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How one cool research project can change everything in your career

By Luis Duque posted 12-07-2020 03:19 PM


I graduated from South Dakota State University a few years ago with an M.S. in civil engineering. As a graduate student, I worked on a research project to evaluate how effective drones were for inspecting bridges. This research was really eye-opening for me because it truly changed my mindset about engineering and transitioning to an engineering career. As an international student, I constantly struggled with language barriers, especially with writing, and as you can imagine, the research involved a ton of writing and reading.

In this article I would like to share with you how this research made me a better student – I believe we never stop being students, even after we graduate – as well as a better engineer overall. You can find a lot more information about the technical side of the research project at or by attending the Show and Tell event of the ASCE Committee on Younger Members on Nov. 9, 2020 (replay information available later).

Now to my three lessons learned:

  1. One can always do better.

Even though I was a good student before I started my research, I tended to not give all I had in my classes and other activities. This mindset was really challenged by my advisor during my first semester of research.

I must confess, I did not appreciate the constant confrontation and the push to look at the problems from different angles. A specific example that comes to mind is when I was asked to numerically quantify the quality of images. I honestly had no idea where to start and was truly frustrated by having to look into it, as image quality is quite subjective.

It took me weeks, maybe months, to come up with a plan for this one task. After a lot of research, I found a way to numerically quantify each pixel in an image. Without getting too much into the details, I wrote a code that would quantify the sharpness of an image by comparing the numerical values of nearby pixels and then determining the variability (entropy) across the whole picture. We are constantly challenged at work and outside of work to do better.

The more open-minded we are to accepting constructive criticism and the more willing we are to learn, the better we will perform at everything we do in our careers.

  1. Communication is key.

We all have the idea that engineers are quiet and that our jobs do not involve a ton of communication. Well, as I soon found out, that is not the case. Throughout my research project, I wrote a total of five progress reports, three conference papers, four journal papers, and my thesis – I wrote well over 1,000 pages of highly technical information in a span of one and a half years. On top of that I gave numerous presentations about the topic.

I did not enjoy all of the writing and speaking, but now that I am a few years out of school I am thankful for the practice and experience I got during my studies. I am constantly writing calculation packages, communicating with coworkers and clients, giving presentations with ASCE and other organizations, and working even more for my own podcast. The work we do as engineers means nothing if we are not able to concisely communicate it to our clients and, more importantly, our communities.

  1. Civil engineering is cool.

I really mean it. Engineering is a profession where we have the opportunity to make a change in our society daily. There are so many ways we as civil engineers are helping communities to live a better life.

I was under the impression that civil engineers only worked on "boring" projects compared with more exciting engineering fields like mechanical and aerospace engineering. This project really opened my eyes to what civil engineers are capable of doing. I have since met civil engineers who were working on some of the most amazing projects, and more important than that, shaping the future our world. Did you know that a structural engineer developed the finite element method? FEM is used widely in basically every field of engineering and beyond to analyze the most complex structures. That is incredible. Civil engineering is really amazing and we are involved in some of the most cutting-edge and futuristic projects driving what the world will look like. A great resource is ASCE's Future World Vision, at Future World Vision.

My research project was truly transformative both technically and personally. It is so easy to only look back and learn from our previous experiences; but if we are always on the lookout for the moments when we can learn in the moment we can take advantage of them all the sooner. I personally keep track of moments where I might learn something even though it feels uncomfortable at the time. I know those are the moments of growth.

I am always happy to talk through more details about the project or anything else anytime, so feel free to reach out to me.

Luis Duque is a member of the SEI Student Initiatives, SEI Task Committee on Leadership, SEI Business Practices Committees. Additionally, Luis is involved with the Denver ASCE YMG where he serves as the Vice President for the 2020-2021 year. He has recently joined the SEI Global Activities Divison and will serve as the liaison between SEI in the US and the ASCE Colombia group to establish an SEI group there. At the ASCE national level, Luis helps in a variety of ways including mentoring, Digital Strategy Council Advisor, and other miscellaneous activities. Also, he has been actively involved in EWB as he helps communities in Colorado, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico with limited resources overcome daily challenges. In his spare time, he produces the Engineering our Future podcast where he brings guests from all over the world to share their knowledge about engineering, professional development, productivity, and much more.

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