Leading Ladies: UT alumna uses engineering career to give back to community

AddThis

UT alumna Mary Lou Ralls Newman aims to help underserved communities with public works projects in Texas and around the world.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Mary Lou Ralls Newman has mastered the art of having it all — two degrees, a husband for a business partner, two grown kids and a passport with stamps from Tanzania, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Germany. 

“I wouldn’t have traded my kids for my career or my career for my kids,” Ralls Newman said.  “My life’s very complete. I think you can balance it all. It’s tough, but you can do it.”

In 1984, the UT graduate received her master’s degree in structural engineering, which deals with the research, analysis, planning and designing of structures such as buildings and bridges. Throughout her time at school, Ralls Newman always knew that she wanted a career that involved giving back. 

After switching majors a couple of times, she decided on civil engineering. Ralls Newman specifically remembers one of the classes that advanced her interests in engineering — reinforced concrete design taught by then-civil engineering professor John Breen. 

“He was so knowledgeable and made everything so simple,” Ralls Newman said. “That planted the seed that I might be a structural engineer.” 

Immediately after graduation, Ralls Newman landed a job as the only female structural engineer in the bridge division of the Texas Department of Transportation. For 20 years, Ralls Newman worked to advance bridge technologies, design and do research. After 15 years, she became the director of the Bridge Division, the highest-ranking bridge engineer position in the state. She said despite being the only female in her department, she never felt any discrimination. 

“It’s definitely a man’s world, but the guys were really good to work with,” Ralls Newman said. “They [were] very helpful. They just took me under their wings, and it was really nice.”

In 2004, Ralls Newman left her job at the department and created an engineering consulting agency with her husband called Ralls Newman, LLC, which is focused on advancing bridge technologies. Ralls Newman’s schedule became more flexible, giving her more time for traveling and other endeavors. She has worked with Water to Thrive, an Austin-based nonprofit that funds water projects to those in need in rural Africa, and she is involved with a justice task force at her church that helps the less fortunate.

“[Ralls Newman] is totally committed,” said Janet Ellzey, mechanical engineering professor and executive vice president and provost. “I can’t remember her ever saying, ‘I don’t have time to do that.’”

Ellzey works with Ralls Newman on UT’s Project for Underserved Communities. 

“I’m giving back to the University now,” Ralls Newman said. “What I’ve been able to accomplish as an engineer is a direct result of my degrees at UT, and I love it.”

Ralls Newman said she has seen the increase in female engineers over time in her work and in her projects with UT. 

“Certainly women can do anything men can,” Ralls Newman said. “There are quite a few structural engineers that I work with around the country. I think if your focus is to do a good job, be serious about your job and make a difference, then I think everything works out.” 

Ralls Newman said she never had a plan for her life, but she feels fortunate about the way it turned out. 

“My career is one that I’ve really enjoyed and was challenged by,” Ralls Newman said. “I think that’s what everyone should look for. What really excites you? What makes you want to get up in the morning and meet the day? If you can find that for yourself — I think that’s what it’s really about.”