Chief engineer Ilya de Marotta completes a vast Panama Canal extension project

A famous palindrome coined in 1948 reads “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama.” Update that witticism to 2016 and it no longer reads the same way backwards and forwards. On the Panama Canal, the plans are now drawn up by a woman who wears a trademark pink hard-hat and is about to complete one of the world’s biggest infrastructure operations.

Ilya Espino de Marotta is the Panama Canal Authority’s executive vice president for engineering and programs management. She was appointed in 2012 to oversee the biggest upgrade to the canal since it opened in 1914. De Marotta had to overcome criticism from those who questioned her abilities in a male-dominated profession. But she got the job done and the massive new locks on either end of the 48-mile waterway will be inaugurated on 26 June.

“Some men questioned my appointment, but I can handle it,” says de Marotta. “I wear the pink hard-hat to make a statement that a woman can do this job.”

The USD 5.2 billion expansion of the canal includes the construction of the locks, widening and deepening the old canal, and digging a new 6.3 km navigation channel to accommodate today’s biggest ships, which can carry 14,000 containers at once. The upgrade is vital not only for Panama, but also for world trade—which is why the European Investment Bank kicked in a USD 500 million loan to help finance it.

From Cousteau fan to Panama Canal engineer

Panama Canal engineer Ilya de MarottaDe Marotta’s connection to the water grew out of a childhood fascination with scuba diving and the work of Jacques Cousteau, the French explorer and filmmaker. “I love the ocean,” she says. “It’s my life.”

As an undergraduate she studied marine engineering at Texas A&M University and received a Master’s in economic engineering from Universidad Católica Santa María La Antigua in Panama.

Her first job on the canal was in the engineering section of the shipyard, where all the maintenance for floating equipment takes place, including work on tugboats, launches, dredgers, floating cranes and barges. She has worked for the Panama Canal Authority for almost 30 years and on the expansion project since 2002.  In 2007, she was appointed as executive manager of resources and project control before being placed at the head of the entire expansion operation in 2012.

“I find her story inspirational,” says Inge Vermeersch, the Belgian port engineer who monitors the Panama project for the EIB. “It’s not common to find a female engineer in charge of such an immense infrastructure work.”

A big month for big locks

The Panama inauguration caps a big month for EIB involvement in massive marine infrastructure. Earlier in June, the Belgian city of Antwerp inaugurated the Kieldrecht lock, which took over from the Berendrecht lock on the opposite bank of the River Scheldt as the world’s biggest lock with the help of a EUR 160.5 million loan from the EIB.

The new Panama locks are modelled on the design of the Berendrecht and European engineers—including the Belgian company behind the Antwerp construction—are major participants in the project. But, whereas the Berendrecht was designed to shield ships from six-metre tidal changes in the Scheldt, the Panama locks must cope with raising vessels the 26 metres necessary to move them from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Panama Canal engineer and other women get job done

The EIB signed on to the canal expansion project in 2008 alongside a number of other international financial institutions, including:

Susan Antz, the EIB loan officer who worked on the deal, notes that all these international financial institutions were represented in the negotiations by women. “It’s appropriate that the top engineer is a woman, too,” she says. In fact, the entire EIB team working on the project and its monitoring happens to have been made up of women.

Her job extends beyond the water

De Marotta’s work on the canal has taken her successfully into other areas typically associated with male professionals. Old US military bases in Panama lay unused, because of large amounts of explosives buried near the surface. The project faced many challenges, one of them being the removal of this military ordnance and the landscaping of the bases with 150 million cubic metres of soil dredged up to make the canal’s navigation channels wide enough for today’s massive ships.

Now the bases are to be used to house businesses linked to the canal. De Marotta doesn’t claim credit for that idea—it was her husband Peter Marotta, captain of a canal dredger, who thought of it.

Glued to her Bible

As she piloted this complex project towards its conclusion, de Marotta confronted the kind of personal crisis that could derail even the most dedicated professional. In 2010, her son underwent treatment for bone cancer. She spent much of the year comforting him in a New York hospital, where her husband was also being treated for prostate cancer. Each month she returned to the canal for a week to oversee the work.

“It was a lot of pressure,” she recalls. “I was glued to my Bible. I had the help of God, and it was a successful year.” Her son and husband are both now clear of cancer. Peter Marotta retired a year ago after 42 years on the canal.

Role model with leadership skills

All this has made de Marotta a powerful role model. “I’m very proud to talk to women about my career,” she says. “I have leadership skills. I’m pretty democratic. I get people to come together.”

Even when the massive ships start gliding through the new locks, de Marotta’s work on the canal will continue. At the canal’s Atlantic end, she’s overseeing the construction of a bridge with a main span of 530 metres. The pink hard-hat will be visible over the blue waters of the canal for some time yet.

Panama Canal engineer Ilya de Marotta