The Engineering Marvel of the Panama Canal — and of NLM

As you read this post, I’ll be on an adventure that’s been on my bucket list for 50 years: sailing through the Panama Canal! I’ve wanted to make this journey ever since I learned that my dad, who was a transportation engineer during World War II, passed through the Panama Canal. I’m looking forward to a more relaxing experience, on a voyage that I’ll be sharing with friends. 

As I prepared for this trip, I considered the Panama Canal’s interesting geography and geopolitical history. This 51-mile-long, lock-type canal cuts through the Isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Originally begun by the French in 1881, the canal was completed by the United States and opened to shipping traffic in 1914. Now controlled by Panama, the canal has three lanes, through which over 15,000 ships pass each year.

The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world because of the amazing engineering effort it required. A recent book by Marixa Lasso, Erased, adds perspective to the story by describing the history and culture of the communities in that region prior to, and after, the canal’s construction. Although many techniques were developed to manage the massive excavation projects, the flow of water, and the raising and lowering of ships through the system of locks, most of them — as well as the people of the area — are invisible to travelers enjoying the sights from the shipboard viewing areas.

In a way, the National Library of Medicine is also an engineering wonder whose underlying framework remains mostly hidden from view. To produce the Library’s suite of offerings, which reach millions of people each day, we rely on modern information engineering methods and techniques. Our software engineers devise programs to shorten the turnaround time for responses to queries and deposits of new genomic sequences. Effective engineering approaches are also needed to track the number of PubMed searches and deliver the results as quickly as possible. And to be certain that the advances we make in one area of the Library’s operations don’t disrupt activities in others, we have a team of project managers and program coordinators who monitor all those efforts.

In addition to relying on the staff who maintain and improve NLM’s information technology, we depend on a building engineer and engineering staff to keep our physical plant operating. NLM is one of only three Institutes and Centers at the National Institutes of Health that are responsible for their own buildings. Our two on-campus buildings, known as Building 38 and Building 38A, provide space for almost 1,000 people. Building 38 has three above-ground floors, with two additional below-ground floors to hold our stacks of journals, serials, and books, and Building 38A has 13 floors in total. So it takes a dedicated staff to make sure that the elevators and HVAC systems function and that work spaces and lighting are conducive to efficient and effective performance.

People around the world benefit from the vision and hard work of all types of engineers, just as people around the world benefit from NLM’s offerings. So the next time you search ClinicalTrials.gov, find an important citation in PubMed, read a full-text article through PubMed Central, or submit a proposal for review by our grants program, give a nod of thanks to our engineers. NLM wouldn’t be the same without them!

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

3 thoughts on “The Engineering Marvel of the Panama Canal — and of NLM”

  1. What are the other two “Institutes and Centers” responsible for their own buildings? My ex-NIH’er husband suggested the Clinical Center but we’re stuck on the other.

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