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United States / Environment / Senior project engineer

Vatsal Shah

Vatsal in Peru, taking in the view of Macchu Picchu.
Vatsal in Peru
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Vatsal in Peru Taking in the view of Macchu Picchu which is situated on a mountain ridge 2.430 above sea level.

"We recognize that each project is unique and we strive to find solutions that are efficient, forward thinking, and unique in their own right."

Why did you decide to join Mott MacDonald?

I joined Mott MacDonald because it seemed like a local company but had the resources and reach of a global powerhouse. The office I interviewed at was the corporate headquarters for almost 2,000 staff in North America, but everyone I spoke to had both extensive local expertise as well as broad, regional experience. It was truly the best of both worlds. Also, being an ambitious recent grad and young engineer, it was a goal of mine to pursue my Masters and Doctorate in Civil Engineering. Not only did Mott MacDonald provide an attractive tuition reimbursement program, all of my colleagues and managers were very supportive in helping me grow my academic and professional career simultaneously.

What is the best thing about your role?

At Mott MacDonald, my role covers the branch of civil engineering known as geotechnics—or the portion of engineering that deals with determining how soil and natural earth materials behave for engineering applications. Geotechnical engineering is the engineer’s engineering! We’re really relying on our thinking process as engineers and building upon years of experience to understand how the earth materials will behave for our given situation. Unlike manmade materials like steel and concrete where we can see the material, control the quality, and understand the strength, the earth is a very mixed bag and we’re always calibrating our process of understanding.

How would you describe the culture of Mott MacDonald?

I’ve always pictured our culture at Mott MacDonald like a family. Everyone I’ve met at Mott MacDonald is incredibly supportive of new ideas, professional growth, and will take the time to look out for their own. I haven’t had a day at work where I didn’t feel 'at home'.

How has your career progressed at Mott MacDonald?

My career has followed an upward trajectory from the very beginning. My journey with Mott MacDonald was extremely unique- I first started with Mott MacDonald as an entry-level engineer. By degree I was a civil engineer, but by calling I was heavily interested in geotechnics, which deals with soil behavior for engineering applications such as foundations and excavations. Our specific office was not known for offering this type of service (yet), but over several years my colleagues and mentors at Mott MacDonald helped provide me opportunities to build and grow my career and the group’s ability to offer geotechnical services from our office. As a young engineer in my early 20s, this was practically unheard of; but nevertheless, my managers at Mott MacDonald were more than supportive of my ideas and cultivated my growth while still providing direction and supervision to ensure success followed. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my career go from working independently on a few projects, to working collaboratively and managing 12 technical staff as Mott MacDonald (and our geotechnics group) grows.

What makes Mott MacDonald stand out from other companies?

From the top-down, it’s Mott MacDonald’s core value to approach problems with a focus on developing connected solutions. We recognize that each project is unique and we strive to find solutions that are efficient, forward thinking, and unique in their own right. It’s easy for many engineering firms to employ routine solutions for projects with the mantra of “business as usual”. My experience with Mott MacDonald, however, has been that their culture of allowing staff to build upon these proven solutions and come up with innovative and cost-effective new solutions by working across the organization’s many disciplines and with numerous thought leaders within industry.

Are you involved with any charities or do any volunteer work?

Back in the early 1990’s, the American Society of Civil Engineers used to have a slogan that called civil engineering, “a people serving profession”. My dad used to even have a license plate frame of that phrase!

This year (2016) marks my eighth year as Central New Jersey region and State coordinator for the MATHCOUNTS Competition Program. This is a national program for fifth through eighth graders intended to encourage STEM participation. Each year, the 300 or so bright student participants and over 100 parents and teachers in our region come ready for a math competition. These students join and compete against over 140,000 students that participate in MATHCOUNTS competitions worldwide. I’ve also had the opportunity to be a repeat volunteer during the annual “DiscoverE” event—a week-long event sponsored by a multitude of engineering organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and National Society of Professional Engineers meant to help young students discover engineering.

On the professional front, I’ve been volunteering with the New Jersey Society of Professional Engineers for over eight years and am currently President-elect of our organization. For the last three years I’ve also traveled to local engineering universities each Spring and Fall to teach review sessions to students preparing for the Fundaments of Engineering examination– the first step toward professional licensure. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching review courses for the civil engineering modules including geotechnical engineering, environmental engineering, transportation, and surveying. While different to STEM outreach events, since these are already engineering students, it’s fulfilling to be able to share the practical side of engineering and share stories of actual projects and designs while reviewing these topics and going through practice problems. Sometimes, students can be exactly that: “students”. Solving textbook problems may be straightforward, but to be able to help them bridge the gap between theory and practice and watch as it all comes together is a motivating experience.

Where is your favorite place?

Being a geotechnical engineer, I’d have to say my favorite place is anywhere outdoors! My favorite destination by far has been Peru, though. Everywhere you’d look you’d see a remnant of the ancient civilization and, behind it, a true feat of engineering. Many of the remaining artifacts have stood the test of time and many of the structures had engineering features which would seem sophisticated even by today’s metrics!

What inspires you at work?

My inspiration comes in two ways-- working with the best staff, and being a part of profession and company responsible for helping to improve the lives of people and communities for years to come. I decided I wanted to go into engineering when I took my first trip abroad with my family-- Seeing a cornerstone on a building proudly announcing construction in the 1800s, I was fascinated how long it had been around before me. It truly gave me a passion to be involved in a field that would withstand the test of time, be seen by countless people, and be a part of something used for generations.

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