Full Name: Justin Ocel
Title: Civil Engineer
Division/Department: Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center - Office of Infrastructure RD&T
Location: McLean, VA
What is your current position and how long have you been in this role?
I'm the Structural Steel Research Program Manager and I've been in this role since September 2009.
What is your typical workday like?
There is no such thing as a typical day, each is different from the next. I currently manage four research contracts/task orders, which include reviewing deliverables, giving technical guidance, and checking invoices. I spend most of my time doing technical writing for the research I conduct myself, or assisting national committees develop specifications based on FHWA research findings. I do still get into the lab to run experimental tests like breaking steel tensile coupons, breaking Charpy impact specimens, or looking at steel/weld grain structures under the microscope. When your job is to handle all aspects of research related to steel transportation structures, a lot of things get thrown your way.
What has been your biggest accomplishment over the last year?
I conducted a research program that concluded in 2014 looking at the variability of paint friction resistance used in bolted connections. You're probably asking, huh? When bridge components are typically bolted together, the force from one element to the next is transferred through friction, and engineers/designers have to assume its frictional value. Sometimes those surfaces are painted, and these paints must demonstrate they can achieve the frictional value assumed by the designer. It was a fun project, but one of the primary recommendations from the project was to revise the test method to determine friction resistance. I submitted recommendations to the committee that maintains the test method shortly after the research concluded. The primary recommendations were adopted last summer and they should be published in 2019. Specification committee work is not a fast process.
Prior to working at FHWA, what was the most unusual or interesting job you've ever had?
As an undergraduate I worked in a fabrication shop that specialized in making devices to move furniture, like the carts with big casters you'd see at a home improvement store. I spent about two years cutting steel tubing in a cold saw, operating 150-ton presses, running forming presses, operating a tube bending machine, drilling castings, assembling product, and palletizing product. It was mind-numbing work, and talk radio got me through it. It was also the dirtiest job I've ever had as grease and oil got on everything, I had to sit on a garbage bag driving home to keep my truck semi-clean.
What are your hobbies in your spare time?
I like to work with my hands, so most of my time goes toward home projects, upkeep of two vehicles (I've rarely brought a vehicle anywhere for service, I'm a shadetree mechanic), and woodworking. Since moving into a house in Northern Virginia in 2007, I've remodeled the kitchen, three bathrooms, built my own solid ash cabinets for the laundry room, built a shed, replaced four windows, and rebuilt the deck and screened-in porch. This spring I'll take on an ambitious landscaping project to overhaul the entire front yard.
What is one of the biggest lessons you have learned in your career to get you where you are today?
Patience. Government works on an evolutionary, not revolutionary scale. I used to get pretty fired up when things didn't happen quickly or even if decisions didn't fall along the lines I thought they should have. I've learned that getting worked up over things like this just isn't worth the effort, in time, the right things happen.
Who do you admire in the transportation field (past or present) and why?
I'll speak to those who are no longer with us. I'll credit my PhD advisor Prof. Robert Dexter, who passed away in 2004. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have gotten the doctorate degree, and likely wouldn't have landed at FHWA, nor into research for that manner. He was a remarkable person, he mostly conducted research in the transportation sector, but also maritime, oil and gas, and vertical construction. He had a remarkable ability to comprehend the complex, but could always boil it down to the layman what it was and why it was important. I think this is why he was such a well-respected researcher.
Complete this sentence: "People would be surprised if they knew..."
I used to shoot competition trap, skeet, and sporting clays. I wasn't Olympic class, my average was around 22 (25 is perfect). I still try to get out for a round of sporting clays once a month.