Once Eric Sammarco decided he wanted to be a structural engineer, he never looked back. At only 28, Sammarco has already had a solid start to his career, has passed the P.E. exam and is working on his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin.
"I decided I wanted to be an engineer, creating, designing, and constructing. I never changed my major, I never looked back," he says. "It was very cut and dry for me."
Though Sammarco’s parents are both in finance, Sammarco is truly passionate about one thing: structural engineering.
Sammarco grew up in Overland Park, Kan. During high school, his best friend’s father owned a residential basement contracting company. As soon as he was old enough, Sammarco started helping lay basements.
"It seemed like a better gig than McDonalds," he says, adding how he soon began to love "the construction industry, getting my hands dirty and listening to the foreman talk about designs, blueprints and layout."
Working with structures quickly turned into a lifelong passion.
After high school, Sammarco attended the University of Kansas, earning a bachelor’s in Civil Engineering, then going on to earn a master’s. While pursuing his master’s, Sammarco worked as a structural engineer in training for Black & Veatch in their commercial nuclear energy division.
While working for Black & Veatch, Sammarco expanded his interest in seismic and blast design and led several advanced analysis efforts pertaining to structural dynamics, earthquake engineering, and soil-structure interaction.
Sammarco started working on his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009. His research has focused on blast-resistant analysis and design. Though he says he’s interested in a variety of engineering topics, he decided to focus on blast-resistant design because it brings him great fulfillment to know he is doing something that benefits the public and keeps people safe.
"Given the rise in worldwide terrorism, this research will serve the public well. (Terrorism) is a new kind of threat to our structures that we haven’t considered much in the past," he says.
Upon completing his Ph.D., Sammarco plans to venture out into industry again to work on blast-resistant and seismic designs. His one big requirement for a future job: It must be intellectually stimulating. Teaching and researching are both things he loves, though he says the university life may be better for later in his career.
"I like doing research too, so if I could find somewhere to work where they have an applied research section; that would interest me. I wanted to get a Ph.D., so later in life when I know I will confront a career crossroad where I could pursue a more managerial path or a more technical path, I will have that choice," Sammarco says, adding that actual engineering work has always kept his interest a lot more than the business side of operations and going back to school to get a Ph.D. will help keep him advancing on a more technical track.
Sammarco and a former colleague have also considered starting their own company.
"I know I would need to wear more than one hat: business and technical. That’s one thing I’ve valued about going into the industry before pursuing a degree: I have a broader perspective," he says.
In academic as well as professional work, Sammarco believes hard work and determination are the keys to success.
"I just have a drive to be better and learn more," he says." One of my personal goals here at UT was to take the P.E. exam and pass it before I graduate so that when it comes time to find a job, I will be as marketable as possible. I ended up doing that. I studied all over Christmas break and took the exam this past spring and passed it!"
Not surprisingly, Sammarco advises other young engineers to go out, get involved and work hard.
"Go to conventions, join professional organizations, go to technical sessions and learn from presentations," he says. Sammarco also says you can’t underestimate the power of networking. "I have an account on LinkedIn and I can’t tell you how many people I’ve connected with and benefited from."
Education is also something that Sammarco feels is incredibly important.
"I have a pretty strong opinion about the level of education a young engineer needs in order to find early success as a structural engineer, and a master’s degree is nearly essential. A civil engineering bachelor’s degree establishes a good technical foundation, but it’s a broad degree, not quite the depth that is needed for true practice… Going back to get my master’s helped me exponentially as far as my technical ability, understanding building codes, complex analysis, complex design, etc.," he says.
Sammarco also believes that engineers can’t live in a bubble.
"Try not to compartmentalize yourself from other disciplines," he says. "It’s important to work hand in hand with other engineers and other disciplines. Engineers can be stereotypically introverted people. We need to get away from that to work with the other disciplines."
Betting on technology
"Technology… that’s where this profession is going," Sammarco says, though he isn’t as excited about it as many would think a young engineer would be.
In some ways, he speaks more like an old-school, seasoned engineer.
"Technology with BIM modeling and complex analysis tools, all of this stuff is really taking off. It’s a bit concerning, I think. It’s very easy to use these automated tools like a black box, put in some numbers, hit the go button and it spits out some results. Just because the computer program gives you some results doesn’t mean it’s correct. You still need to have some good engineering fundamentals that you can understand and apply. Things are moving in the direction where people are using computers all the time, and that’s one thing that worries me," he says. "Younger engineers don’t always appreciate some of the other methods that you can do by hand on the back of an envelope. It’s important for younger engineers to remember some of the more classical methods and compare those to computer results. The days of young engineers cutting their teeth on hard copy shop drawing reviews and hand calculations are nearing an end."
When Sammarco isn’t focusing on blast-resistant design he likes to spend time outdoors, maintaining a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise. He and his wife, Erin, are also expecting their first child.
"I’m a very active outdoorsy type person," he says. "I go bike riding with my wife, I have three dogs, I like running and working out at the gym, it’s a necessity for me to equalize my stress level… sitting at a computer can really get to you at times."
Nevertheless, "With the baby coming and a Ph.D. still on the horizon, the first thing to go will probably be the gym."
Sammarco says his family often reminds him of how fortunate he is to have such a passion for what he does every day. Sammarco says his father often tells him how lucky he is to be involved in a good profession that also holds his interest.
"A lot of people don’t enjoy going to work every day, but I love coming to work every day doing what I do. I lucked out in that regard and I really have a passion for engineering," Sammarco says.
Christina M. Zweig is a contributing editor. She can be contacted at email@example.com.