Juan Pestana
Juan Pestana (By Ken Perkins)
Can you explain what geotechnical engineering is?

Geotechnical engineering is one discipline within civil and environmental engineering that focuses on the engineering behavior and characteristics of earth materials. In some projects, the mechanical properties of earth materials are key elements, as in the construction of earthworks (such as levees or dams), or structures (foundation for bridges and buildings). In other cases, knowing the behavior of these materials allows us to assess the imposed risk to society from natural disasters, such as earthquakes, landslides and liquefaction.

What's your educational background?

My bachelor's degree is in civil engineering from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Venezuela. After graduating and completing my thesis work, I was officially considered a professional engineer, and then I became a professor of civil engineering. I decided to pursue graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I immigrated to the United States and graduated with my master's and doctorate of science degrees in geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering.

Tell me about your journey.

Engineering caught my attention very late in high school. During my third year in college and over subsequent years, I began working as an engineering assistant for a consulting company in water resources. This led me to learn about water conveyance systems, fluid mechanics and the design of water reservoirs for hydroelectrical projects. While at MIT, I concentrated on geotechnical engineering and water resources. Upon becoming a professor here at UC-Berkeley, one of the areas that interested me was earthquakes and related topics such as pavement mechanics.

Shortly after graduation from college in 1985, I became a geotechnical consultant and I have been a professional practicing engineer for more than 25 years. In the process, I've been an associate principal for Arup, an engineering consulting firm in San Francisco, and a program director for the National Science Foundation, in the area of geohazard mitigation. Today, I'm a professor at UC-Berkeley, where I've been teaching for 15 years.

What are some of your duties?

As a professor at Berkeley, you are expected to excel in three key areas: academics, research and service. This semester, I'm teaching two classes: numerical modeling in geomechanics and environmental geotechnics. I am also in charge of two undergraduate seminars: introduction to civil and environmental engineering, and professional aspects in civil and environmental engineering. This semester, including office hours, I'm on campus teaching and assisting students for 15-20 hours a week.

Research is a very important component of the weekly schedule of a professor at a premier research institution such as UCBerkeley. Conducting research, supervising students, writing/documenting your research and, certainly, writing proposals occupies most of the time in this area.

In addition, the University of California relies on self-governance, so we [faculty] also participate and are expected to contribute in making decisions and thus we are involved in numerous committees at the department, college and university levels. We also serve in external committees, advisory boards for companies and government agencies, nationally and internationally among other activities.

Is civil engineering a good career?

Civil engineering is one of the most exciting and vibrant disciplines today. As a society, we will face significant challenges in the coming decades and I believe that civil engineers are in a great position to develop and implement the technology required to face those challenges. Dealing with aging infrastructure, design and construction of structures resilient to natural disasters and sustainable cities are just only a few of these areas.

Civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley provides a well-rounded curriculum with particular emphasis in fundamentals. Both at the undergraduate and graduate levels you are able to go in depth into one specific area or discipline and gain an expert status while remaining exposed to a broader set of issues and information.

If you would like to be considered for a career profile or want to nominate someone, please e-mail Charlotte Cusack at ccusack@bayareanewsgroup.com.