Muhammad Elgammal ’12, MS’15 recalls peering into the yawning construction pit of the future 3 World Trade Center on the first day of his internship with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at the end of his junior year. The sounds of the super-strength concrete that would form the core of another tower on the site sounded “like an explosion” when crushed in the materials testing lab where he worked that summer.
For a young engineer hoping to design airports, bridges and tunnels capable of surviving whatever challenges the 21st century could conjure, working for the agency responsible for the region’s major trade and transportation networks put him at the epicenter of critical infrastructure strategy. When offered a job the next year at the agency’s engineering design division, he leapt at the opportunity.
“Hoping for the best and planning for the worst, as engineers we overdesign for safety and unexpected situations,” says Elgammal, P.E., PMP, with his customary cheerfulness. He is now applying these principles at Newark Liberty Airport, where he is part of the design team for the $2.3 billion redevelopment of Terminal A.
His can-do attitude, hard work – he has designed and directed more than 20 projects so far at the airport – and willingness to share his experiences and love of engineering with up-and-coming STEM students in area high schools, have already won him professional accolades. Tonight, Elgammal will travel to Arlington, Va. to be recognized at the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Outstanding Projects and Leaders Awards gala as one of the organization’s 10 “New Faces of Civil Engineering” for 2017.
“I am extremely humbled to share this recognition with exceptional engineers,” he says of the honorees, all 30 years old and younger, while also noting that it is the third year in a row that NJIT engineers have been recognized in some capacity at the ceremony. “It speaks volumes about the university, the civil engineering program and the university’s alumni. I’m grateful to be a part of this legacy.”
Elgammal says he’s 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 says. “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.”
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 says. “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. The health of our infrastructure and our economy depend on it,” he notes.
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.
In the redevelopment of Terminal A, for example, he’s making sure that projects that are designed and built by outside firms will conform to the agency’s performance criteria. This requires coordinating with stakeholders ranging from design, engineering and program professionals within the agency to outside consultants. He notes that the new terminal must be designed to allow for all current uses as well as for possible expansions to accommodate projected future demand.
“When I graduated, I wanted to work in construction. Like a lot of college graduates, it felt like a form of freedom not to be tied down to a desk,” he recounts. “But I 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. And I’m really glad I did. 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. That’s the culture here as well. Our chief civil engineer is a big proponent of seeing the ‘before, during and after’ of a project, that you shouldn’t be designing from behind a wall.”
These are some of the on-the-job experiences 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. He also returns regularly to campus as the chair of NJIT’s Young Alumni Committee, crediting much of his development to his involvement with the Alumni Association after graduation.
“I hit the ground running, so to speak, and also learned what it meant to be an engaged alumnus. From my own experience, NJIT alumni opened up many doors and I get to work with and learn from company presidents, COOs and CFOs from many different industries who all share the same common goal: taking NJIT to the next level.”
This semester, he is also teaching a 400-level course on construction scheduling and estimating.
“I love this,” he says. “It’s a way of quantifying risk, managing seemingly unpredictable elements such as money and time. The challenge of balancing practical application and theory with 33 students has made me appreciate my time at NJIT, and even more so, my time outside of it.”
“The projects I work on affect millions of people from all over the world,” he says. “And it’s pretty cool that I can see them from Google Earth.”