Civil Engineer Jennifer Wells is Making it Happen in Minnesota

Jennifer Wells has been an engineer with MnDOT for the past 18 years, the last 13 in fracture critical bridge inspection and 5 years in bridge design and bridge standards.  Jennifer has a BSCE from Michigan Tech University and an MSCE from the University of Minnesota.  She is a licensed civil engineer, National Bridge Inspection Standards Certified Team Leader, FAA Certified Small Unmanned Aircraft System pilot, and lead investigator on MnDOT drone research for bridges. The MnDOT Bridge Office Inspection Unit is responsible for managing the Minnesota bridge inspection program and conducting fracture critical inspections statewide on both the state and local system.  Jennifer is married to Shawn, and they have three children – Marco, 21 years old, currently serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army; Mirrah, 15 years old; and Jack, 13 years old.

What is your title?

State Bridge Inspection Engineer

What are the key elements of your position?

The fundamental purpose of this position is to lead the Bridge Office Inspection Unit. This position will also serve as a technical resource with knowledge and a strong base of practical experience in bridge safety inspection and non-destructive testing methods both on trunk highway and local systems.  The bridges will be primarily those designated as fracture critical, complex, or which contain special features.

The Principal Inspection Engineer is MnDOT’s key specialist in the area of bridge inspection operations and non-destructive inspection technologies.  The position supports the development, implementation and continual improvement of the following bridge programs:

  1. Inspection Operations – Fracture Critical and Special Inspection Program
  2. Bridge Inspector Training and Non-Destructive Testing Certification Program
  3. National Bridge Inspection Standards Program
  4. Bridge Asset Management (Assessment and Preservation)

The incumbent works with District inspection personnel, Bridge Office functional units, Local Agencies and other MnDOT Offices to ensure that public roadway bridges in Minnesota are inspected and managed with at the highest level of quality.

The position will require travel up to 40% of the time during the bridge inspection and maintenance season (April through October).  This will include some overnight travel for bridge inspections, multi-day meetings, and agency site visits to remote locations.

What do you do day-in and day-out?

I supervise seven bridge inspectors on a daily basis.  My role has turned into more administrative oversight of the state bridge inspection program which includes not only day-to-day human resource tasks, but also working on innovative technologies (such as drones), inspection laws and policies, and scheduling of inspections.  However, I still work in the field as much as I can inspecting bridges with my staff.  I fully believe that if a person doesn’t do the same work as the employees, one cannot effectively supervise and manage them.  It earns a level of respect with staff.

How did you get into the drone industry?

Basically, I got into the drone industry a little by accident.  In early 2015, MnDOT had extra research dollars that needed to be used up by the end of the biennium.  I had happened to be working with Barritt Lovelace (Collins Engineers) on a separate research project involving fracture critical bridges.  Our research point of contact asked if we had any ideas we would like to research.  We both had an interest in drones due to an article published by the University of Minnesota regarding drone use and farming.  And with that, the whole project took off from there!  Now we are in our fourth and final phase of research embarking on full structure inspection implementation with drones.

What do you like about your job?

As a bridge inspection engineer, I love to work outside and analyze older infrastructure.  Luckily, I am not afraid of heights or enclosed spaces.  Another great aspect of my job, is the freedom to research and try innovated technologies, such as drones, that can make me job faster, easier, and safe!

What advice would you give a person entering a position like yours?

Always think outside the box…don’t be afraid of change and innovation.  Leadership support is key, and so having good data to back up the positive implementation of drones in the transportation industry is paramount.

What is the most important trend in your field right now?

INNOVATION!  At the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the divisional directors are pushing innovation technology ideas…better, faster, cheaper with less of a workforce.

How do you define success?

For me, the definition of success is a person loves what they for a career.  Not a whole lot of people can say they love their job.  I feel fortunate that I have had great mentors and leadership over the years at the Bridge Office, that were not afraid of innovation and giving me free reign to explore better ways to inspect infrastructure more effectively.

If you could pick one female mentor, who would you choose and why?

The first woman that comes to mind is a previous manager of the Bridge Office named Bev Faharrer.  She came into our section as a mobility and eventually was the State Bridge Engineer for a little while.  What I like about Bev is that she was one of the early female engineers at MnDOT, and did not hold back on moving her way to the top.  She is direct and not afraid to make waves in the organization.  I didn’t have to constantly prove or show what me and my staff were doing.  She had trust in the employees.

What do you do for fun?

I love watching ice hockey!  My oldest son was the All-State Goalie in Wisconsin his senior year of high school.  I also played in the Minnesota Women’s Hockey Association for 7 years as a goalie too, while coaching my son.  I also love to sell $5 jewelry as a side business.  I love participating in vendor events, meeting new people, and being a part of a fun company.

Interview submitted by: 

Amy is the Marketing & Communications Director for DroneUp, an aerial data collection service provider, headquartered in Virginia Beach, VA. Amy is the first woman in her region awarded for the development of an FAA sUAS Part 107 training program which assisted in efforts for the military and local and state emergency management.

“Expert Insight” is the independent views and opinions of the submitting named author of this article.