Commencement Speech: Benjamin Schaefer Abram

Sunday, May 13, 2007







Inspired by Hurricane Katrina, Ben Abram looked for lessons in historical records related to past floods as a Pratt Undergraduate Research Fellow.


For the last four years, every graduate in this room has been solving engineering problems. None of us here escaped circuit diagramming–— whether in physics alone, for us Civils and Environmentals, or in Dr. (Rhett) George’s EE 148 for Mechanicals, or by way of the Hotchkin-Hucksley for the Biomedicals, or twice a day, every day, for the Electricals–— we’ve all been there. We’ve been asked to solve for how many Ohms a resistor should be, for the circuit to function in parallel.

In these moments as we’re solving these problems we’re very much focused on that specific juncture in the diagram–— on the resistor, or the capacitor, or the battery. But in order to solve for how much resistance we need, it matters what the circuit is designed to do.

As we graduate I’d like to suggest that we remember this lesson from our problem sets. As we turn our attention to specific problems and explicit technical challenges–— whether to increase profit or to increase torque–— remember that we are always operating within a larger system.

Our class–— Pratt 2007–— is going to spawn all types of professionals. I’m planning on going into Environmental Engineering so I will give you an example from that field, but I beg you to listen for its applicability to your own.

Let me take you for a moment to central Louisiana, the site of one of the most distinctive engineering operations in American history. The Mississippi River is some 3,000 miles long, but one of its most critical junctures is 74 miles upriver from Baton Rouge. At this junction, as literally millions of gallons per second course between the banks, the water has a choice: either it can turn southeast to New Orleans, or it can flow the easy way–— due south down the steeper slope of the Atchafalaya River.

There is enormous natural pressure on the river to take the shorter route due south. In turn, this action would leave the port of New Orleans high and dry as the Mississippi diverted its flow to the Atchafalaya. So in 1954 the Army Corps of Engineers built a monumental control structure, which in effect keeps the Mississippi River flowing on an increasingly unnatural course.

From a policy perspective this may make total sense: engineers are capable of doing anything and if we want to make the Mississippi River flow to a big city, then so we can and will. But if we engineers remember the long and broad view, it is almost inconceivable that this man made structure will last forever and what happens when it finally gives?

Well the answer is that when it gives–— and it’s really only a matter of time before we see the flood that is capable of wiping this structure off the map–— the Mississippi will divert its flow due south, as it naturally “wants” to do. The port of New Orleans will become a salt-water marsh, and central Louisiana will be home to a new and mighty river. But rather than taking the long view, and designing a land-use plan around this impending shift, in the 1950s we short-circuited nature. Today, rather than planning for the eventual failure of the old river control structure, we are banking on the absurd assumption that this man made structure will always withstand the Mississippi’s torrent. But, as we learned in Hurricane Katrina, when we rely on artificial structures without some greater understanding of all of the forces at play, from development patterns to the caprices of nature, we make ourselves vulnerable to tragic disaster.

Our generation is graduating to a wave of crises, or as Dean Johnson might have us call them, “opportunities.” Everywhere you look there are monumental energy, environmental, and public health dilemmas that beg for solutions.

As Dean Johnson stated at one of her recent public lectures, there’s the fact that as the entire world begins to use as much energy as each of us does in our daily lives, altogether we will require about 12 terawatts of energy. Install wind turbines on every plain, hilltop and ocean platform where they could possible capture energy and you’d have generated one terawatt; dam every mile of every river and you’d have another terawatt–— that’s two of 12, and already our world would begin to look pretty ugly. For the third of 12 terawatts what you have to do is construct a new nuclear power plant every other day for the next 30 years, beginning tomorrow.

Another example: there’s the “silent tsunami,” the fact that every month as many of the world’s poorest people die for lack of clean water and good sanitation, as died in the entire 2004 tsunami.

KJ’s “opportunities” mean that we will never lack employment, and we the engineers of the 21st century will require wisdom and sophistication to solve the problem sets we’ll face after today. Our work will compel us to contextualize these issues within their larger systems. Pratt and Duke have prepared us well> In 2037 when we come back for our 30th reunion, I look forward to seeing all that we have accomplished.

Benjamin Abram majored in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Public Policy Studies. He was a Pratt Undergraduate Research Fellow, and worked with Professor Ana Barros on a project titled "Water is Everybody's Business - Walking The Walk of The Early 20th Century Conservationist Mind." Abram was selected for a three-year Young Trustee position on the university’s Board of Trustees. He was senior class president and was awarded the William J. Griffith University Service Award and the Algernon Sidney Sullivan Award at the Student Affairs Distinguished Leadership and Service Awards. In addition, he led a team called “Full Belly Project” to win $5,000 in the Social Enterprise category of the 2007 Duke Startup Challenge. The team seeks to distribute nut shellers to farmers in Uganda, and its members include CEE senior Benjamin Abram, Pratt freshman William Patrick and Pratt junior Lee Pearson.