Career Path: Lavinia Melilla of Bechtel

Lavinia Melilla is a port and marine technical expert with Bechtel, and has recently been awarded a fellowship by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Aged 35, she is the ICE’s youngest fellow.

Lavinia Melilla

Why did you decide to go into engineering/infrastructure?

I knew that I wanted to be an engineer right from when I was a small child. My father was a civil engineer in Italy, where I was raised, and he was always passionate about his career. When I was growing up I was so impressed with the roads and flood defences that he built. He told me that you can design and build whatever you wish if you are an engineer. It was always the career for me.

What did you study? How did that lead to this career?

I studied civil engineering and then gained a Masters in marine structures at the University of Rome La Sapienza. After that, I obtained a PhD in hydraulics. Throughout my studies I gained experience in design and construction and I naturally progressed into the port and marine industry.

Who was your first employer and why?

My first employer was actually my university. While I was studying toward my PhD, I worked as an assistant professor in hydraulics and sedimentation, and as a marine structures and rivers consultant for the university. Flood prevention on the Sarno river, near Naples, Italy, was one of my first paid projects. We created an infrastructure master plan designed to keep the river’s flood waters under control.

CV highlights?

Travelling all over the world and coming up with new formulae and equations for sedimentation and flood dynamics (I enjoy maths!), and developing a new method to identify vortex structures in turbulence. I have also had the opportunity to design innovative maritime structures using sustainable materials. Other highlights include being on the ICE’s Maritime Expert Panel. But most recently, I am delighted to have been awarded a fellowship by the ICE.

Did you have a career plan? How has reality panned out against that plan?

I definitely had a career plan and I have closely stuck to it so far. In future, I hope to have the opportunity to lead a team that innovates in design and renewable energies. There is so much energy in the water. We need a way to create highly efficient infrastructure to harness that sustainable water power. I would love to be part of that revolution.

What is special about Bechtel and why have you stayed/did you move here?

Bechtel works all over the world on a huge variety of projects. This means there are always so many different roles to choose from and unique projects on which to work. I love having the opportunity to keep learning from new experiences at work. It’s a large, diverse company so I’m always meeting new colleagues and customers.

Describe your job

I provide input on and help to make technical decisions about port and marine activities that Bechtel’s involved with around the world. Innovation, sustainability and value engineering are a constant focus of my work.  For example, I am currently involved with a value engineering exercise on the design for a major suspension bridge. No port and marine project is ever the same because there’s always a unique combination of environmental conditions and customer requirements. So my work is never boring!

Who has had the most influence over your career and why?

My Dad has had the greatest influence over my career. He died suddenly in July but I will always remember his passion for innovation and design. Dad always gave me advice when I needed it and he taught me that there are no limits, ever. So with every new role I take on, I always want to raise the bar. I have also found lots of great women role models here at Bechtel. No one succeeds alone. It is essential to be surrounded by a supportive team and to have mentors.

What about work gets you interested, keeps you interested?

Being able to work with many different people from a variety of fields and backgrounds. To me, it is important for people to be happy with my work. I am always interested in improving, and I believe that one of the best ways to do this is getting my work critiqued by colleagues. I also enjoy being able to work directly with customers from all over the world.

What can employers offer to make you most happy in your career?

Having a variety of unique and complex projects to work on, plenty of opportunity for career development, and a healthy work-life balance make me happy. It is also important that the people I work with are social and friendly. I count many of my colleagues as friends.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Give plenty of attention to value engineering exercises to minimise costs – it will be important in the future. And take the time to get to know and learn from colleagues.

What is the one thing you have done that has been fundamental to your career?

There are actually two things! Firstly, relocating from Italy to the UK – the centre of the world, where the construction market is vibrant and there are many opportunities available. Secondly, gaining a PhD in hydraulics – this enabled me to develop new engineering theories that I am now using every day in my job.

What kind of career do you believe engineering offers women?

There are just as many opportunities for women as there are for men. Everyone – regardless of gender - gets out of their career what they put into it. There are no limits for women engineers and I have personally found that I am listened to and treated as an equal to male engineers in all of the countries in which I’ve worked.

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