When it first opened in 1914, the Panama Canal was considered one of mankind’s top engineering achievements. But as thousands of ships have used the canal since then, some much-needed improvements of the waterway were necessary, and the $5.2 billion Panama Canal Expansion Project was completed on June 26th under the direction of a Texas A&M University at Galveston graduate.
Ilya Espino de Marotta, who graduated from the Galveston campus in 1985 with a BS in Marine Engineering Technology, has been involved with all aspects of the mammoth project since work started in 2007. As executive vice president of the Panama Canal Expansion Project, de Marotta is the only woman to have held the highest post in the canal’s history.
Chief improvements have included constructing a third new ship lane and a new set of locks that have doubled capacity for the Canal, which the American Society of Civil Engineers has called “one of the seven wonders of the modern world.”
When the canal opened in 1914, about 1,000 ships traveled through the 48-mile waterway that first year. By 2007, about 15,000 ships per year were making the journey and it was clear that a long-overdue expansion was needed. It now allows a huge class of ships called Neo Panamax that are the size of three football fields to traverse the canal with their thousands of tons of cargo.
The expansion project has allowed the canal to meet demand growth which will vastly improve Panama’s economy and increase international trade.
Texas A&M has a longstanding record of top-level involvement with the Panama Canal. Alberto Aleman Zubieta, a 1973 civil and industrial engineering graduate of Texas A&M who is now retired, held top leadership positions for the facility. He served from 1996 to 1999 as CEO of the former Panama Canal Commission, the federal agency of the U.S. government that was responsible for the administration and operation of the Panama Canal. During a portion of that time, he also served as administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, the Panamanian entity tasked with the administration of the waterway upon its transfer to the Republic of Panama.
In addition to overseeing the expansion itself, de Marotta also manages all other construction contracts of the Panama Canal, such as the construction of a new bridge on the Atlantic side. Throughout the expansion phase, she took regular helicopter rides along the canal’s 48-mile path to monitor and assess construction progress.
“Texas A&M at Galveston provided me a first-rate education, but what I took away was much more than engineering knowledge,” said de Marotta. “What I really learned did not become apparent until years later. I realized I learned a mindset to think, to approach unconventional challenges with clear mindedness and confidence.”
After earning her degree from Texas A&M at Galveston, de Marotta completed her master’s degree in economic engineering at the Universidad Santa María La Antigua in Panama. She also studied management development at Panama’s Instituto Centroamericano de Administración de Empresas business school and later at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. In 2007, she was certified as Project Manager by the Project Management Institute.
During 31 years of work on the canal, she worked in numerous areas, including ship repairs, dredging, construction, accounting, engineering, master planning, investments and other areas. She is also a certified as a licensed public translator.
In 2014, de Marotta was named Outstanding Woman of the Year by the Panamanian Association of Business Executives. She has been recognized by the Circle of Intellectual Women of Panama for its Technology and Engineering Achievement Award and holds the Distinguished Woman Award from the Association of Professional and Business Women of Panama. Forbes magazine of Mexico recognized her in its list of the 50 most powerful women in Central America.
She also devotes time to charities, namely the international Ronald McDonald House hospital charity founded by the McDonald fast-food chain, and Panama’s National Cancer Association because both have supported her and her family over the years when one of her sons and then her husband was diagnosed with cancer. “Texas A&M at Galveston is very proud of the achievements of our graduate, Ilya Espino de Marotta,” says Douglas Palmer, interim chief operations officer of the university.
“She truly exhibits the knowledge, experience, hard work, integrity, community service, compassion and spirit of an Aggie. Her leadership in this project not only got the job done and done right, but helped improve this vital international resource and changed the world.”
The college seeks $4 million in scholarships and fellowships (established with endowed gifts beginning at $25,000 each) to enable students to concentrate on the most important part of the college experience: learning.