May 2022 Centennial Engineer of the Month

May 2022 Centennial Engineer of the Month – Stephen Stewart, P.E., CCM, DBIA, LEED AP, CFM

Stephen Stewart, an obsessive problem solver, works as an Associate in A. Morton Thomas’ Virginia Beach office, where he leads the design practice in Hampton Roads and oversees projects throughout the Commonwealth.  His engineering experience includes design and construction management for transportation projects, site engineering, stormwater engineering, large- and small-scale transit projects, and any supporting infrastructure. This experience includes management of traditional-delivery projects as well as design-build projects including the East Corridor of Denver’s Eagle P3 light rail, the Virginia Capital Trail, and Langley AFB’s off-base privatized housing. Some of his current projects include leading staff augmentation for the Roadway and Hydraulics groups of the VDOT NoVA District, overseeing design services during the construction of the $45M Newport News Transportation Center, and providing design for numerous transportation and transit projects throughout the Commonwealth.

Mr. Stewart is a Chi Epsilon graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Civil Engineering, and he earned his MBA, with a focus on Operations Management, from the College of William & Mary. Following formal education and earning his P.E. in 2004, he continues to expand his breadth of understanding of engineering and construction through self-taught learning and certifications such as the LEED AP (BD+C), Certified Floodplain Manager, Design Build Accredited Professional, and Certified Construction Manager.

He was born and spent his formative years in beautiful Yorktown, Virginia, and now resides with his family near Sandbridge, Virginia Beach. His best times are spent with his wife, Melissa Stewart, and their two daughters, Elodie and Mirabelle, 10 and 8 years old. They enjoy disconnecting from devices and spending time together on tropical islands or at higher elevations in the mountains of Virginia or the National Parks of the western U.S.  Stephen dabbles in a little bit of everything, including his all-season vegetable garden, fighting gravity and age by working out, fine wine and smoky bourbon, roasting coffee beans, grossing his daughters out with recipes that they’ll never eat, taking on never-ending home improvement projects, and tinkering with his cherished ’75 Corvette.

Centennial EOM Questionnaire

Question 1. What do you consider your major achievements in civil engineering in our Section area?

I have designed larger-scale infrastructure projects, but the ones I am most proud of are those people enjoy using the most and that have the largest impact on the public.

1)     HRT Light Rail and any transit improvement project – Attending school in Blacksburg, I lived off campus and used the Blacksburg Transit to commute to campus daily. This public transportation service was integral to my education, and transit remains the only option for many others to get to their jobs and  other obligations. Constructing more roadways is not always the best solution. As populations continue to grow and people move to urban areas, transit needs to be part of that solution, and I enjoy seeing the completed construction of everything from a shelter and bench at a bus stop to a light rail system moving thousands of people per day.

2)     Virginia Capital Trail – I served as the design manager for the design-build delivery of more than 18 miles of the Capital Trail. This trail traverses the beautiful and historic lands connected by Route 5 and has so many wonderful destinations along the route – kayak launches, Civil War redoubts, wineries, and many small businesses. 

Question 2. Why did you decide on a career in civil engineering?

I was born into a family with a natural inclination for engineering and physics.  Between my dad, his brothers, and my grandfathers, there are more than a dozen engineering degrees in nuclear physics, aerospace engineering, astrophysics, electrical and chemical engineering. My dad was recruited by NASA for the space race in the mid ’60s and continued to work for NASA for more than 40 years in a career he truly enjoyed. He’d often bring me to work and to see the latest rocket boosters, air foils, and other simulations being run at NASA Langley and I loved it.

Apart from the innovative designs, working for NASA provided our family the opportunity to experience 6-8 week vacations each summer. We’d head west, camping nightly out of a ’78 Chevy Beauville, exploring the National Parks, and visiting beautiful trails. I’ve seen the Hoover Dam, rafted the Snake River, and crossed cable bridges in the Grand Canyon, which all piqued my interest in civil engineering. Appreciation for the outdoors also spurred a desire protect these unspoiled lands and natural resources and led me to environmental engineering, which was within the civil engineering department at Virginia Tech.

Question 3. Provide some career guidance for young civil engineers.

1)     Savor, respect, and learn from the older, experienced engineers. 

2)     Get out of the office and in the field to experience your projects. 

3)     Choose your job based on leadership and the opportunity to learn and not money.

4)     While it’s great to have a supportive group of peers, it’s better to surround yourself with dissenters who challenge and expand your thinking. Growth is rooted in discomfort.

5)     Continue learning because striving for improvement shifts the priority from an end-point victory to mastery as you compete to better yourself.

6)     Compounding interest is a powerful tool.  Invest early.

Question 4. What do you consider the major challenge to a career in civil engineering?

There is a large gap between the number of civil engineers needed to sustain and improve the infrastructure we enjoy and the number of capable civil engineers available to provide this expertise. This gap continues to increase, and I believe this is partially due to low salaries compared to other knowledge-based service professions. Any student bright enough, and with the grit, to endure engineering school could also choose to work in medicine, law, or finance for a much greater salary. As a profession, civil engineering has not kept pace with the compensation trends of other careers that have similar rigorous academic curriculums and are as essential to sustaining the lives we enjoy in this country. While increasing compensation across the industry isn’t the complete solution, it would make civil engineering a more appealing career choice and reduce this gap.  

Question 5. Tell us about your volunteer activities. What is the motivating factor for volunteering? How has being a volunteer enriched your professional career?

Professionally, outside of the ASCE umbrella, I am primarily involved with leadership or on committees with ACEC and DBIA. Within ACEC, I’m on the Transportation LAP Committee, and for DBIA, I sit on the national legislative committee. 

For many years, I served as President of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association on the Peninsula, and during my tenure, we raised more than  $25,000 in scholarship funds awarded  to bright incoming Hokie freshmen.

The best days of my week now are often spent on the softball field as the coach of the 10U Lady Tides. Sports, football and baseball especially, helped me overcome shyness as a child and develop many important lessons about grit, consistency, teamwork, and dependability. Above all, I loved playing sports, and today I savor leading a team of girls that hopefully are having as much fun as I am while also learning a lot about how strong they are along with a few softball skills.