The eighth wonder of the world: The Panama Canal

A large shipping vessel on the Panama Canal next to a smaller vessel. There are trees rolling out into the distance.

13 January 2020 4 minute read


Opened over a century ago, the Panama Canal is widely considered to be one of the greatest feats in engineering history, and a contender for the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. Not only did its construction produce the biggest earth dam in the world at the time, but it also, consequently, produced the largest artificial lake.

The Panama Canal allows ships to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through a 48-mile-long shipping route, saving over 15,000 kilometres around the South American continent. That’s the distance from London to Queensland.

Acting as a water elevator, the canal lifts ships up and down by 26 meters through a mountain range. In 2019 alone, the Panama Canal transported several thousand vessels and a quarter of a million metric tonnes of goods.1

In this episode of Create the Future, we speak with QEPrize Judge Ilya Espino de Marotta about the history of the Panama Canal and her key role in its expansion as the Executive Vice President for Engineering, the first woman in history to hold the role. We also hear about Ilya’s entry into – and career in – engineering, her thoughts on becoming a judge for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, and her decision to wear a pink hard hat at work.

About the guest

Ilya Espino De Marotta earned a degree in Marine Engineering from Texas A&M University in Galveston, Texas, May 1985. In 1996 she obtained a Master's in Economic Engineering from the Universidad Santa María La Antigua in Panama. She has successfully completed Managerial Development courses in: The INCAE Business School, Managua, Nicaragua (February 2000) and, The Kellogg School of Management, in Illinois, U.S.A. (July 2006). In May 2007 Ilya obtained her Program Management Certification (PMP) from the Program Management Institute.

She has worked for the Panama Canal for more than 30 years and held multiple engineering positions in several of its departments. In May 2002, she was selected to the Canal Master Plan coordinating team to participate in the development of the Panama Canal Master Plan and Expansion Proposal. In 2012 Ilya was appointed as Executive Vice-president of Engineering and Program Management, the first woman to ever hold the role, tasked with leading the execution of the Panama Canal Expansion Program. Ilya became the Chief Operating Officer of the Panama Canal Authority back in February 2019 and has now taken up a new role as its first female Deputy Administrator.

Ilya was awarded ‘Outstanding Woman of the Year’ by the Panamanian Association of Business Executives, and ‘Global Chairman’s Diversity Leadership’ by Stanton Chase. She also made the cover of Forbes Magazine Central America, recognized as one of the 50 most powerful women in the region. Ilya was the 2016 honouree for Women who make a difference by the International Women's Forum; she was also honoured with the Distinguished Woman Award from the Association of Professional and Business Women of Panama.

Portrait of QEPrize Judge Ilya Marotta

Episode Highlights

  • It was an amazing job when you think that the engineers who designed the canal didn't have computers, didn't have all the technology we have today. The way we operate the original canal is the way they designed it; we haven't changed anything because of a requirement or change in technology as far as operational ability, but we have changed a few things to enhance it because there's so much new technology that can give us more information than before. It has worked perfectly fine for a hundred years.
  • “[Wearing a pink hardhat or high-vis jacket] is a female statement and I did it mainly because when I got to lead the expansion program, I heard that some people were a little bit reluctant that a woman could do the job; that's when I decided. If you look at my pictures of my first year, I'm wearing my regular standard white hard hat like everybody else but when I heard that some people were questioning the ability of a woman to run the project I said “huh, it's time to make a statement”, so that's how the pink hard hat came to be.”
  • “People think creativity is exclusive to art. It's not, it's art and more. To have a problem and to find a solution, you have to be creative. It's that simple.”
  • “He [Jacques Cousteau] was my biggest influence; he's the one that opened my eyes to the marine world, to the sea. I mean I love the ocean – I've been going to the ocean since I was a little girl. My grandparents had a house by the sea and I've always had this attraction to the sea so, because marine biology didn't work, marine engineering did.”
  • After being listed as one of the 50 most powerful women in Central America list, do you want to be considered or thought of as an engineer, a female engineer or as a powerful woman… or all three? “I think a female engineer. If I can touch people's lives to make them be a better professional, if that’s as an engineer or not, to me that's the most meaningful thing. If I can have people look at engineering in a different way that's a ‘wow’.”

Image credit: Rob Bertholf under Creative Commons licence with changes.

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