By Katharine Webster
If you have ever driven in Massachusetts, chances are you have crossed over a bridge built under the watchful eye of Christine Mizioch ’91.
As a civil engineer for the state Department of Transportation (DOT) for 20 years, she oversaw the widening of Route 3 from Burlington to the New Hampshire border. She supervised bridge projects on Interstates 495 and 93, on Route 9 and above the CSX rail line from the New York border to Worcester.
But getting a job with the state fresh out of college was almost a fluke.
As Mizioch was earning a bachelor’s degree at the Francis College of Engineering, an economic recession brought the real estate and construction industries to their knees. New England was especially hard hit. “In 1991, the job market was pretty bleak,” she says.
Winter of senior year, she went to the Engineering Week career fair with a friend, where recruiter after recruiter told them the same thing: “Unless you’re No. 1 or No. 2 in your class, you’re not going to find a job.”
“Then we saw one gentleman sitting at a table by himself, with no fancy brochures or anything,” she recalls. “He was from the Massachusetts Department of Public Works (DPW). He told us they may or may not be hiring, but we took the paper applications and filled them in.”
Then — nothing, until one day the following summer, when Mizioch received a letter telling her to report to the DPW’s Danvers office that September as a Level 1 civil engineer. She had been hired, sight unseen, thanks to a federal stimulus package for transportation infrastructure.
She rose through the ranks at what is now the MassDOT Highway Division, becoming supervisor on a number of major projects. She also started and oversaw the design-build program, in which bridge designers and contractors work together from start to finish to replace a bridge rapidly.
The design-build strategy was new to Massachusetts when the state decided to try it to widen Route 3, which links the tech corridors of Route 128/I-95 and I-495 to each other and to the bedroom communities in Southern New Hampshire.
For Mizioch, the Route 3 widening served as a trial run for several other projects, including the biggest success of her MassDOT career: the “Fast 14” project, which began when a routine bridge inspection found serious concrete failure in 14 bridges on I-93 in Medford—seven northbound and seven southbound.
Normally, a highway bridge replacement takes about five years, from design and bidding to construction. Mizioch’s team did it in one. “We weren’t confident those bridges had five years left in them,” she says. “We decided to go with design-build: Get in, get out and stay out.”
Mizioch worked with engineers and builders, truckers’ associations and local emergency services that would have to detour around the closed bridges and highway entrances and exits. Based on the Boston Red Sox’s game schedule, she asked the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to run more trains. She worked with state and local police on rerouting traffic.
Meanwhile, the construction teams built the bridges off-site but nearby, so that they could be slotted in quickly. And then, over 10 weekends in the summer of 2011, the team replaced all 14 bridges. “We’d demolish a bridge on Friday night and reopen it on Monday morning,” Mizioch says.
After Fast 14 was completed, Mizioch left MassDOT for the private sector, working at two different firms and then as a consultant before landing at AI Engineers. As one of the company’s vice presidents, she leads the Boston office’s day-to-day operations and engineering services. She also hires and mentors new civil engineering graduates, including three from UMass Lowell who will start work there this summer.
“We like the caliber of people we see coming from UMass Lowell,” she says. “They’re well prepared.”
UMass Lowell prepared Mizioch well, too, she says. She chose it over better-known private universities because UML had the same rigorous engineering curriculum “at a greatly reduced price,” she says. She was not sure what she wanted to study, but her father suggested engineering because she was good at math and science. She figured she would start at UML to see how she liked it. She ended up staying and choosing civil engineering as her major.
“The engineering curriculum is hard no matter where you go, but there were a lot of standout professors there who made the experience meaningful for me and made me want to continue with learning,” she says.
Her twin sons, Alex and Zach, are now sophomores at UMass Lowell for many of the same reasons, she says. Alex is majoring in chemical engineering and Zach is studying business. They committed after coming to Welcome Day, meeting the chancellor, talking with the deans of their respective colleges and going to a River Hawks hockey game. “They liked what they saw,” she says.