Employee Spotlight: Rachel Johnson

January 24, 2024

At SMF, we value the unique talents and contributions of our employees. In this employee spotlight, we are excited to showcase Rachel Johnson, an accomplished engineer-in-training who has been an invaluable member of our team. Rachel's journey in engineering has been filled with dedication, growth, and a passion for creating innovative solutions.

Rachel Johnson, E.I.T.


Virginia Beach Office


M.S. Civil Engineering, Structural Engineering Concentration, Virginia Tech

B.S. Civil Engineering, Virginia Tech


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From Legos to Skyscrapers: How Rachel is Building Her Structural Engineering Dreams

Rachel's interest in engineering started early, inspired by her childhood love of buildings, architecture, math, and arts & crafts. She recalls always being fascinated by structures and wanting to understand how they were designed and constructed. She spent hours building with Legos, sketching building designs, and creating arts and crafts projects that incorporated math and spatial skills. This hands-on, creative approach to problem-solving drew her towards the field.

Though initially Rachel considered architecture, she ultimately chose engineering for the opportunity to marry design with technical analysis. Within the different engineering disciplines, structural engineering stood out as the perfect fit - combining her affinity for visualizing buildings with her strong math aptitude. For Rachel, structural engineering brings the satisfaction of both conceiving elegant designs and ensuring their stability through detailed engineering calculations. Her innate curiosity about the structural integrity of buildings she passes now has an outlet in her daily work.

Embarking on an action plan for her dreams, Rachel graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. During her time there, she completed a 4-year long internship at Speight, Marshall, & Francis (SMF), gaining invaluable hands-on experience in structural engineering. Eager to further her education, Rachel took advantage of an accelerated master's degree program at Virginia Tech, allowing her to complete her master's degree in civil engineering in just one additional year after earning her bachelor's degree. She finished this intensive program and obtained her master's degree in May 2023.

The combination of work experience through internships and advanced education put Rachel on solid footing as she transitioned to a full-time role after graduation. Her time at Virginia Tech and with our company provided diverse learning opportunities that shaped her into an experienced structural engineer-in-training ready to take on new challenges.

Rachel at Speight, Marshall & Francis

Rachel finds that our mission to restructure the norm deeply resonates with her. She loves learning things from one coworker, and then trying to duplicate that lesson with someone else. This allows Rachel to gain insight into how different engineers approach problems and share knowledge. When she brings team members together to discuss a topic they may not have talked about individually, she sees immense value in encouraging that dialogue. SMF's emphasis on questioning established ways of doing things helps her gain a deeper understanding of the "why" behind processes. She believes strongly in the power of bringing different perspectives together for rich discussion and learning.

Rachel feels our culture of supporting growth through dialogue and diverse viewpoints sets her up for success. She finds meaning in working for a company trying to rethink entrenched systems in our industry. The opportunity to constantly learn from her talented coworkers keeps her engaged and excited to come to work each day.

Rachel's responsibilities have evolved during her time at the company. As an intern, she worked on a wide variety of projects and gained exposure to many different aspects of structural engineering. Now as a full-time E.I.T., Rachel is focused on singular, in-depth projects. She is mentored by standout engineers like Morgan Speight and Jennifer Johnson, and has been able to take on larger portions of projects under the leadership of senior engineers like Mike Ridge. Within the company, Rachel finds inspiration from Morgan, her first mentor at SMF. Morgan has not only been supportive but has also provided valuable guidance and shared her knowledge with Rachel. Their bond as women in a male-dominated field has been instrumental in Rachel's growth and development, and Morgan's authenticity and genuine nature have made a lasting impact on her.

Rachel now performs more detailed calculations and analysis, which allows her to have a direct impact on her projects. She has more autonomy and responsibility in her work. While she used to work accross various projects as an intern, she now provides input on a project from its initial stages all the way through completion.

Career Development

Rachel aims to take the P.E. exam and get her professional engineering license within the next 5 years. She views this as an important milestone in advancing her career as a structural engineer. Beyond getting her PE license, she also hopes to fully design a building on her own within the next 5 years. She looks forward to the satisfaction of being able to drive by a building she fully designed and point it out. This will represent a major accomplishment as an engineer, demonstrating her technical skills and comprehensive understanding of structural design.

Her career goals reflect her ambition and eagerness to take on more responsibility. She is motivated to continue honing her expertise in order to achieve the independence to manage complete building projects. Her aspirations align with the company's focus on fostering the professional growth of young engineers. With her dedication and work ethic, Rachel is on track to becoming a lead structural engineer capable of overseeing all aspects of complex building designs.

Overcoming Challenges

When asked on any advice she would give to other young engineers, Rachel emphasizes the importance of doing thorough research on potential careers before committing. She advises, "Do your research to make sure you know what you're getting yourself into." In particular, she notes that structural engineering requires a deep foundation in material properties before being able to specialize or problem solve. "Structural engineering starts as material properties. You must understand the basics of material properties to get how things work together."

Rachel cautions that establishing this base of fundamentals requires determination and perseverance. "There's lots of effort upfront. You cannot specialize until you understand the basics." She adds, "Problem solving cannot come without the upfront work – you must have determination."

Rachel credits her academic and career success thus far to having a growth mindset and embracing struggle as an opportunity to learn. Each completed project has helped build her engineering expertise and self-confidence. Through leaning on mentors and being willing to ask questions, she has developed into a capable structural engineer. Now having a few years under her belt at SMF, Rachel feels equipped to take on new challenges. While struggles still arise, she knows she has the resilience and support system to push through. 

The Woman Behind the Hard Hat

Rachel has a secret talent that most people don't know about - she did gymnastics for 12 years! This background in gymnastics gave her both creativity and problem-solving skills that have served her well as an engineer. Gymnastics requires its athletes to be nimble, detail-oriented, and determined. She put in long hours at the gym perfecting her technique and learning new skills. This helped her develop strong time management abilities and a tenacious work ethic. The sport also enabled her to express herself creatively through dance-like floor routines. But gymnastics also requires analytical thinking, spatial awareness, and physics knowledge. She had to understand how her body moved through space and how to control her momentum on events like the balance beam.

These combined creative and analytical abilities from years of gymnastics have uniquely equipped Rachel for a career in structural engineering. She is able to think both visually and mathematically, skills that few engineers possess in equal measure. Her gymnastics background makes her stand out on the SMF team, though few people know about this secret talent!

Bitten By the Travel Bug

Rachel has a wide range of personal interests outside of work that showcase her curiosity and passion for learning. She loves to travel and see friends, with recent trips to Europe over the summer and plans to visit Antarctica in 2025. She enjoys cruises as a way to explore new places.

Her creative side shines through various arts, crafts, and hands-on hobbies. Disc golf allows her to get outdoors and be active. Board games and escape rooms provide fun challenges to solve with others. Rachel also values connecting with friends and family through these favorite pastimes.

Rachel's diverse hobbies reflect her well-rounded interests and ability to find joy in many different activities. Her openness to new experiences promises continued growth, on top of her already impressive achievements so early in her engineering career.

Rachel Johnson's journey at SMF has been a testament to her hard work, passion for learning, and dedication to making a difference in the world of structural engineering. Her accomplishments, both academically and professionally, are truly inspiring. We are grateful to have Rachel as a valued member of our team and look forward to witnessing her continued growth and success in the years to come.