For the August edition of In the Lead, we asked Ilya Marotta, a member of IWF-Panama, a few questions about her career as a marine engineer and her work on the Panama Canal Expansion project that was completed last year.
In 2016, Ilya received the IWF Woman Who Makes a Difference award.
This October, Ilya will be a featured presenter during the Ideas Remaking the World session of the IWF World Leadership Conference in Houston, Texas.
At what point were you drawn to marine engineering? Was there any specific event or moment that pushed you to enter this field?
I have always had a special love for the sea. It is my place of peace and comfort. Growing up, I was a fan of Jacques Cousteau, the famous French oceanographer. I started scuba diving at the age of 16. I won a Fulbright scholarship to study Marine Biology in Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania. After a year and a half of studying marine biology and looking at the lack of job opportunities at that time in Panama, I decided to switch careers and gave up my scholarship. I transferred to Texas A&M and started in Oceanography, another career without many prospects in Panama. Since I had always been good at math and physics, I decided to change my field of study once again to Marine Engineering – close enough to the ocean for me. So even though I did not choose marine engineering as my first passion in life, once I started working, I fell in love with it.
When you studied Marine Engineering at Texas A&M University you were one of only two women in the program. What was that experience like? How did your peers and professors react to you making a path for yourself in a male-dominated program?
Being one of two women in the Marine Engineering program at Texas A&M was a wonderful experience. I had the full support of my professors and an amiable and fraternal camaraderie with the male students. I felt very welcomed. We were even able to help each other out when needed. For example, I had no experience welding and very little in machine shop, so my classmates taught me tips and, in turn, I helped them study in areas that were easy for me.
The Panama Canal Expansion project was completed in June 2016. Why was there a need for such an expansion, and in what ways is the updated canal an improvement?
The need for expanding the canal became apparent in 1997. There were two reasons: the existing canal was reaching maximum transit capacity and larger vessels which could not pass through our existing locks were becoming more common.
In 2002, we started a formal process of defining the project. The Constitution of Panama required the Third Set of Locks project be ratified by a national referendum of the Panamanian people. After five years of in-depth analysis, the project, which created an additional lane with locks 30 percent larger than the original ones, was approved in October 2006.
The project was large and complicated. The existing navigational channels were dredged, which included sea entrances to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and a fresh water navigational channel through Gatun Lake. Additionally, a new navigational channel 6.2 kilometers long had to be created, along with four earthen dams and two new lock complexes, one on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic side, with nine water saving basins each and 18 rolling gates.
In total, a team representing more than 80 nationalities participated in the project, 90 percent of the labor force was Panamanian, and over 41,000 jobs were created during its 9-year execution. At peak construction 14,000 people were working on the project.
My motto was “never a dull moment.” Not a day passed that a pressing issue didn´t need to be resolved. It has been an honor and a great learning experience to have worked as part of such a committed team on what I consider a humbling undertaking.
When you spend days on-site, you’ve been known to wear a signature pink hardhat and vest. What motivated you to make that decision? Is there a statement you’re trying to make?
When one is developing a career in a male dominated area, the easiest part of fitting in is during college. Once you enter the workforce, social prejudices become immediately apparent. The higher the position, the harder it gets. It takes a lot of hard work to demonstrate one’s abilities are equal to a male counterpart’s. I have been very fortunate in my career that most of my bosses valued, appreciated, and recognized my work and contributions. Fortunately, this opened doors in my professional advancement. My immediate supervisor was key to my selection for this position, and I shall be forever grateful. The idea of a woman heading a project of such magnitude, was unthinkable to some. After my appointment, I shared my thoughts with my husband on how improbable it was for a woman to hold this important position. Something inside of me said I had to make a statement to highlight my appointment. I had no idea that my “signature pink hard hat” would become a statement in and of itself. And now it gives me a degree of satisfaction to know that I might provide some inspiration for other women who wish to realize their own personal and professional achievement in engineering and other male-dominated professions.
What advice do you have for young people considering a career in engineering?
Engineering is a fantastic career choice. It’s hard work, but very rewarding and key to world growth and advancement. Engineers make a difference. It´s a diverse career; there are so many fields in engineering that it allows one to make a difference in the discipline you find most attractive. I would advise someone to be open to change. I have never been afraid to take on challenges or enter into new areas. We should always try to learn something new. So I encourage future engineers to experiment and explore the huge field fearlessly.
When did you first feel like a leader in your field?
I think the people around you are the ones that make you realize that you are a leader. When your coworkers reaching out to you for guidance and advice, that is when you realize you might be a leader. When you start to see the untapped potential in those people, that is confirmation of leadership.
What do you hope to achieve next?
Whatever life throws at me! I have never been a careful planner. New opportunities have often presented themselves in their own time. When that happens, I confront the challenge and embrace it. I like to grow both personally and professionally. One goal near and dear to my heart that I did not plan for was to support the Ronald McDonald House Foundation. The “house” was our home away from home for a year in New York City, while my 17 year old son was fighting cancer in 2011. Two years ago, RMHC opened up a facility in Panama. I was asked to be a member of their Board of Directors, and I happily accepted! That was a wonderfully unexpected opportunity.