FPE Undergraduate Student Profile: Christine Pongratz

Christine Pongratz. During her time at the Clark School, she was a member of Women In Engineering's  FLEXUS living-learning program, a Clark School Ambassador, and the president of the UMD chapter of Salmander, the National FPE Honor Society. She loved talking to parents and prospective students about the FPE program, and was a frequent participant in the department's recruiting events. She encourages students who may be interested in FPE to take ENFP 101, a 1-credit course that provides an overview of the discipline.

Forging a Career in Fire Protection Engineering

Christine Pongratz (B.S. ’13, M.S. ’14) is preparing for a big move: she’ll be launching her career as a fire protection engineering consultant with Arup, and she’ll be doing it in London. Her journey from Boston high school student to globetrotting alumna demonstrates not only the many opportunities our students have to pursue their goals, but also how this support inspires them to pass on their love of the discipline to those who follow them.

Although she attended a Discovering Engineering summer program thinking she would pursue civil or chemical engineering, Pongratz returned home fascinated by Fire Protection Engineering (FPE), which incorporated aspects of both.

As a student, she shared her love of her major by becoming a Clark School Ambassador, giving presentations and running demonstrations at the same recruiting events that had inspired her. She made a point of explaining to prospective students that career opportunities in FPE are much more varied and plentiful than the department’s small size and special niche imply.

“The first thing I always say is that every single building and every single thing that you buy needs to be tested [for flammability], and needs to be understood by fire protection engineers,” she says. “Fire protection is everywhere. Everyone needs it, and no one sees it.”

Pongratz took advantage of every opportunity she could to explore her options, especially those that introduced her to professionals in the field. She attended conferences and networking events (“I kind of followed Dr. Milke,” she jokes), pursued internships, and served as the UMD president of Salamander, the National FPE Honor Society, which runs an annual career fair. The department’s small size fostered close relationships with full-time faculty members, who helped introduce her to alumni and prospective employers. She was also able to establish connections with adjunct professors from industry.

"...every single building and every single thing that you buy needs to be tested [for flammability], and needs to be understood by fire protection engineers. “Fire protection is everywhere. Everyone needs it, and no one sees it."

Fire Protection Engineering alumna student Christine Pongratz.

Knowing she wanted to travel, Pongratz minored in international engineering and studied abroad in Prague and Australia. During her travels, she also encountered her future employer, Arup, which has offices in over 35 countries. She later interned at the company’s Boston offices, where she studied fire alarm design and smoke management. The latter topic inspired her M.S. thesis, for which she created a fire dynamics simulation (FDS) tool to help architects balance attractive atrium design with code-compliant, effective air exhaust and intake systems.

While in Australia, Pongratz discovered performance-based building design (PBD), a system used in a growing number of countries that is not as rigid as U.S. building codes. PBD uses FDS and empirical calculations to identify fire hazards and determine whether a structure needs more, less, or different protection than the codes require. This gives designers the flexibility, particularly in mixed-use structures, to create more effective and efficient fire safety systems.

The topic stayed on her mind long after she returned to Maryland. Fascinated by the possibilities, she ultimately accepted a full-time position at Arup’s London headquarters so she could learn as much as possible about PBD and try to bring the concept to the U.S.

All of Pongratz’s experiences molded her into the fire protection engineer she is today, and have helped her distinguish herself as she launches her career.

“[FPE] completely one-eightied my life,” she says of her time at Maryland. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunities [I did] if I was just another [engineering] student.”

But her ultimate resource, she adds, was and continues to be FPE’s alumni.

“Working with the alumni, and having them be so interested in us, is like a gift. Every hour they give me, I want to give back…I really do love it here. I think it’s going to be kind of crazy leaving…but at the same time, I think I’m ready.”