Faces of Cooper: Jameel Ahmad

Caroline Yu (EE ’15)

The Cooper Pioneer: Where are you originally from?

Jameel Ahmad: I was born in Pakistan but I came here when I was still in my teens.

TCP: Can you tell me about your educational and professional background?

JA: I went to the University of Hawaii first and got a Masters there and then I got a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Then, I taught at a couple of places first then came to Cooper. I’ve been here ever since!

TCP: Why did you choose civil engineering? What is your favorite field within civil engineering?

JA: Since I was born in a developing country, there was a need for water supply and infrastructure and roads. So I was attracted to that. I liked science and math – those were my favorite subjects. Engineering is a natural profession grounded in science and math. It also is an applied profession so this is the reason I went into civil engineering. And then I found out that the civil engineering field is really broad. You can do a lot of things. For example, you can work in structural engineering or you can design transportation systems or waste-disposal systems. You don’t really feel like you’re confined to one field.

I’m a structural engineer. One interesting area that appealed to me was the generation of power from flowing water – hydroelectricity. I had an interest in building dams. Lately, we don’t build dams so now we have kinetic hydro-power which means how to extract energy from flowing water. I have a patent for a new technology which I got in 2008.

The real world isn’t disciplinary. It’s quite multidisciplinary. Disciplines are the way fields are organized but not how the problems are solved. The difference is that when you get involved in a real project – it really doesn’t really go by discipline. For example, in any of the engineering projects, permitting requirements, financing issues, return investments, and ethical issues are also involved. I think not all of those we learn while we’re in school because we only have a small amount of time – four years for an undergraduate degree but it’s sort of amazing to work with very many different people. A lot of different professional people involved. As a structural engineer, I work with architects a lot. This is the nature of how design is done. You also deal with owners, contractors, labor forces, unions contracts, how to procure materials, [and] environmental issues. So, it’s a large team effort and engineers work on very large projects! This skill that one has to develop is how to network with other professionals, how to communicate, [and] how to outreach the community. Our projects have a very large impact on the community. We need to get the community involved very early on in the project.

TCP: What is your role in Cooper? What is your department’s role in Cooper?

JA: I’m a professor in the Civil Engineering department. I’m the chairman of the department also. The engineering school is basically divided into four degree departments with separate faculty in each department. There is interaction with other departments – including the school of architecture. We are trying to develop that collaboration. Next year we plan to offer a lab course which will be available to the engineers and the architects. This will basically be a course on the testing of building materials – it’ll be done in our structures and material lab in the CE department.

TCP: Do you have a favorite professor or colleague at Cooper?

JA: Well, I have a very big respect for the Cooper faculty. You have to be a good teacher and a very knowledge person to be able to teach here because our students are very gifted students and they don’t really need to be spoon fed. You realize that very early on. It’s a challenge to teach here. It’s never really dull because the students are always very mature into the field and their high level of interest and you have to keep them motivated and keep yourself motivated. I don’t one or two favorites – almost every faculty member in the engineering school know their field. In my own department, I have very experienced faculty members that have been here for decades. You can learn from them and collaborate with them. Some of the young faculty are very impressive. I see them and they are working with a different technological world. Twenty to thirty years ago we didn’t have the technology we have today. The instruction has changed a lot. The students have changed a lot! You have to keep up to date on your knowledge.

I attended a lecture just last night, which was about the tallest building world which is being designed in Saudi Arabia – Kingdom Tower. 1000 meters high. The kind of challenges they were talking about were incredible. If you interact with the faculty, you can learn a lot. If you find out what they’re doing – it always amazes me. They’re doing great things!

TCP: What are some of your hobbies?

JA: I like to travel. I also like food. I cook. I also like to read – not necessarily about engineering. I was recently in Paris and it was such an interesting experience because it has such a rich history. It has tremendous food.

TCP: What advice would you give to Cooper students?

JA: I believe that each generation meets their own challenges. Just like when I was a young engineer, I saw the challenges – the space program that was just getting underway. Even the mainframe computers weren’t invented yet! We prepared and couldn’t really seek advice. I worked for the space program as a graduate student the University of Pennsylvania. This
project was to put a man on the moon – this was started under President Kennedy. There was no blueprint to do that! We were very young and when we were working on this program they would discourage us to seek guidance from senior people. And we said, “What do you mean?!” He said because they will tell you, you can’t do it – there are so many unknowns.

My advice is to have new challenges. You should look at those challenges from the prism of your own self: “I would like to solve this problem and invent something new.” You need a lot of knowledge based on experience but that experience is based in prior history but it’s not based on the future. My hope is that students will be prepared to address those challenges that might not have addressed in a course or lecture. You have to prepare yourself for the future. I got my undergraduate degree exactly 50 years ago. The amazing thing is that I’m still working in this field. One of the things I keep in mind when I’m teaching students is that they might be active in their profession for 60-70 years! The best thing we can hope to do is to make sure students learn how to teach themselves and develop a mind set. To have confidence in your ability and to give everything their best shot. They have to build their own world – it’s a very exciting world!

TCP: Why did you choose civil engineering? What is your favorite field within civil engineering?

JA: Since I was born in a developing country, there was a need for water supply and infrastructure and roads. So I was attracted to that. I liked science and math – those were my favorite subjects. Engineering is a natural profession grounded in science and math. It also is an applied profession so this is the reason I went into civil engineering. And then I found out that the civil engineering field is really broad. You can do a lot of things. For example, you can work in structural engineering or you can design transportation systems or waste-disposal systems. You don’t really feel like you’re confined to one field.

I’m a structural engineer. One interesting area that appealed to me was the generation of power from flowing water – hydroelectricity. I had an interest in building dams. Lately, we don’t build dams so now we have kinetic hydro-power which means how to extract energy from flowing water. I have a patent for a new technology which I got in 2008.

The real world isn’t disciplinary. It’s quite multidisciplinary. Disciplines are the way fields are organized but not how the problems are solved. The difference is that when you get involved in a real project – it really doesn’t really go by discipline. For example, in any of the engineering projects, permitting requirements, financing issues, return investments, and ethical issues are also involved. I think not all of those we learn while we’re in school because we only have a small amount of time – four years for an undergraduate degree but it’s sort of amazing to work with very many different people. A lot of different professional people involved. As a structural engineer, I work with architects a lot. This is the nature of how design is done. You also deal with owners, contractors, labor forces, unions contracts, how to procure materials, [and] environmental issues. So, it’s a large team effort and engineers work on very large projects! This skill that one has to develop is how to network with other professionals, how to communicate, [and] how to outreach the community. Our projects have a very large impact on the community. We need to get the community involved very early on in the project.

TCP: What is your role in Cooper? What is your department’s role in Cooper?

JA: I’m a professor in the Civil Engineering department. I’m the chairman of the department also. The engineering school is basically divided into four degree departments with separate faculty in each department. There is interaction with other departments – including the school of architecture. We are trying to develop that collaboration. Next year we plan to offer a lab course which will be available to the engineers and the architects. This will basically be a course on the testing of building materials – it’ll be done in our structures and material lab in the CE department.

TCP: Do you have a favorite professor or colleague at Cooper?

JA: Well, I have a very big respect for the Cooper faculty. You have to be a good teacher and a very knowledge person to be able to teach here because our students are very gifted students and they don’t really need to be spoon fed. You realize that very early on. It’s a challenge to teach here. It’s never really dull because the students are always very mature into the field and their high level of interest and you have to keep them motivated and keep yourself motivated. I don’t one or two favorites – almost every faculty member in the engineering school know their field. In my own department, I have very experienced faculty members that have been here for decades. You can learn from them and collaborate with them. Some of the young faculty are very impressive. I see them and they are working with a different technological world. Twenty to thirty years ago we didn’t have the technology we have today. The instruction has changed a lot. The students have changed a lot! You have to keep up to date on your knowledge.

I attended a lecture just last night, which was about the tallest building world which is being designed in Saudi Arabia – Kingdom Tower. 1000 meters high. The kind of challenges they were talking about were incredible. If you interact with the faculty, you can learn a lot. If you find out what they’re doing – it always amazes me. They’re doing great things!

TCP: What are some of your hobbies?

JA: I like to travel. I also like food. I cook. I also like to read – not necessarily about engineering. I was recently in Paris and it was such an interesting experience because it has such a rich history. It has tremendous food.

TCP: What advice would you give to Cooper students?

JA: I believe that each generation meets their own challenges. Just like when I was a young engineer, I saw the challenges – the space program that was just getting underway. Even the mainframe computers weren’t invented yet! We prepared and couldn’t really seek advice. I worked for the space program as a graduate student the University of Pennsylvania. This
project was to put a man on the moon – this was started under President Kennedy. There was no blueprint to do that! We were very young and when we were working on this program they would discourage us to seek guidance from senior people. And we said, “What do you mean?!” He said because they will tell you, you can’t do it – there are so many unknowns.

My advice is to have new challenges. You should look at those challenges from the prism of your own self: “I would like to solve this problem and invent something new.” You need a lot of knowledge based on experience but that experience is based in prior history but it’s not based on the future. My hope is that students will be prepared to address those challenges that might not have addressed in a course or lecture. You have to prepare yourself for the future. I got my undergraduate degree exactly 50 years ago. The amazing thing is that I’m still working in this field. One of the things I keep in mind when I’m teaching students is that they might be active in their profession for 60-70 years! The best thing we can hope to do is to make sure students learn how to teach themselves and develop a mind set. To have confidence in your ability and to give everything their best shot. They have to build their own world – it’s a very exciting world!

One thought on “Faces of Cooper: Jameel Ahmad”

  1. Back at SIFAT, Southern Institute for Appropriate Technology, in Lineville Alabama, in 1987 I think, a guy named Bill Mannus tried to harness energy from flowing water in the Mad Indian River. Using just a battery and a water wheel on a raft, Bill lit up our walking suspension bridge, impressing everyone. However, I have a way of dragging everyone down, and that time I was the one who pointed out that Bill was not the genius he seemed to be because the battery was fully charged before he ever put it on the raft which is why the bridge was lit up for just a couple nights. In fact, he’d already told me that, and maybe he would have wanted me just to shut up. Still it was a good idea. Energy from flowing water. Did anything come of Dr. Ahmed’s patent? I mean, is there really a commercial way to get energy from flowing water? Also, if you need a demonstration site, I’d like to nominate the Mad Indian River by the suspension bridge at SIFAT. PS I knew Rich Gnagey, the man who just recently won a Cooper Union award, when we both worked for the Thai Community Development Department in the Peace Corps. That’s how I got on this site, but I haven’t seen him since 1973. Is he back in Indonesia now? Anyway, I enjoyed this interview.

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