From oil fields to council chambers: Vanderbilt engineer uses background for change
Dana Brown Gutwein’s career started in the oil fields of California, pump jacks as far as the eye could see, running tests all day and sleeping in her truck at night.
And while the Vanderbilt University engineering alumna’s life today couldn’t be more different, she wouldn’t change a thing about that fossil fuels background.
On the personal side, it allowed her to meet her husband, a fellow engineer. And on the professional side, it gave her the background to appreciate technological advances contributed by the oil industry, the scope of America’s fossil fuels dependency and a platform to encourage sustainability.
Gutwein (BE’06) is bringing all of that to her new role as Lakewood, Colorado, city councilwoman. Elected in November after a hotly contested race, she promised constituents to use her seat to encourage and fund more ecologically sound practices for the Denver suburb. That her campaign strategy worked says a lot about her constituents’ interests right now.
“Jefferson County is a half blue, half red, swing county in a swing state, and that makes it very politically important,” Gutwein said. “Running was an education in itself. I really, truly believe that we can and need to make sustainable differences, and when things got hard, that fact drove me to keep going. Because I have kids, I genuinely believe we’re responsible for the financial situation we leave them and the resource situation.”
Gutwein got involved with Lakewood government as a neighborhood organizer. She helped turn her Southern Gables subdivision into what Lakewood Sustainability Manager Jonathan Wachtel calls “a shining star” in a city program that awards points to communities for forming teams, coming up with a mission statement and sustainability projects and then completing those.
Such programs open the city to more walking and biking, composting, community gardening and mapping bee-safe yards and free-for-the-picking fruit trees, he said.
Neighborhoods earn points for those efforts and can become certified as members of the Sustainable Neighborhood Network. Last year, Lakewood committed to reducing greenhouse gases ahead of the Paris climate talks and released its first sustainability plan.
Gutwein said she feared a lot of that progress might be reversed if she didn’t run for office. She demonstrates her personal commitment by living in a home that’s a model of ecologically sound practices. The front yard is xeriscaped, all the toilets, faucets and showers low-flow, the bulbs are LED and CFL. The family is going solar this month.
Gutwein and her husband, Chet, operations manager for Airtech Environmental Services, are vegetarians, although children Presley, 5, Teddy, 4, are not.
She grew up in suburban Philadelphia and learned about about Vanderbilt University School of Engineering through a college advising book her mother gave her. Vanderbilt was the only university Gutwein visited — her commitment was instant. She double-majored in engineering science and neuroscience and said her education prepared her for a career first in the oil industry and now as an elected official.
“All of the resources and the quality of the programs and the way they taught me to think had a tremendous impact on me. That’s why I try to improve the things around me,” she said. “I had to work incredibly hard to win this election, and that was just the beginning of the challenges we’re going to face.
“Getting an education at a competitive school like Vanderbilt, it makes you comfortable to continue pushing yourself.”
Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering