An “ACE” in Their Pockets: Alumna Nurtures Future Engineers, Architects

4/19/2013

She’s surrounded by architectural gems, from the Flatiron Building across Madison Square Park, to the historic New York Life Building, where, from the 18th floor, she’s helping to bring the world even more wonders.

As a young engineer with the international engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti in Manhattan, Cristina Vieira Martinez ’94, M.Eng. ’96, worked on the redevelopment of Rockefeller Center and the design of the Times Square Tower. Today, as a senior associate, she leads corporate business development for the company’s Northeast region.

But no matter where she travels, Martinez is never far from the Ironbound section of Newark. That’s where she arrived as a 13-year-old from Portugal who barely spoke English. And that’s the reason why, while climbing the corporate ladder and raising three young children, she makes time for urban kids who dream of doing what she’s doing.

“Here were these extremely bright students with no direction, no experience with what they could achieve,” she says. “It was very close to home.”

Along with her leadership position at Thornton Tomasetti, Martinez is a strong advocate for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. She serves as president of the board of directors of the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) Mentor Program of New Jersey, part of a national mentoring program that strives to engage high school students to pursue careers in architecture, engineering and construction. ACE largely serves under-represented groups in these fields, as 70 percent of its students are minorities, and 40 percent are young women.

A group of design and construction firms, including Thornton Tomasetti, founded ACE, and Martinez oversees the volunteer program in nine New Jersey cities, among them Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and East Orange. She also served on ACE’s National Affiliates Council.

For achievements in her field, Martinez was named to Engineering News-Record New York’s “Top 20 Under 40,” in 2012, honored among the top young architecture/engineering/construction professionals under age 40 in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. These young professionals “have gone beyond the norm of excellence in their careers, showing leadership skills in their profession as well as commitment to give back to their communities,” according to ENR. A jury of professionals, most of them top executives, chose the Top 20.

On a frigid January morning, a warm and gracious Martinez greets a visitor to the offices of Thornton Tomasetti, which feature numerous windows overlooking Manhattan’s venerable and sparkling new skyscrapers. A steel stairwell offers more stunning landscapes. But her office is cozy and filled with the ongoing mementos of her three children, ages 12, 10 and 5—pumpkin picking, laughing, offering Mom a kiss. Her son, Logan, contemplates blocks in one photo, titled “Engineer or architect?”

Promoted to senior associate in 2011, Martinez works with the company’s new business development department and helps with strategic planning. Working directly with clients, pricing jobs and trying to win contracts fascinates her.

“I really enjoy the challenge of it,” she says. “I’ve always been a people person.”

Among the company’s high profile projects is Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which will be completed in 2017 and is on track to become the world’s tallest building, at more than 1,000 meters.

Martinez, of Montclair, N.J., joined the company as an engineer in 1998 and used her structural engineering background to specialize in complex tower analysis and design and for historical building renovations. Some of her high profile projects include the Times Square Tower, for which she did a high-rise analysis model, and redevelopment of Rockefeller Center, including the renovated concourse and new restaurants. She recalls the joys of rolling out the building’s blues from the 1930s, being on-site with the crew and getting a first-hand look at the building she helped to renovate. “It was a beautiful old building,” she says. “It was so nice to be there, to touch this existing thing.”

Growing up in Portugal, Martinez showed early talent in math and science, and had parents who sacrificed much to help her fulfill her potential. Back then, Portugal offered few universities and student slots—only one engineering school existed in the country—and little chance for financial assistance, she says. So when she was 13, Martinez’s family moved to Newark’s Ironbound section, a heavily Portuguese neighborhood.

Martinez knew little English but learned quickly as she enrolled at East Side High School in Newark. She skipped 9th grade because she was ahead academically and found the work much less challenging as back home in Portugal. But her physics teacher urged her on, suggesting that she consider engineering. She wasn’t quite sure what engineering was.

He recommended Stevens and NJIT, and she chose Stevens because it was a better school, she says. Martinez won a scholarship and worked weekends at the Stevens Center to make money. But her parents – her father was a restaurant cook and her mother, a housekeeper—insisted that she focus on her studies. They worked hard and were so disciplined in saving money that they were able to cover a good portion of her tuition.

“They are a great inspiration on work ethic and family first,” Martinez says. She was the first in her family to go to college.

Martinez was only 16 when she entered Stevens and struggled academically for the first few years, she acknowledges. The Stevens Technical Enrichment Program—which offers academic, personal and career support for students of diverse backgrounds—was a godsend, particularly its Bridge program, a pre-college academic program. She enjoyed an instant circle of friends who looked out for her, who “made sure I stayed on the path,” she says.

Martinez made the best friends of her life at Stevens, she says, played volleyball and helped found the women’s club basketball team, which later became a full-fledged sport at Stevens. And she met her husband, Alexis, one day on the volleyball court. He graduated from City University of New York and works as a geophysicist.

Back then, the ratio of men to women at Stevens was 8 to 1, Martinez says. She was not only a woman but also a minority. She felt different and always had to work harder to overcome some peoples’ biases, she says.

“I was definitely not like most of the kids there,” she says. “I was from Newark. I was an immigrant.

“You definitely feel that you have to prove yourself a little more. You don’t expect to be respected from the time you walk through the door.”

Even as an engineer with a master’s degree and almost 20 years of experience, Martinez is still proving herself at times. She smiles when she recalls networking events which are “80 percent white male,” with some of the older men referring to the women as “girls.” She remembers a time at a construction site when a man told her that she didn’t look like an engineer. Engineers are usually older men or, if a woman, not pretty, he told her.

“We’re always going to have to fight a little harder,” she says.

Martinez is trying to open the doors even wider, through her work with the ACE Mentor Program. Her face lights up with a big smile any time she speaks of ACE and she becomes her most animated.

Despite her busy schedule, Martinez serves as president of the board of directors of the ACE Mentor Program of New Jersey, which serves about 160 students per year. Nationally, ACE works with more than 8,000 high school students and, since its founding in 1994, has served more than 60,000 students and awarded more than $12 million in scholarships. Several Stevens alumni participated in ACE, including Kinjal Dalal ’07 and Inderjit Singh ’10, M.Eng. ’10.

In New Jersey, ACE is an afterschool program through which students meet with engineering, architect and construction professionals. They work on a fictional construction project—with a big presentation at the end of the session—take field trips to mentors’ offices and are eligible for scholarships. According to ACE, 40 percent of its alumni go into the engineering field, as the main goal is to increase diversity in engineering, architecture and construction fields.

Martinez started as a mentor in 1999 and has been involved ever since.

“I was hooked,” she says. “It’s something that was personal, close to my heart.”

Demand for the program is high, and the biggest need right now is for mentors, even professionals who can only devote a one-time talk to the students.

How does Martinez manage to juggle all of this while she and her husband raise three children? She immediately mentions her parents, who have lived full time with her family up until recently and helped care for her children from birth.

“That’s the reason I’m able to balance a bit,” she says. Recently, her parents started spending six months out of the year at their home in Portugal, so before and after-care at school—and some good friends—have helped fill the gap.

Martinez acknowledges that she’s not as involved with school activities as much as she would like. She can’t make PTA meetings. One look in her office and you can see that her children are with her always, from their various artwork and photos to their photo that serves as her mouse pad.

When she speaks about the future, Martinez envisions herself growing in her management role at Thornton Tomasetti, planning company strategy, building client relationships. But running ACE, she says with a shy smile, would be a “dream job.”

When she reflects on her success, Martinez is refreshingly honest. She’s worked hard.

“I speak my mind and do it with a smile,” she says. “I’m driven, I like being challenged. I think it’s always helped me.”

But she also mentions her parents as the foundation for everything. Martinez salutes her boss, Charles Thornton, who founded ACE as well as the firm that bears his name, and Thornton Tomasetti Vice Chairwoman Aine Brazil, who, as the top woman executive at the firm, has paved the way for Martinez and so many others.

But Martinez also looks back to Stevens for those who touched her life. She remembers Professor Y. Billah, who provided such good guidance, Maureen Reardon, whom she worked for in the Registrar’s Office, Jo Ann Cicchine at the Stevens Center desk, folks in the post office—so many people who offered guidance and kindness to a teenager.

“It was such an inspiration to be like them,” she says.

To learn more about the ACE Mentor Program of America, visit www.acementor.org