Structuring success: Engineering student pursues dream career through internships, co-ops

Ellen Vehige, Ameren intern

Ellen Vehige, senior civil engineering major, poses while conducting an oil containment inspection at Ameren’s Latham Substation. It’s one of several internships she’s had as a student in the UMSL/WUSTL Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program. (Photo courtesy of Ameren)

Already locally famous at 14 years old for her 7-by-7-foot replica of Busch Stadium, some might guess Ellen Vehige would become an architect.

That guess is in line with those of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and former KTVI (Channel 2) host Tim Ezell, both of whom featured Vehige’s feat built of construction paper and tiny black coffee straws.

In fact, Vehige, now an Opportunity Scholar at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, has her sights set on structural engineering as she enters her senior year.

She’s a civil engineering major in the UMSL/Washington University in St. Louis Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program, which she’s finding to be unique in its benefits.

“My favorite thing about the program is being able to complete courses at two great universities,” Vehige said. “It’s really neat to be at both a public and a private university, gaining experiences at each and using all the facilities at Wash U. Plus, it’s convenient because they are very close to each other. It’s a top-notch program academically, and the price and location set it apart from other universities.”

Vehige has found that she loves all things structure-related in her coursework.

“I enjoy determining forces and moments created by loads on structures and seeing what a structure’s capabilities are,” Vehige said.

She most enjoyed calculus and physics in high school at Fort Zumwalt North in O’Fallon, Missouri.

“I’ve always liked solving puzzles. I love challenges and find it really rewarding to solve problems.”

This summer, Ameren is putting her skills to use. Vehige’s internship there has her helping the transmission line design group.

“I’m using a lot of statics structural design concepts that I’ve learned in school to determine forces and how structures will react to loads on them,” she said. “When I’m designing transmission lines, I have to consider various load combinations such as radial ice on cables, wind loads on poles and wires, and if a wire breaks, the distribution of loads must be considered. We design conservatively.”

Vehige also gets to do a lot of hydrology field work for Ameren, proactively monitoring oil containment at substations.

“If there is an oil spill, I look for how quickly spilled oil can get to a water feature and what actions can be taken to prevent spilled oil from reaching that feature,” she said.

“Ameren is really big on the environment. They’re always looking for new, cleaner energy, making sure that the environment is taken care of. They’re doing their part to be responsible.”

Vehige checks the OSV valves, which act as oil/water separators, so that if ever there is an oil spill, the oil is siphoned off into a container for collection. She also assesses substations’ drafts and the topography using Google Earth to determine the direction of flow.

It’s not her first internship or co-op experience either. All three years of her undergraduate career thus far, she’s worked at internships or co-op positions offered to her through the Joint Engineering Program’s community partnerships.

“There are many opportunities here in St. Louis for civil engineers,” Vehige said. “One of the main reasons I chose the UMSL/WUSTL Joint Program was the location. I am able to stay close to home, participate in professional engineering clubs in St. Louis and network with St. Louis engineering companies. The opportunities are really right in front of you.”

Vehige’s sampled her fair share of such opportunities too. She’s helped the City of O’Fallon’s Public Works Department with water and sewer operations, Lochmueller Group with traffic engineering and the United States Army Corps of Engineers with levee inspections.

“I knew civil [engineering] was so broad and wide, I really wanted to fine tune, which area I should pursue,” Vehige said. “So I made sure I was trying all the different areas open to me – traffic, structures, water, etc. And then I also could choose between working for a government agency, investor-owned or private company. It’s just great that I had options available to try.”

Still, Vehige is set on her first love – structural engineering. She’s hoping to stay in St. Louis, close to the home, university, city and community that she says has offered her so much.

The UMSL Experience

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