Real engineers wear pink: a profile of Ilya Marotta

The Panama Canal's top female engineer on her dream job expanding the infamous waterway

Ilya Marotta is the Executive Vice President of Engineering for the Panama Canal Expansion Project. Every project happening with the new canal is on her watch. In April 2016, the new Panama Canal will open for business. Right now, while testing is still ongoing, Marotta gives TechKnow an inside glimpse into what it’s like to work on what she calls a “dream job for any engineer.”

The following was adapted from an interview with “TechKnow.” It has been edited for length and clarity.

TechKnow: So the expansion, huge project.

Ilya Marotta: Yes

Why the need, why expand?

Ok, the existing canal you could put Panamax vessels on it, and the market out there is growing. The existing canal is pretty much full so we don't have much room for more ships. If we are going to increase the capacity of the canal, we needed to look also for bigger ships to get it a new market and we charge per capacity of the vessel so the bigger the vessel, the more we can charge so then we analyzed what is the best size for new locks so that is what we came out with the Neo-Panamax locks because there's some big ships out there that will still not fit through these locks, but a big significant part of it will.

How much bigger are we talking?

This is 30 percent larger. You will be able to put, if we think containers, the biggest ship that you can put it through the existing canal can take between 4,500 and 5,000 containers. Here you will be able to put a ship with 14,000 containers on top.

So from the beginning this was a challenging project?

Oh, it has been.

The engineering is impressive. Tell me some of the highlights.

Ok, the original canal if you look at it, we excavated 200 million cubic meters of dirt. Here it's a 150 million cubic meters of dirt so a lot of earth got moved. A lot of dredging has been done because the project is not just the locks. It's just massive. We had to make a brand new navigation channel… then when we started this project after excavation got done, the concrete was massive. They had to do a lot of different types of equipment to pour the concrete depending on the locations.

So how many people are working right now?

Right now, we have 6,800 people between Atlantic and Pacific. At the peak moment of construction between this project and the other ones that are going on, we had 14,000 people onsite into shifts of course. Right now, you know the project is winding down. We have completed all of the dredging and all of dry excavation so we are just finishing up the locks.

Do you think you are going to make the (April 16th completion) date?

Yes, yes, the contractors saying very confidently that he will. I mean all of the equipment is here. All of the electro-mechanical is installed. What's missing is basically some of the minor civil work and all the testing of all the components. We have tests four gates in the Atlantic, three gates in the Pacific. There’s a 172 valves to be tested, and they have all been dry tested. Now we are starting with this ceiling, the flow part, so yes, it looks like a doable date.

So canal old versus new, can you break down the difference?

Oh yeah, they are very significant differences. The size itself is 30 percent larger. We have water saving basins. That’s a new technology for us. It has been used in Germany for a hundred years but not to the magnitude that we are using it here.

In the planning of the canal, did you account for things like El Nino, things like climate change?

Not really, we accounted for preserving water and that's why we use the water savings basins, but El Nino is something that happened in a hundred and 2 years of operation twice so it’s not something that you design for. You mitigate.

The planning that went into this expansion. You did a lot of studies on both the environment, the engineering. Now that you are well into this expansion, do you think that's enough?

Oh plenty, yes. I think we did a very good job. There were no big surprises in a sense that ok, they had a hard time with the concrete because it was very stiff but you got results. Engineering it just a beautiful science because you always find a way to resolve the issues. I think we did the right amount of studies. We did archeological, pre-archeological identification of areas and we had an archeologist on site…We did a lot of environmental research oversight in the project.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research institute has been working in this country, studying for decades almost 100 years. Did you work alongside them?

Yes, we actually awarded a one million dollar contract to the Smithsonian for 5 years, and they were fascinated. They did all of the paleontological research because we excavated areas that have never been uncovered before…They found turtles, whales, the predecessor of the camel...They are actually rethinking some of the theories they had before about the currents in this area and when the isthmus of Panama actually came to be.

When you think of the building of the original Panama Canal, it is one of the most impressive engineering feats that mankind has done and now you are taking on this expansion. What is that like?

Well, it's pretty awesome. I don't see it that big because I am in the project every day and it's my everyday life, but a lot of people tell me, ‘God Ilya, you are going to go down in history like the original construction,’ so it's a great feeling. This is a dream job for any engineer. It's fantastic. I will feel more like wow, right now it's like my everyday job and I love it.

Does it amaze you that they were able to accomplish 700 years ago what you guys are doing today?

Totally, when I think of all the machinery that we have today, all the technology, those people worked three times harder than we did. Those engineers that designed the control system at that time were engineers that went to school in the 1800s.

Phil Torres and Ilya surveying the Panama Canal expansion lane

Now I've got to say everybody here is wearing an orange vest but you are wearing pink, why is that?

When I got the job, I said…let’s face it, you don't expect a woman to have this job so a lot of the people would say, can you do it?  This guy said, ‘Ilya,  you are married, you have a husband, you have three kids.’  I said, ‘you know I went to Marine Engineering College, we were two girls in the school. I've been in a man's world all my life. I started working in shipyard.  I can do it.’ I've been around men all my life, but it's not common. It wasn't expected so it was like; you know if I'm a girl, I should wear pink.

You gotta own it.

So I did. I bought myself a pink hardhat and a pink vest and I said how do I tell my boss I got me a pink hardhat. It worked out… I actually told my boss, I said you know I got these guys to put my name on it and they put 2 white butterflies on the outside of my helmet, and I thought, that's a little bit too much so I took the butterflies and I put them underneath…He was speechless.

So when we look at this we see just a giant project with a lot going on, when you look at this, what do you see?

Well it's a dream come true because I saw paper, I saw dirt. So when you see this thing being built from the ground up , it's like a dream come true, wow, it's a beautiful structure and you know in your head everything that is below and how everything is built so it's just a magnificent masterpiece. It's not just a lock.

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