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Laurie Parsons
March 14, 2018

Engineering degree, passion for water spark successful consulting career

Written By: Silke Schmidt

Laurie Parsons (MS ’87) will do just about anything for water. If the goal is to reduce water pollution with better waste disposal systems, she’ll even collect badly smelling wastewater samples in a Wisconsin cheese factory.

But she didn’t enjoy that experience enough to become a wastewater engineer. The path toward her true calling was guided by her passion for water and started with earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Next came a move to Madison, for her first job with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and then the idea of going back to school for a graduate degree—in either engineering or resource management.

To help make that decision, she sought out DNR projects that involved interactions with engineers.

“I found myself really enjoying those conversations, so I decided to become an environmental engineer, even though I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree in engineering and didn’t always excel in math,” Parsons says. “That’s why I tell many students today, especially women, not to get stuck on math concerns early in life.”

Since the Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, native had already fallen in love with Madison’s lakes, the best place to pursue her graduate education was just a few miles away, and after completing prerequisite coursework, she was accepted into the civil and environmental engineering master’s program at UW-Madison. Here, she designed her own curriculum by combining groundwater hydraulics and contaminant assessment, with a focus on water remediation.

In addition to Professor William Boyle, under whom she collected the smelly wastewater samples, Parsons credits Professors John Hoopes, Peter Monkmeyer and Kenneth Potter as being supportive and influential mentors, each in their own and unique ways. Before she even received her graduate degree in May 1987, she accepted a job offer from Warzyn Engineering and eventually moved her position from Madison to Milwaukee.

Leaving Madison wasn’t easy, she says, but there was a good reason for it: She had met her husband, large animal veterinarian Mark Lindborg, who had more cows to care for in Hartford, 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee. With a shared love of sailing, kayaking, scuba diving and windsurfing, they found plenty of opportunities to enjoy the lakes in and around both cities and continue to pursue most of these hobbies today.

In 1994, just seven years out of graduate school, Parsons made her next career move: She left Warzyn, a large and solid company, to establish engineering services for then-startup company Natural Resource Technology, Inc.

That ended up being an excellent decision. Thirteen years later, she became the president of NRT, growing the company from 40 to 70 employees and adding offices in Illinois and Michigan. It became so well recognized for its environmental services that it attracted the attention of the East Coast consulting company O’Brien & Gere (OBG), when the much larger firm considered expanding into the Midwest.

“I’m so glad I had the guts, at a second major crossroads in my career, to sell my baby to OBG in order to keep us on our ‘best in class’ trajectory for employment and professional development opportunities for our staff,” Parsons says. “But I couldn’t have done it without the support of my husband, my business partners, my mother and the rest of my family.”

She and her partners sold NRT in 2017, added its 70 employees to OBG’s staff of 900, led the company’s environmental division for about a year and, in January 2018, became its senior vice president, charged with overseeing its continued growth in the Midwest.

Today, she spends most of her time on strategic problem solutions and team building. She contributes to the growth of the firm’s diverse services, such as advanced manufacturing, coastal resiliency, smart energy systems, wastewater treatment and forward-thinking techniques for environmental remediation.

In 2015, Parsons received the regional “STEM Forward Engineer of the Year” award of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the largest professional organization in her field. It honors not only her career accomplishments, but also her commitment to public service, including her regular participation in events that expose young people to careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Through these events, Parsons has become a prominent role model, especially for girls and women.

Her daughter, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from UW-Madison, currently sits in the same office that was her mother’s first professional home at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources—and is in the midst of making her own decisions about going back to graduate school.

Parsons offers this advice to engineering students today: “Challenge the status quo, don’t be discouraged by an occasional poor grade, and pace yourself, since finishing your program as quickly as possible isn’t always the best strategy,” she says.

“Most importantly, know that you’ve already made a great choice by getting a degree in engineering. Even if you don’t stay in the specialty you trained in, there are many other ways to put your skills to work—so don’t swim in a single lane.”