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Jim Leckie

Civil & Environmental Engineering
Story originally published on Jul 2018
I used to tell my students that I was an ‘accidental professor.’

When it came time to select a major I asked a teacher for advice. She told me, ‘Well, I have a brother who’s in engineering, makes good money.’ And I said, ‘OK, that’s good enough for me. I’ll put down engineering.’ My family moved around a lot growing up, so I became accustomed to not having a plan. I grew up surrounded by an extended blue-collar family and the whole notion of picking a career was foreign to me. I did not take college prep in high school, I only went through algebra, and never picked up a physics book. Luckily a teacher took an interest in me and I received provisional admission to San Jose State University.

I worked construction and took night classes for eight exhausting years. My hard-working blue-collar background paid off. I did well. So well that I received a recommendation from one of my faculty advisors who suggested I go to graduate school. So in yet another unplanned decision I went to a school that I had never visited, Harvard. I never thought about a PhD either, but after my year at Harvard the idea of doing research sounded like a lot of fun. Eventually my research connections landed me here at Stanford, and I’ve been here for 48 years.

For having such an unplanned career, there is great irony for me in civil engineering; a lot of what civil engineers do involves extensive planning. Today civil engineering includes a number of sub disciplines, but the continued focus remains on providing the basis for civilization with an increased focus on public health. Civil engineers are responsible for designing, building, maintaining and operating infrastructure systems for society. Civil engineering is everywhere – the roads we drive on, the water we drink, where you work – it really is all around you. One of the more significant advances in public health was the advent of producing and delivering clean drinking water along with the treatment and removal of human and solid waste from cities. This progress has contributed significantly to the management and control of disease.

With the world changing rapidly, the problems civil engineers aim to solve are becoming more complex. For example, most would consider homelessness a societal issue; however, it is very much an engineering problem. Homes need to be situated in a location where individuals can access services to create real change. Transportation, medical services, access to food and education are all needed. As civil engineers, it’s important to look at the big picture to get to effective, long-lasting solutions.

The current focus of my work is on urban areas and how we can improve the quality of life for those who live in large populated areas, while minimizing the adverse impact on our natural environment. Through the Sustainable Urban Systems Initiative, we are providing students with experiential learning opportunities through a three-quarter course sequence. We look at largely populated megacities and potential ‘wicked problems’ – problems that offer no good solutions. Natural disasters are the main culprits for these ‘wicked problems.’ This year the students are studying the challenges posed by rising sea levels and climate change, where cities must examine how to protect the built environment from inundation up to half-meter in sea level. Forty percent of the world lives on the margins of the oceans. It is possible that we could have a catastrophic release from the eastern portion of Antarctica, which could raise the sea level 10 to 15 feet over a short period of time. The students are calculating flood maps and evaluating the cost due to flooding of infrastructure, buildings and substations for power. The opportunity to bring together multiple engineering knowledge fields to solve these types of problems is endless.

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