.S. CapitolKatie Chambers at the U.S. Capitol building. She finished her PhD through the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program.

Chambers’ team focuses specifically on scientific advancements and she is based out of the Denver field office.

“My team provides Congress with foresight, oversight, and insight on challenging science and technology topics, as well as the policies governing them – everything from carbon capture to artificial intelligence, quantum computing and vaccine development," she said. “It’s our job as the experts to provide reports for Congress about the current and potential effects of these topics, as well as provide context and key policy questions lawmakers should consider around them.”

Chambers also earned graduate certificates in science and technology policy and in global engineering during her time at CU Boulder. She said both have helped in this role immensely.

"Our audience is largely non-scientists, but our technical knowledge is important for helping us understand these complex topics. So, I would say having the added experience from both of those certificates allows me to talk at several levels about why these scientific advances matter and communicate well when it comes to the policy implications,” she said.

Chambers said younger engineers considering graduate school or joining the workforce should try to take courses outside their core disciplines if possible.

“All of the professors I worked with were wonderful and were always happy to talk with me, which was incredible,” she said. “I recommend exploring outside your home department in terms of classes or certificates to build your network and see how your interests and expertise can be used in different career paths.”