Ten Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering alumni recognized at 2023 alumni awards ceremony
The Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of civil and environmental engineering recently inducted five members into the Academy of Distinguished Alumni.
The 2023 inductees were selected from the more than 12,000 living civil and environmental engineering alumni and brings the academy to a total of 156 members. Academy members have made contributions to the profession, their community, and service to Virginia Tech.
This year’s inductees are Bill Burgos of University Park, Pennsylvania; Jon B. Fripp of Arlington, Texas; James W. Patteson of Fairfax, Virginia; Steve Via of Lancaster, Virginia; and Yunlong Zhang of College Station, Texas.
“Each year, I am amazed and impressed by the accomplishments of our alumni,” said Department Head Mark Widdowson. “These individuals have shown great commitment to our industry and Virginia Tech and I am proud to recognize their successes.”
The Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the CEE Alumni Board formally initiated the Alumni Achievement Awards program in 1998 as a means of honoring both younger alumni and those who have graduated from the department years ago.
Five outstanding young alumni were also recognized. Those recipients are Ashly Cabas of Cary, North Carolina; Adam Phillips of Pullman, Washington; Jessie Ponce de Leon of Washington, D.C.; Robert Ridgell of Warrenton, Virginia; and Erin Rooney of Metairie, Louisiana.
All of the alumni award recipients were recognized at a banquet at the Inn at Virginia Tech on March 23, 2023.
William D. Burgos
Professor of Environmental Engineering, Pennsylvania State University
Why did you choose your profession? As an undergraduate in Mechanical Engineering, I completed several co-op internships with a large aerospace company and did not love the work. I used my senior year technical electives to take classes in environmental engineering and groundwater hydrology and immediately knew these were the fields I wanted to work in. I feel environmental engineering is a noble profession because of its commitment to improving our world. I also really enjoy the multi-disciplinary nature of the field.
Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech? My brother went to VT. I visited him a few times and loved the school. I started into the M.S. Environmental Engineering program because I needed additional training to work in the field. I returned for my Ph.D. because my research advisor, Dr. John Novak, was such a fantastic and supportive person.
What is one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech? There are so many because I got three degrees at VT and lived in Blacksburg for nearly 10 years. My favorite memories involved meeting my wife and falling in love at the ridiculously young of 20. Another one is meeting my good friend James Stone. Jim was a new M.S. student when I returned as a new PhD student. I first saw Jim racing down a hallway in Norris Hall pushing an AV cart (remember those!) to a class that he TA’ed. He was covered in mud and still in his mountain biking clothing. Possibly the next day I saw him again at a quiet table in Newman Library. I introduced myself and we’ve been great friends ever since.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career? I must say this award is my proudest accomplishment because it comes from the institution I love and respect the most. I have never been a self-promoter, so to be recognized by my alma mater is amazing. I would say that my most noteworthy scientific accomplishments are related to the work we’ve done on documenting the impact of the disposal of produced water from oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. We showed that centralized waste treatment facilities for oil and gas produced water left contaminant signatures in lake sediments that could still be detected 10 years after peak industrial activity.
Jon B. Fripp
Director, National Design, Construction and Soil Mechanics Center, USDA-NRCS
Why did you choose your profession? I believe that the profession chose me. My mother has told me that she knew I would be some sort of a civil engineer from when I was very young. She observed that I was drawn to playing with wooden blocks, assembling Lego structures, driving tonka trucks in a sandbox, and mucking around in a backyard creek since I was old enough to express an interest in independent play. I have been fortunate to have a career where I could get paid to do what I have always loved.
Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech? Virginia Tech has a well-earned reputation of providing an excellent educational value. A civil engineering degree from Virginia Tech offers a combination of providing great opportunities for service with a way to make a good living. Of particular interest when I was looking at universities was the well-run cooperative education program which not only provided needed money to pay for my education but also facilitated my understanding of my profession.
How did what you learned at Virginia Tech impact your career? Virginia Tech provided an excellent foundation for my career. I was not only able to acquire a great technical understanding of my field but also a deeper understanding of the value of teamwork and the joy of being a lifelong learner. The requirements to take non-technical electives (in my case, I chose philosophy and sociology blocks), while not valued by me as an undergraduate, have provided a valuable perspective throughout my career.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career? Engineering is a noble profession. I get the most satisfaction and joy in being able to use my knowledge, skills, and experience to help others. I have been able to work on a variety of projects around the world (Afghanistan to Zimbabwe) with some truly excellent professionals. I was particularly pleased to be able to serve on the U.S.-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Initiative’s Watershed Rehabilitation and Irrigation team. I have been honored to receive recognition from my agency with several national awards. I now get great satisfaction out of working with both students and junior level engineers to ‘pay forward’ for the benefits I have received in my training by my mentors and teachers
James W. Patteson
Principal, Blue Heron Leadership Group
Why did you choose your profession? I believe in public service and love building the infrastructure that supports communities.
Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech? There are other Universities?!?
How did what you learned in civil engineering at Virginia Tech impact your career? Ut Prosim - that I may serve. The profession of civil engineering and working in local government allowed me to work toward the betterment of others - a value that was instilled in me growing up and strengthened at Virginia Tech.
What is one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech? Floating the New River and hiking the Cascades when I should have been studying.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career? Supporting the professional growth of others. Developing a host of initiatives to develop the skills of staff and help them in their professional development. Also, giving back to Virginia Tech through the Land Development Design Initiative (serving as a mentor and developing new courses).
Who influenced you in your career or your time at Virginia Tech? My structural engineering professor, Dr. Siegfried M. Holzer (he actually made structural engineering understandable) and civil and environmental engineering department head at the time, Wayne Clough.
Director, Federal Relations, American Water Works Association
Why did you choose your profession? “Choosing” is probably not the right word. I found myself in the drinking water community and realized what a great mission we have, providing the public with a safe and sustainable water supply. The profession allows me to work with people that are dedicated to that mission every day. Finding this career was a result of the professors and students at VT.
Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech? My wife came to VT to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology. Working in the local community I got a chance to engage in projects with graduates and faculty from that were active in the local public works and environmental planning activities. Working with them motivated me to pursue a degree in CEE.
What is one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech? Lectures by Dr. Bill Hoehn. Dr. Hoehn taught environmental engineering fundamentals and he successfully communicated the principles we needed to learn. He was an effective teacher because he was also a storyteller. He wrapped what we needed to know in real life experiences. His stories, and the associated points of emphasis, still come to mind more than 25 years later. How did what you learned in civil engineering at Virginia Tech impact your career? Engineering requires understanding math and science, but also recognizing what problem you are trying to solve, and which considerations are the most critical to solving it effectively. Dr. Knocke’s course, Water/Wastewater Design, is one that really brought that lesson home.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career? On several occasions, I’ve had the opportunity to support water policy dialogues. These dialogues involved regulators, experts from the water sector, and interested advocates working together to analyze available data and agree on actions that will effectively advance public health. The days when those dialogues arrive at solutions are good ones – current regulations for disinfection byproducts, drinking water disinfection, and other aspects of how water systems are regulated -- are among them
Peter C. Forster '61 Professor and Associate Department Head, Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Texas A&M University
Why did you choose your profession? Civil engineering was not my choice of major but it became my destiny. I ended up loving it once I knew and learned more about it, and eventually decided to make it my life-long career. I want to make a difference in improving the quality of life of ordinary people by designing better infrastructure.
Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech? Virginia Tech had a great reputation in its civil engineering programs and made me the best financial assistance offer among all the universities I applied for my Ph.D. study.
How did what you learned in civil engineering at Virginia Tech impact your career? I was introduced to the concept of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) at Virginia Tech. At the time, Virginia Tech had one of the first ITS Research Centers of Excellence. The pioneer research work fostered my interest and also laid a solid foundation for my future research focusing on developing innovative solutions to transportation problems. What is one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech? I had my first child, my daughter Amy.
What is your most noteworthy or proudest accomplishment in your career? I have been an associate department head for graduate programs and director of the graduate advising office for many years. My proudest accomplishment is that I have been able to impact lives by guiding and caring for many graduate students through advising and supporting students on academics, career, and life in general
Outstanding Young Alumni
Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University
Why did you choose your profession?
My parents are engineers (one civil, one mechanical), so I grew up learning to love every aspect of engineering. However, during my last year in high school, I decided to conduct interviews to college students enrolled in my top three choices for major (i.e., civil engineering, economics, and electrical engineering). Connecting with civil engineering students and feeling at home at the hydraulics lab sealed the deal.
Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech?
It was the outstanding and long tradition of excellence of the geotechnical engineering program at VT, as well as the pioneering research conducted by the faculty what ultimately made it clear that VT was the place for me to continue growing as a professional. It was the outstanding and long tradition of excellence of the geotechnical engineering program at VT, as well as the pioneering research conducted by the faculty what ultimately made it clear that VT was the place for me to continue growing as a professional.
What is one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech?
I have too many! Virginia Tech is not only my second home, but a truly magical place. The geotech ice-breakers at the beginning of each fall semester at Dr. Duncan’s home and later at Dr. Rodriguez-Marek’s home created special memories of welcoming faculty, supporting students and diverse perspectives that made you feel connected not only to Blacksburg, but the world.
How did what you learned at Virginia Tech impact your career?
So many dimensions of my career were developed and strengthened during my time at VT. The fundamentals of geotechnical engineering coupled with strong work ethics created a strong foundation for me to grow professionally. The dedicated mentorship focused on communication skills has also been particularly impactful in my career as a professor.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career?
Being able to create and nourish a productive, diverse, kind, and inclusive research team that enables the generation and dissemination of new knowledge that can ultimately reduce seismic risks globally.
Assistant Professor, Washington State University
Why did you choose your profession? I first became fascinated by tall buildings when I was 12 years old on a trip to Baltimore with my parents to see an Orioles game. We stayed downtown and I remember spending the whole trip looking up. Then, in high school I got a drafting certificate as part of shop class and started interning as a drafter for a local architecture company, which exposed me to the industry of building construction and solidified my motivation to be a structural engineer. During my B.S. and M.S. at Virginia Tech I become more interested in tall building design and performance-based engineering. My original plan was to complete my Ph.D., which was seismic and steel focused, and then go to a structural consulting firm for performance based tall building design. But, during my Ph.D. I participated in the Preparing the Future Professoriate program through the Graduate School and in a study abroad trip to Switzerland and became interested in the faculty life. I still do research predominately on building structures and performance-based design and am tied closely to practice, but I also get to inspire students and play a small role in their professional development.
What is one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech? Some of my favorite memories from Virginia Tech are the concrete canoe competitions. The time spent with the team and the weekend away at the ASCE regional competitions were always a good time and created a lot of long lasting friendships.
How did what you learned at Virginia Tech impact your career? First and foremost, I learned how to do high quality research during my graduate studies. This has enabled me to be successful as a faculty member myself, when planning for research proposals, mentoring students for research projects, or even consulting with industry. Being a student at Virginia Tech also gave me the experience of what a good school and department should feel like. Some of my best friends were made at Virginia Tech. The campus community and sense of belonging made going through a difficult degree program easier and enjoyable.
Jessie Ponce de Leon
Managing Partner, GordonDC, LLC
Why did you choose your profession? Civil engineering requires strong critical thinking skills, effective communication, and an ability to see the “big picture”. It became clear to me as I progressed through school that I possessed those qualities and could make a career solving complex problems that center around math principles. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I realized land development was the right path for me; I’m grateful that the LDDI program existed to solidify my choice in major and career path.
Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech? I did not decide to go to college until partially through my senior year of high school. I’ll never forget yelling to my parents from our den asking for their credit card so I could apply to VT via early decision, I’m pretty sure they were shocked! I figured, if I got in, that is where I should be and what I needed to do. The decision was 100% based upon my sister. At the time I applied she was a senior in Chemical Engineering. It was the only place I visited and seeing her acadmic and social experience certainly stuck with me.
What's one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech? It’s difficult to choose one because my time there created so many. The lasting friendships made through my CEE and my sorority, Sigma Kappa, are incredibly meaningful and helped me get through some challenging times both academically and personally. There is one memory from my last semester that stands out. My sorority sister and roommate, a political science major, wanted to attend one of my classes. We somehow decided upon Electrical Theory. When I asked her what she thought she simply said, “the only thing I understood was the word calculator”; she was not alone.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career? Hands down establishing GordonDC. About five years into my time at Gordon I was starting to establish myself within Loudoun County. In 2012 I met a DC-based developer who described an incredible historic adaptive reuse project he was kicking off. He didn’t have a civil engineer and I convinced him to hire me; someone who had zero experience working on redevelopment projects, let alone within DC! I spent the next few years learning the DC market and was able to demonstrate it was primed with opportunity. With Gordon’s trust and support we launched GordonDC, with me at the helm. We had a bit of a rocky start, but looking at what we’ve built in such a short period of time always humbles and amazes me.
Robert G. Ridgell
Associate Vice President for Construction Services, Wallace Montgomery
Why did you choose your profession? Simply put, I’ve always loved construction. The year I was born my father opened his own contracting business - at first just doing electrical or utility work, but over time growing into other sectors such as boring and jacking and directional drilling. I grew up helping him on weekends or school breaks. My father can tell you stories about having a Naval ROICC staffer tell him, “Mr. Ridgell he’s doing a good job and all, but you can’t have your 8-year old flagging traffic.” I used to sit in my father’s truck and relish going to work with him. It was fascinating and a chance to get my hands dirty. I fell in love with that feeling of creating something. I take immense pride in projects I’ve built, participated in, or now oversee.
Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech? Hokie Stone. I only say that partially in jest. I had been accepted to several schools when I got around to visiting VT. I stepped on campus and fell in love. It didn’t hurt that it was one of the top engineering programs in the country. I just felt something when I set foot on that campus. Mind you this visit did occur outside of the December – February “bleaksburg” time of year.
What is one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech? I have two. The first was trying out for the Hokie Bird, and no I didn’t get to walk at graduation with the shoes; but I did have the honor of being the Hokie Bird for 15 minutes in Cassell. I thought I had spirit, but so did everyone in that hallway. The other was playing in the Jazz Ensemble with Dr. Lonnie Smith and Cyrus Pace, the director at the time. It was the first time in my musical education I had gotten to play with a professional musician and I got to do a baritone saxophone solo on stage with him. Afterwards we hit Gillies and I had some time to talk to Dr. Smith and hear of all his experiences.
Whata is your proudest accomplishment in your career? The successful delivery of the Route 3 Chatham Bridge over the Rappahannock River. While this isn’t the largest project I’ve overseen, it was unique. During project development the project estimate was trending above its funding due to growing constraints pertaining to environmental sensitivity, cultural resources, right-of-way constraints, and overall construction duration. I worked with VDOT’s Project Controls and Traffic Engineering teams to develop an accelerated project delivery concept. This was in lieu of the proposed 30-month phased construction concept. The project received the American Concrete Institute Virginia Chapter Award for Excellence in Concrete Construction and finished 2nd for AASHTO People’s Choice 2022 National Transportation Project of the Year.
Coastal Project Manager and Professional Associate, HDR
Why did you choose your profession? During my first week at Virginia Tech, Hurricane Katrina forever changed my community, displaced thousands, and submerged my family home. Over the past 17 years, that experience and the aftermath of Katrina and other storms has driven my career to restore and increase the resilience of coastal communities in Louisiana and throughout the country.
What is one of your favorite memories from Virginia Tech? My favorite memories are spending time with friends, volunteering at events with CKI, and playing in the snow.
Who influenced you during your time at Virginia Tech? All of the folks in CEE were incredibly influential. In particular, Vickie Mouras, Dr. Knocke, Kara Lattimer, and Dr. Irish were most influential in teaching both professionalism and technical skills.
How did what you learned at Virginia Tech impact your career? Virginia Tech taught me so much including professionalism and technical skills. I learned to always come to the table with ideas for solutions and not just complain about a problem. Pursue work that will better the world and improve lives in following with the motto of Ut Prosim. These concepts have led me to great opportunities and great professional relationships that have helped advance my career.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career? Working on the Rockefeller Refuge Shoreline Protection project is one of my proudest career accomplishments. The breakwater project and adjacent jetty is now protecting the refuge shoreline that was experiencing over 40 ft of erosion per year. The project has since withstood two direct hurricane impacts and is making a significant difference in protecting the environments and people of Louisiana.