Miller: engineering to improve the lives of others

New construction engineering adjunct instructor Maria “Catalina” Miller has experienced both the challenge and reward of applying her skills in one of the most difficult circumstances, trying to help refugees of armed political conflict.

Catalina MillerColombian by birth, Miller has worked with the Colombian Red Cross Society to build basic infrastructure for rural families fleeing civil unrest, the latest in Colombia’s long history. Guerrillas forced thousands off their farms into undeveloped urban areas, where they crowded into temporary living arrangements with inadequate sanitary conditions or sources of safe drinking water.

“The project included constructing multiuse rooms, bathrooms, schools, and solutions for potable water,” says Miller. “I had to overcome several challenges—I was inexperienced, we were all volunteers, our laborers were volunteers from the community, and transportation and bureaucracy created obstacles.

“But at the end, I had one of the best experiences for my professional and personal development. I realized we can use our education and our passion to help others. The best reward I could get was to see entire communities recover their hopes, which had been lost for so long.”

Miller’s professional career began in architecture. She earned a bachelor’s degree in the field from St. Thomas University in Colombia. After her work with the Colombian Red Cross Society, she moved to the US to pursue a master of science in construction administration at Oklahoma University, where she lived near her family members. There she met Professor Doug Gransberg, who later moved to Iowa State to become the Donald F. and Sharon A. Greenwood Professor in the CCEE department.

“I have always been interested in the managerial and building aspect of the construction industry, but in Colombia we don’t have construction engineering as a major, so I had to choose between architecture or civil engineering,” she recalls. “Even though I really enjoyed being an architectural student, I didn’t feel my personality was a perfect match. I’m an outside person; I didn’t want to spend most of my working time sitting in front of a computer or drawing table doing designing. I love going to the jobsite, seeing the construction process and equipment, and interacting with people.”

Miller then moved to Florida, where she was an adjunct instructor at Everglades University in Orlando. She was also a construction manager in Florida for Lennar Homes. Five years ago, Miller moved to Pella, Iowa, to work for the architectural services department of Pella Corporation. She says each of these experiences has helped build a holistic perspective of construction engineering.

“Lennar has a great construction system in place, where homes are built in a short time with great quality and at a great price. The company has a unique way to manage its business where the relationships with suppliers and the training provided to the construction manager are the keys to success,” Miller says. “Working for Pella Corporation allowed me to see the construction industry from the manufacturing perspective.”

Miller began her PhD studies in construction engineering this summer and is teaching CCEE construction management courses this fall. As a PhD student, her current research is with Professor Gransberg on asset management, which is funded by the Iowa Department of Transportation.