Civil Engineering Institute chair living her dream as an engineer and mentor to students
June 12, 2020 / by Nanci Hellmich
“The best civil engineering students are the ones who take ownership of their projects, who learn the scope of the project, the standards that apply, and who constantly ask questions about how to do things better.”
— Cerasela Cristei, chair of the Civil Engineering Institute, civil engineering adjunct professor, and senior project manager for T3 Design in Fairfax
When civil engineering alumna Cerasela Cristei was growing up in Romania, she considered becoming a professional ballet dancer like her mother, father, and sister—or a teacher because she thought she would love to instruct and mentor younger people.
“My path to civil engineering was sinuous because I was born in a family of artists and imagined I would follow that path,” says Cristei, MS Civil and Infrastructure Engineering ‘05, PhD Civil and Infrastructure Engineering ‘10.
But her grand jeté landed her in a different career. “I was good at math and physics so engineering was the right field for me.”
Cristei immigrated to the United States in 1996 at age 31 with a five-year degree in civil engineering. She enrolled at Mason to earn a MS degree and later a PhD in civil and infrastructure engineering from the Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering (CEIE). Her dissertation, “Optimization Modeling for Urban Street Design,” focused on the perception of the level of service from the perspective of bicycle, pedestrian, and auto users of urban streets.
In her job as a senior project manager for T3 Design Corporation in Fairfax, Cristei works on local transportation improvements. She’s the new chair of the Civil Engineering Institute (CEI) board and a CEIE adjunct professor in charge of the senior design class.
Her goal with the board is to engage members in activities that promote the civil engineering department as well as attract new members. And she wants to work with the department’s faculty to make sure graduates possess the skills and knowledge they will need to launch into their jobs.
What she loves most about her career in civil engineering is that she serves others. “The most important projects to me are those that make traffic and transportation better in my community,” she says.
When she was a project manager at Dewberry, she worked on the Metro’s Silver Line, developing the erosion and sediment control plans and assisting in obtaining more than 200 permits.
"No construction can even start without the erosion and sediment control plans, which is how the adjoining properties are protected from sediment-laden runoff from construction sites and more,” she says. “If the perimeter of a construction site is not protected with the correct measures there are consequences for the public as well as for the contractor.”
At T3 Design, she works on various types of traffic projects including intersection upgrades, traffic signals, signage, and pavement markings. “We do not design major roadways, yet, but we make existing ones better,” she says. She also mentors junior engineers.
After a full work week, Cristei teaches a three-hour senior design class for CEIE every week. She guides teams of students as they develop solutions for a transportation problem in the area. This year, the students proposed options to replace a one-lane bridge in an increasingly congested area.
She wants students to be successful and stretch their skills. “With some, I encourage them saying, ‘Can you do better?’ That’s going to help them because that’s what we do in industry. The first solution you come up with is not always the best.
“The best civil engineering students are the ones who take ownership of their projects, who learn the scope of the project, the standards that apply, and who constantly ask questions about how to do things better,” she says.
Laura Kosoglu, CEIE associate chair and director of the department’s graduate program, says Cristei has a special relationship with her students. “At the end of the senior design presentations, Cerasela always gathers the groups together for parting advice, just her and the students,” Kosoglu says. “I have always loved this tradition of hers. The students gathered in a circle listening intently. When she speaks, people listen.”
As she suspected long ago, Cristei loves teaching. “It’s unbelievable how happy I am and how much energy I have after I teach the classes. My husband said to me, ‘You enjoy teaching’ and I do.”