ARLINGTON, VA — Muhammad Elgammal, 27, of West Orange was honored as one of ten “New Faces of Civil Engineering” at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gala in Arlington, VA this weekend.
Elgammal is an associate civil engineer at The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. As one of the ASCE honorees, Elgammal is described as a professional under 30 years old who, as an engineer, does not “excel in merely one aspect of their job or one area of life,” but is one of the “best and brightest in virtually everything they do.”
He is currently part of the design team for the $2.3-billion redevelopment of Terminal A at Newark Liberty Airport, where he has already designed and directed more than 20 projects since joining the agency in 2012. He also works with up-and-coming STEM students in local high schools as a mentor, while teaching an upper-level course at his alma mater.
He got his start with the agency as an intern at the World Trade Center the summer before his senior year. He recalls peering into the 200-feet-deep construction pit of the future 3 World Trade Center on his first day, and hearing the sounds of the super-strength concrete that would form the core of another tower on the site sounding “like an explosion” when crushed in the materials testing lab where he worked.
For a young engineer hoping to design airports, bridges and tunnels capable of surviving whatever challenges the 21st century can conjure, working for the agency responsible for the region’s major trade and transportation networks puts Elgammal at the epicenter of critical infrastructure design.
“Hoping for the best and planning for the worst, as engineers we overdesign for safety and unexpected situations,” said Elgammal, who added he is excited to be working on airports, which are increasingly “a huge public priority” and in dire need of repairs and redesign.
The United States recently received a grade of D+ in ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.
“As more and more people rely on air travel, we need to make sure we can sustain the growing volume and even improve service,” he said. “The airfield is a critical place, where we have to operate, construct and repair faster than anywhere else. Decisions can affect thousands of people by the minute. And anything that happens on an airfield can snowball—from a foreign object that damages a plane to an inspection that takes longer than it should. So we have to consider the consequences from many angles.”
According to Elgammal, a big part of the challenge is reducing existing delays.
“So we’ve come up with strategies to limit queue times for planes waiting to take off, to land and to get to gates,” he said. “Engineering comes into play here, too, with innovations like high-speed taxi routes that allow schedulers to shave a few seconds off every cycle and make the runway available to other aircraft sooner. This has a ripple effect on arrivals and departures.”
As part of his BS/MS program at NJIT, Elgammal completed a master’s degree in critical infrastructure that combines two essential civil engineering concerns: protecting and rehabilitating aging buildings, roadways and transportation hubs, while also developing new ones.
“How we approach these problems is something we all need to think about,” he said. “The health of our infrastructure and our economy depend on it.”
At the Port Authority, Elgammal recently took on a new role as an agreement project manager, working with outside firms building and rehabilitating agency facilities. His current task is to coordinate smoothness testing for 13 runways at the region’s five airports.
Elgammal said when he graduated, he wanted to work in construction, adding that it felt like a form of freedom not to be tied down to a desk. However, he said he also knew the importance of design.
“Fortunately, I didn’t have to choose, as the Port Authority’s trainee program allowed me to do both,” he said. “What makes a good engineer is a well-rounded perspective. You’re a better designer if you’ve watched someone build it first—to grasp the ‘how’—and you know what to inspect if you understand the design considerations behind it—the ‘why.’”
These are some of the on-the-job experiences he said he shares with middle and high school students at the Future City and ACE Mentor Program, whose roles are to expose more students to engineering concepts through hands-on projects and design charrettes.
This semester, he is also teaching a 400-level course for NJIT on construction scheduling and estimating.
“I love this,” he said. “It’s a way of quantifying risk, managing seemingly unpredictable elements, such as money and time.”
He said the challenge of balancing practical application and theory with 33 students has made him appreciate his time at NJIT.
“And even more so, my time outside of it,” he said.
According to Elgammal, the projects he works on affect millions of people from all over the world. He added that he enjoys being able to see them from “Google Earth.”