Professional Engineer: What It Means to Me

Thursday, August 16, 2007

PE: The Magazine for Professional Engineers

College Note: Dr. Lilia Abron is a graduate of The University of Iowa College of Engineering (PhD 1972 in chemical engineering) and a member of the College's Distinguished Engineering Alumni Academy.

The following is from a special issue of PE magazine, published in partnership by the National Society of Professional Engineers and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, celebrating 100 years of professional engineering.

Professional Engineer:
What It Means to Me
The PE title has different meanings for different people, but it’s always a source of pride.

Competence + Responsibility
Lilia Abron, P.E.

The PE license means that I have committed myself to work as an engineer in an honest, ethical, and transparent manner. It means I will not put financial, political, and social pain above the public good. It means that I endeavor to practice my profession to the highest standards of accuracy, quality, fairness, appropriateness, and accountability. I would do those things anyway, but the PE license is my word that I can be trusted to work ethically at all times.

To many, the PE license indicates that its holder has acquired a certain body of knowledge that says, “I am a competent engineer.” That is true, but my academic degrees are better measurements of technical competence. The PE license goes one step further—it means I am a responsible engineer. When I sign my name to a set of engineering drawings or to a report that affects the public, I have taken on the responsibility of being liable if the project fails.

I am an environmental engineer—a discipline that, more than any other, is responsible for determining and protecting the “public good.” People in general have an obligation to take care of our environment, and none of us has the right to degrade it for any reason and especially not for financial, political, nor social gain. Humans and the environment can and must coexist for the benefit of both. As an environmental engineer, it is my task to find ways of harmonizing economic growth and social change with environmental stewardship. Why did I choose this vocation?

In 1962, the year I graduated from high school in Memphis, Tennessee, Rachel Carson’s blockbuster book Silent Spring was published. That book had a profound influence—it is often referred to as the beginning of the environmental movement—and I was one of those profoundly influenced. It gave direction to my developing thoughts about a career, and it resonated with my own sense that social justice has a strong environmental component. Although the term “environmental justice” did not come into use until much later.

I saw first hand what happened to black communities when the “highway went through.” I saw what happened to black communities and black families when “urban renewal” came to town. I saw what happened when the master planners determined where the new wastewater plant was going to be located. I smelled for years the wastewater pumping station outfall that was so conveniently located on our side of the river.

When I was in college thinking about my future, I knew, like many other young Americans of my generation, that I wanted to solve the problems of the world. Initially, I wanted to join the Peace Corps and, in fact, I almost did. But somewhere along the way, the interest piqued by Silent Spring asserted itself. I learned about environmental engineering and knew by the time I was a senior that I wanted to be an environmental engineer.

It is a rigorous field of study. It is an exacting profession. It involves detective work. It involves activism, helping communities and industries take environmental impacts into account, seeing environmentalism as a benefit, not a cost. We aim to find useful solutions to the environmental problems created by human activity. We focus on basic functions, such as water and wastewater treatment plants; sanitary landfills to better manage municipal solid wastes and generate energy; and creating, identifying, and implementing technologies and processes that will do the job without causing pollution. Environmental engineers nudge colleagues in other engineering disciplines to consider environmental and social benefits and costs of their projects and the effect of their projects on the air, land, and water we all share.

Our work faces many detractors. Rachel Carson, however, opened a door; we walked in, solved the problems, and a cleaner, healthier, better-managed environment is the result. The world community now faces a more ominous problem—global warming. Again, environmental engineers are leading the way in looking for solutions. As before, not everyone agrees there is a problem. But the skeptics are changing their minds faster than they might once have.

Why? The expertise symbolized by the PE license held by many of us has caused skeptics to think about the past and listen. That license tells them we are competent engineers and that we are problem solvers used to dealing with environmental impacts. It enables them to take the next step and think that we just might know how to contribute reasonable solutions. Without that PE license, we would not be in leadership positions to solve these problems.

So, at the end of the day, the PE license means that my profession, and society as a whole, has recognized my expertise and in so doing has accorded me the credibility and respect that enables me to function as an environmental problem solver.

Lilia Abron, Ph.D., P.E., is the founder and president of PEER Consultants, an environmental and civil engineering firm headquartered in the Washington, D.C., area.