“The aspect of this job I like the most is that we are really able to affect change.”
Melinda McGrath, P.E.
Position: Executive Director
Employer: Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT)
Years with MDOT: 27
What made you decide to go into the road/transportation industry?
My dad was a general contractor, so I grew up going to work with him. At a very early age, I was reading plans and preparing estimates for him, and it just seemed logical. I’ve always enjoyed seeing things built. When you’re actually able to construct something like a new road or bridge that really opens up mobility and positively affects people’s lives, it gives you a sense of pride.
What led you to your current role as Executive Director of MDOT?
I started as a bridge designer after college, then I became a project engineer and then I oversaw roadway and bridge construction for about 15 years. Then in 2003 I was transferred to Jackson, MS—where I’ve served MDOT in various levels of administration.
In a few words, describe what you do.
My job is to make sure that we abide by all of the state and federal laws, as well as our internal policies in doing our day-to-day work. We oversee 30,000 miles of state-owned highways and about 5,500 bridges. We also assist the ports and waterways, five Class One railroads, 13 short line railroads and public transportation.
Since we are largely a rural state, we operate a lot of rural transit operations, such as bringing people into the Jackson area for doctor’s appointments. So, when our legislators come into session, we engage with them regularly to help write good laws that promote public safety and also ensure that we have adequate funding to maintain our infrastructure.
Describe a typical day at the office.
Lots of meetings. For example, today we talked about different types of signs for the national park service, and then we talked about local bridges—developing the correct documentation to ensure that they are inspected and rated correctly so that when they need to be repaired or shut down that it’s done timely. I have an appointment with the Transportation Chairman this afternoon, and then I have a reception for the Port of Pascagoula tonight.
What do you love most about your job?
The aspect of this job I like the most is that we are really able to affect change. Typically across the US, employees that work for departments of transportation are very technical. They’re very sincere, and they really exemplify the spirit of a public servant. The ability to work with those types of people that don’t have any other motive than wanting to make things safer and better is really rewarding.
Where do you see the industry in 5 years, 10 years?
It will be interesting to see how self-driving cars will be incorporated into rural areas. That technology is very valuable, but it’s going to take some time to figure out how it’s going to work in states like ours. There are a lot of transportation challenges that will need to be addressed—like properly maintaining roads and making sure they’re smooth—before we’re ready for autonomous vehicles.
What’s your advice for women who may be interested in working in this field?
I think any type of engineering field is an excellent choice for women. Naturally, we can multi-task well and like to communicate. Women also like to help other people and that’s exactly what engineering teaches you. Engineering allows you to solve problems using logical approaches that maximize your impact.
I’d really encourage women to reach out and form relationships with other professionals in their field and in the fields that influence what you do. Work hard and always try to learn something new. The more you know, the better off you will be.