National STEM/STEAM Day is celebrated annually on November 8. This year, we had the privilege of speaking with Winnie Okello, P.E., Senior Civil Engineer who oversees our statewide
Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit compliance.
Ms. Winnie Okello has been a member of the PennDOT team since 2013, starting through our
Civil Engineer Trainee (CET) program. Born in Kenya, she moved to the United States in middle school. She is an alumnus of Whitehall High School who went on to Lehigh Carbon Community College then studied civil engineering at Bucknell University. Prior to joining our department, she worked in the private sector and for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Within a few minutes of meeting her, you can tell that Winnie Okello isn't married to the status quo. She's always seeking opportunities for improvement within the transportation industry and her community, considering how her skills can contribute to lasting positive changes.
"My biggest push is how we impact people. For me, that's really the passion – it's the human element of engineering that drives me to do everything that I do," Winnie said. "You can have great designs and do great research, but we need to consider people's lived experiences."
It's clear that engineering is more than just numbers and formulas to Winnie. She is very keen on how transportation impacts communities, not just neighborhoods, especially related to longevity and how society moves forward. She's not afraid to acknowledge that in the historic context of the transportation sector, our infrastructure hasn't always been built and designed equitably. Therefore, this means we have ample opportunities for improvement, particularly in transportation restorative justice practices.
"If we don't adapt, we'll become the Blockbuster of the transportation industry," she said. "And as much as we talk about innovation, we have to allow innovators to thrive."
She made the point that efficiency improves when we all work together. Otherwise, we might end up with implementation and maintenance issues that could've been addressed in the planning or design phase.
"The best part of my job is getting to develop symbiotic relationships with other professionals – both at PennDOT and in other organizations across the state," Winnie said.
When it comes to decision-making about transportation initiatives, Winnie is also a strong advocate for making sure the community feels engaged in the process from start to finish. She also understands that we need to look at what's good for people and communities while simultaneously considering environmental needs.
"As we envision the future of transport, whether electric vehicles or other smart mobility options – the more technologically advanced society becomes, we see this greater need for genuine human connection," she said. "As transportation professionals, we absolutely have to keep that in mind."
When people are anticipating progress in society, they say to look at where the road is built. That sentiment is more literal in developing countries, but it also rings true right here in Pennsylvania.
"The transportation sector and transportation professionals play such a key role in how society develops and progresses, or regresses," Winnie said. "The thing that really inspires me about the future is the untapped potential, and I pray that it becomes a reality."
Winnie is actively engaged in her community – particularly in the Harrisburg area. She has a strong passion for volunteering, especially for organizations that focus on civic issues and education.
Even when she isn't busy with her work at PennDOT, transportation topics are still on her mind. When looking at certain social problems, Winnie sees how potential solutions could lie in transportation system improvements.
She is involved with the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and Winnie was published in their May–June 2019 issue of TR News about street and transit harassment (PDF), a global problem that disproportionately affects women and girls. The
Greater Harrisburg Young Professionals of Color (YPOC) and the HARP (Harassment & Assault Reporting Platform) are other organization she volunteers with. This year, Winnie also wrote the PennDOT blog for
Juneteenth National Freedom Day.
Winnie was recently nominated and honored to receive the
Women Breaking Barriers Award as part of this year's
Whitaker Center Women in STEM Awards. Studies have shown that both women and people of color tend to be
underrepresented in engineering/STEM careers. Winnie recently
authored a book that shares her experiences of navigating professional spaces as a Black woman of complex intersectionality. Her goal was to encourage readers to have moments of self-reflection as they too navigate society, possibly helping them see things from a different perspective.
"My greatest accomplishment is feeling like I'm finally beginning to own my voice. I'm beginning to see the world for what it is and figuring out my role in it," she said.
You might be wondering how Winnie has enough energy to be so involved in her career, passion projects and the community at large.
"Sharing my time, skills and talents with others in a meaningful way helps me unplug from work," she said. "It might seem like it's more work, but it helps me stay centered."
As Winnie advances in her own career, she's very mindful about keeping the metaphorical door held open for others. For any young person interested in STEM careers, Winnie's best advice is to stay curious and continue thinking outside the box. Never stop asking questions and using your imagination.
For folks of complex intersectionality, STEM careers can have additional barriers. Her best advice for them is to continue working toward big goals despite the odds. She noted: "If you can tough it out, you get to make a difference in the lives of so many people."
For Winnie Okello, PennDOT is more than just building roads and fixing potholes; it's about opportunities. Working for PennDOT can give people access to this greater world of transportation and community.
As the transportation industry continues to evolve in the future, there's no doubt that Winnie will adapt accordingly. Not one for stagnation, her mindset is focused on innovation and how we adapt as the world changes. We can't resist real change, especially when it comes to inefficiencies in the system.
Although she enjoys having quiet moments for self-reflection, Winnie's bubbly, outgoing personality lights up a room. She is thoughtful, open-minded, and considerate of others. These might not be traits that are typically required for engineers, but they are virtues that undoubtedly elevate her work to a higher level.