Name: Melissa Markquart
Title: Geotechnical Engineer
Division/Department: Bureau of Technical Services
What is geotechnical engineering?
Geotechnical engineering is about creating a better understanding of what’s beneath our feet so we can design the most appropriate foundations for the structures we build. Soil and rocks are a basic building material. Our role as geotechnical engineers is to determine how we can best work with the ground beneath us to ensure a safe, durable, quality product.
How is a geotechnical engineer important to transportation projects?
Geotechnical engineers in the transportation industry analyze soils to help answer critical planning questions such as what the best foundation system is for our bridges, walls and culverts. Geotechnical engineers also help to provide technical insight to recover highways from acts of nature, such as landslides and flooding.
What’s the most memorable project you’ve worked on at WisDOT?
I can still remember how I felt when I was handed my first project to design the foundation for something easy like a culvert in the town of Albion as part of the I-39/90 project, and then later assigned a much more complex project for a retaining wall at the County N overpass over the highway. These might seem in retrospect like fairly routine pieces of work, but what made them memorable is that I was getting started, earning my way, and beginning to see how my new career could develop here at WisDOT.
What’s something that tends to surprise people to learn about your job?
It always surprises people when I tell them how important it is for us to take three-inch diameter soil samples and analyze them. We so often take for granted as simple “dirt” can be so critical to the longevity of our roads and bridges. There is much more to geotechnical engineering than the naked eye can see. To build well, you have to anchor well, and that starts by looking closely at the soils.
What’s an example of engineering you see or use in your everyday life?
I’m in the process of building a home right now, and it’s on a hill. So, I’m giving a lot of thought as to how the water flow will change as it goes down the hill around the house. Water will always flow downhill, so it’s important to understand how that will change and help it go where it needs to.
Who has influenced you most in your career (and why)?
I’ll point out that my father was an engineer, but still there really wasn’t any one person who influenced me. Engineering came about as a career change for me after many years as a parish pastor and a full-time parent. I was drawn to this work out of a concern for how many people in the world lack access to clean, safe, drinkable water. It’s why I do volunteer work with Engineers Without Borders and Now is the Time Guatemala. I feel like I left one helping profession for another. Our global community faces many grand challenges. The world needs engineers who have the right combination of technical skills and scientific training to solve these problems and I want to be part of those solutions.
What words of advice do you have for young people who’d like to go into engineering?
Get as much hands on experience as possible. It will help to build important connections, and it will also help to create a deeper understanding of all the classroom lessons. The more opportunities you take to do the work, the broader your appreciation will be for how much there is to learn. Also, always ask questions. Learning does not stop at graduation. I have been amazed at the talent here at the DOT and the willingness and patience of more experienced engineers to answer my constant stream of questions. That gives me the room I need to grow.
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