By Harry Minium

When she played for the Old Dominion University women's basketball team, Megan Pym was a role model for young girls who aspired to become athletes but perhaps didn't have as many stars to look up to as their male classmates.

More than a decade after leaving ODU, she's still a role model, but in a very different way.

Pym is an engineer and project manager for the north and south island reclamation of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project.

She works for Flatiron, a Colorado-based company that is a part of the Hampton Roads Connectors Partners, which is building the $3.8 billion project. Pym heads a team of eight engineers and four subcontractors that is almost doubling the size of the north island with a million tons of rocks and fill.

The expansion is needed to accommodate two new tunnels and four new lanes of traffic.

And she's a female rapidly advancing up the ladder in what has traditionally been a male-dominated profession.

A little more than 20% of college engineering graduates are female, and they drop out of the profession at far higher rates than their male counterparts.

Pym said in the 13 years since she left ODU with her degree in civil engineering technology from the Batten College of Engineering and Technology, she's seen progress. Pym noted that she has been mentored and supported by numerous male colleagues.

Still, she said it's not unusual for her to be the only female in meetings. But her team has a project engineer and two field engineers who are women, which she says is a sign of progress.

"You're seeing more females in the industry, and that's great, but we're significantly outnumbered," she said. "We have a long way to go, but it's definitely coming along."

A Harvard Business Review study indicated that one of the reasons women leave the engineering field at such high rates is because of a lack of acceptance by their male counterparts. As a former athlete, Pym says her background helped her find common ground in her early days in the profession.

"I have a little bit of an advantage because I can talk sports pretty well," she said.

Regardless, she said she says attitudes are rapidly changing. She says she's been accepted and respected by the vast majority of males she's worked with, especially at Flatiron, where she says gender and race aren't issues.

"There is a huge opportunity for women in the industry, both in the design side and what we call the construction side," she said. "And it's interesting work, it's rewarding work. It gives you an opportunity to see different places. When I worked at Skanska, you always had the chance to go overseas and work if you wanted to for a year or two."

She said she finds her work rewarding in ways that young women in high school or college may not realize. She's worked on the installation of a new a pier at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard; rebuilding a bridge in Pensacola, Florida; helped with a highway construction project in Greenville, South Carolina; and briefly worked at Newport News Shipbuilding before joining Flatiron two years ago.

The bridge-tunnel project is the most expensive ever undertaken in Hampton Roads, and expanding the roadway is critical to increasing economic growth in the region and unlocking the often-mammoth traffic jams between Norfolk and Hampton.

"We're just a little caveat of the project," she said. "But the island is on a critical path, so if we're late, the project is late. It's a ripple effect. For me, working for Flatiron on this project is being a part of something much bigger."

Sofia O'Brien, a project engineer who reports to Pym, said the former Monarch runs a tight ship.

"We spend at least 10 hours a day together," O'Brien said of the team. "We sometimes spend more time together than we do with our families. Issues and obstacles come up every single day. It's how you overcome them, how you resolve them, that matters, and Megan and this team have been very successful."

Pym said her sense of teamwork, and sacrificing for the common good, came from her four years of playing basketball under former ODU coach Wendy Larry.

Pym started much of her career, and ODU won 102 games and lost just 32 in her four seasons. In her senior year, ODU won its 17th Colonial Athletic Association title in a row and defeated Liberty and the University of Virginia in the NCAA tournament. ODU lost to UConn in the Sweet 16.

Pym said she's still in touch with Larry and many of her former teammates.

"I'll see a game on TV, and I'll say to myself, 'I remember playing there or beating that team,'" she said. "Playing at Tennessee, I remember checking in right next to (late Vols coach) Pat Summitt, and that was pretty awesome.

"You know, I played for one of the greatest coaches of all time, and when you're 20 years old, you don't have that perspective. But when you look back, you realize you were really part of something very remarkable. For a mid-major, what we did was pretty special."

She says her work the last 13 years has been pretty special, too.

"This project is really exciting because of what it means to all of Hampton Roads," she said. "We're all part of something that's going to be here for the next 100 years. Working on something that will be around a century, that's pretty amazing."

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