2023 40 Under 40: Neela Babu, Ph.D.

Aug. 22, 2023
Neela Babu, Start-Up Manager, WMATA

One word to describe yourself: Perpetual student

Alma Mater: University of California, Davis and Cornell University

Neela Babu, Ph.D. is the start-up manager for the Potomac Yard Metro Station in Alexandria, Va., which is a train station that opened on May 19, 2023, by order of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

The Potomac Yard construction project is unique in itself because it involves building a new infill station between stations on an existing transit line. To compound things, the station is adjacent to CSX freight rail tracks on the west side, the George Washington Memorial Parkway (owned by the National Park Service) on the east side and Washington Reagan National Airport to its north.

Despite being new to working in construction, Babu jumped right into the industry and quickly got up to speed in October of 2021 on the project, which had been going for three-plus years. One of her main tasks was to plan the execution of the “cutover” – a big milestone on the project preceding station opening that involved swinging new tracks and tying them into the existing system, allowing passenger trains to pass through the station under construction on the newly built tracks. The cutover took eight weeks to complete and Babu's work was a contributing factor to its success. She engaged with staff at all levels of the organization to drive critical decisions, kept everyone focused during 24/7 shifts and kept the lines of communication open during challenging and quickly evolving situations.

In her position, she works with various groups across WMATA to ensure their needs are met, especially for the operations and maintenance groups who will be working in the station for decades to come. Babu holds responsibility over testing, systems integration and commissioning activities to prepare the station to be ready for opening to the public. She also leads the safety certification process, managing all required documentation necessary to achieve required approvals to open the station for public use.

Prior to WMATA, Babu was an asset management consultant in the Advisory Services group at WSP where she worked with clients in the northeast to help them optimize their use of asset data and improve business processes. Her clients included Amtrak, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority , the Delaware River Port Authority and WMATA. Before that, Babu worked in the infrastructure group of an economics consulting firm focusing on international development. Immediately prior to that, Babu served as a California Council on Science and Technology Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the California State Legislature, where she worked as a legislative staffer on the personal staff of then-Assemblymember Nancy Skinner.

Babu’s involvement in the industry goes beyond her time on the clock. Outside of work, she is involved with various industry and non-profit organizations. In particular, she has spent a lot of time with the DC chapter of the Women's Transportation Seminar (WTS), where she is currently serving as the immediate past president after being president in 2020-2021 and vice president in 2018-2019. In these roles, Babu worked to expand the breadth of the organization, specifically by engaging women at different levels in their career and ensuring the chapter provided programming for all of them. One example of this is the Women’s Executive Roundtable (EWR), which Babu has been leading for the chapter since 2017. This program brought together top-ranking women in the transportation industry in a facilitated forum to interact, network and discuss common issues. The ripple effect of this program led to increased engagement of EWR women with chapter activities, increased participation from the EWR women as mentors in the chapter’s mentoring program and an increase in chapter corporate memberships. Babu also serves as a mentor in the mentoring program and she is an advocate of the chapter’s Transportation YOU program, which introduces transportation career options to high school students.

As chapter president, she has led 40-plus volunteers to achieve the chapter’s mission of advancing women and advancing transportation. Even duringCOVID-19, Babu worked to increase the size of the organization and 10-plus new volunteers were added to the board. Prior to that, Babu’s dedication to the organization resulted in her winning the WTS-DC Member of the Year award for her role on the Program Logistics Committee alongside her co-chair Brittney Gick.

Beyond WTS, Neela is involved in the WMATA Washington Chapter of ARCS, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing scholarships to U.S. graduate and undergraduate students pursuing degrees in STEM fields. She is also on the Advisory Board for the Engineering Leadership Program at Harvey Mudd College.

Babu has earned a Ph.D. and M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University and a B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of California, Davis. She has certificates in both Business Process Management and Change Management and she has completed Eno’s Transportation Mid-Manager Accelerate Program.

Is there a specific experience that led you to where you are today?

I love infrastructure and how it serves society. This was exemplified to me when I participated in Engineers Without Borders during undergrad. The communities that requested these projects benefited from even the most basic infrastructure such as wells for water that allowed children to go to school during the day instead of having to spend hours trekking back and forth to a water source or projects like roads and bridges that allowed people to access nearby resources and to sell their wares in more markets. Even in [developed] countries, infrastructure facilitates the regular activities of everyday life and that’s why I want to spend my career working in this industry.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Being on a construction project, I love seeing the Potomac Yard Metro Station come together. From building new train tracks, to installing the fare gates, to testing the elevators, tangible progress is made every day and that is rewarding. I also appreciate this train station will be around for decades to come. I am thrilled to have been part of a project like this that will continue to serve the public even after my role is done.

Plus, the view from the station mezzanine is amazing! You can see trains on both the WMATA and CSX tracks, planes going to and from the Ronald Reagan National Airport, cars on the George Washington Memorial Parkway and boats on the Potomac River, not to mention views of the U.S. Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

When I started in this role, I was new to WMATA, and I jumped into a project that had been going on for years. It was a steep learning curve to understand both the project and how the agency operates. Potomac Yard has many different assets and systems that work cohesively to create a functioning train station. Given that it was my responsibility to oversee testing, systems integration and commissioning, I needed to learn about each of these systems. Fortunately, I had the support of the various engineering and maintenance teams across WMATA who worked with me and helped me understand what needed to be done and the path to get there. I am so grateful to my colleagues for that!

Best advice/tip/best practice to share from your area of expertise:

The approach I’ve taken to my career is to always be willing to learn. In this role, I’ve spent time studying new systems and I worked with subject matter experts to understand and to make decisions about technical topics. I have found collaboration and teamwork are effective skills in the workplace. It is immensely valuable to have people around you who will work with you to achieve an objective and people who will teach you about their area of expertise.

About the Author

Eman Abu-Khaled | Associate Editor

Eman Abu-Khaled is a recent graduate of Kent State University with a bachelors in journalism. She works through Endeavor Business Media with Mass Transit as an associate editor. Abu-Khaled brings a fresh perspective to the visual side of journalism with an interest in video and photography work.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro)
Newmlogo 10988011