IE’s first female PhD grad finds success in utility consulting

Karen Ponder poses with her family during her son’s wedding. From left: Wendell Ponder (Karen’s husband), Ross Ponder (Karen’s son), Sarah Ponder (Karen’s daughter in law), and Karen Ponder. Photo courtesy of Karen Ponder

This article is part of a series of stories for Women’s History Month. To learn about other pioneering female engineers from Iowa State, click here.

Karen (Hallaman) Ponder became the first woman to complete a PhD in industrial engineering at Iowa State when she graduated in 1978.

Ponder was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana and spent most of her formative years along the Gulf Coast of the Pelican State. She attributes her interest in engineering to her parents. Her father, Charles Hallaman, was a mechanical engineer while her mother, Florence Hallaman, worked as a draftsman during World War II.

She attended McNeese State University in her hometown of Lake Charles and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematical statistics.

“McNeese was a much different experience than Iowa State since research was not a priority,” said Ponder. “However, they had faculty who excelled in teaching and gave me the desire to go on to graduate school.”

Ponder moved to Ames in 1973 to pursue a MS in statistics, citing “Iowa State’s national reputation in statistics” as her reason for attending. It was in the stats department that Ponder met her now-husband of 43 years, Wendell Ponder. After completing her MS she knew she wanted to pursue another degree but wanted to focus on something other than statistics.

“I was first attracted to industrial engineering since it used a great deal of the mathematics I studied and involved more practical matters,” said Ponder. “Initially I thought that operations research would be my focus, and I met with several faculty members to discuss my options.  Through this process I learned about engineering valuation, the Iowa curves, and public utility depreciation.”

While in grad school, Ponder’s office was in the Engineering Annex which was to the south and east of where Marston Water Tower currently stands. As a graduate student she received support from the Power Affiliate Group which through utility companies in the state provided funding for graduate students interested in the electric utility industry.

Dr. Harold Cowles, Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Photo courtesy of Iowa State University Special Collections and University Archives

“That was an extraordinarily valuable experience that allowed me to focus on research,” said Ponder. “One summer I participated in a survey of various Iowa utilities on their accounting practices.  That was a fascinating transition into the real world.”

While at Iowa State, Ponder developed a strong relationship with longtime IE professor Harold Cowles who she said was the major influence on her professional development.

“Dr. Harold Cowles, my major professor, was a wonderful mentor and fostered my interest in the subject,” Ponder said.

Cowles along with Dr. G. W. Smith and Dr. G. E. Lamp, Jr., taught a series of classes to employees of the Bell System who came to Ames for a five-week workshop where the topics ranged from engineering economics to depreciation. She said that by sitting in a classroom full of utility professionals she learned how to apply various concepts in the curriculum to the real world.

But even outside of the class, Ponder said she developed memories that will always keep Iowa State near and dear to her.

“I have very fond memories of the campus itself as the leaves would change colors in the fall, the Campanile, Madrigal Dinners, shows at the Maintenance Shop in the Union,” she said.

The cover of Karen Ponder’s 1978 PhD dissertation: “Some aspects of statistically modeling the simulated plant-record method of life analysis.” Image courtesy of Iowa State University Digital Repository

After completing her PhD Ponder moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but parts of Ames never left her.

“My time at Iowa State shaped the rest of my professional life,” said Ponder. “For many years, I worked at the local electric utility performing depreciation studies, using the skills I acquired in the engineering valuation program.

Ponder’s skillset afforded her the opportunity to work from home to care for her children while they were young. Part of that work included teaching engineering valuation skills through a seminar developed by Dr. W.C. Fitch, an alumnus of Iowa State’s engineering valuation program.

Since 2004 Ponder has worked for the Alliance Consulting Group performing depreciation studies for utility companies across the United States. In her free time she enjoys spending time with her family

“We are blessed with children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who help keep me young at heart,” said Ponder. “I also enjoy reading and seeing the world in different ways.”

Ponder said she becomes nostalgic when thinking about her time at Iowa State and acknowledges that it was the foundation laid by Iowa State faculty members in the early 20th century that helped to create a positive experience for students both before and after her.

“Iowa State fostered the study of life of industrial property in the early days of the 20th century as Prof. Marston encouraged the early pioneers in engineering valuation.  I regret that engineering valuation as a curriculum is no longer part of the industrial engineering graduate program.  For me, it has been a field of study that has been the focus of my career.”