State of the Planet

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Q&A With Sustainable Engineering Expert Tom Abdallah

Thomas Abdallah

Thomas (Tom) Abdallah is the deputy vice president and chief environmental engineer for the MTA New York City Transit. He is currently teaching the Integrative Capstone Workshop in the MS in Sustainability Management program.

Tom has extensive experience in sustainable design, energy efficiency, noise and vibration, pollution prevention, and waste management. He has presented all over the country on sustainability issues through organizations such as the Transportation Research Board, American Public Transportation Administration, the New York Academy of Sciences, and Greenbuild. He has appeared on the Sundance Channel, Discovery’s Science Channel, PBS, NPR and has appeared in a short film documentary “Postcards from the Future” about Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the MTA. Tom is the author of Sustainable Mass Transit: Challenges and Opportunities in Urban Public Transportation, which discusses the sustainable attributes of mass transportation, and the ways it can become more energy-efficient, less reliant on fossil fuels, and reduce carbon footprint.

Why did you choose to teach in the SUMA program?

It is a great honor and privilege to be a professor at Columbia University in the Masters Program in Sustainability Management (SUMA). I was always interested in the program since I first heard about it. In 2010, I started attending and participating in the Columbia University-hosted All Ivy Environmental and Sustainable Development Career Fair, where I met the most amazing students during these annual events. A good majority of the students were from the SUMA program, and I began to get to know some of them very well. I started mentoring and advising students in the program, and I specifically enjoyed recollecting my career path and journey. My career experiences in the world of environmental engineering and sustainability have been robust and they seem to both entertain and educate these students at the same time.

I had a lot of fun mentoring the SUMA students and thought I would love to teach at Columbia in the program, and one day in the late spring of 2013 I got an email from the Columbia SUMA program asking if I would be interested in interviewing for a position teaching the Capstone Integrative Workshop. I interviewed with Professor George Sarrinikolaou, director for the Office of Academic & Research Programs and leader of the Capstone Workshop, alongside Professor Steve Cohen, director of SUMA, and I began my career at Columbia shortly thereafter in the fall of 2013. I love telling this part of my career story because it illustrates something I always tell students: “If you work hard and do the right thing, good things will happen for you.”  I couldn’t be prouder to be associated with such a great program, with great faculty and wonderful students.

What is your favorite part of your job as a professor?

My favorite part about my job as a professor is working with the students. The students are knowledgeable, very bright and extremely passionate. I need to bring as much passion and energy to this job as the students do, which makes for a great team project experience.

I am a faculty advisor for the capstone workshop in the spring and fall semesters. The capstone is a pro bono consulting effort that allows graduate students to work on a real sustainability job. It is required for all students in the SUMA program and is performed in lieu of a thesis or dissertation. In the SUMA program, capstone workshops are performed for either a non-profit or government agency. Therefore, I get to work with students on an eclectic set of sustainability challenges each semester, such as the implementation of renewable energy, urban farms, recycling, the feasibility and proliferation of electric vehicles, mass transportation projects, and creating sustainability plans for cities or municipalities here in the metropolitan area and across the country.

What do you think your students need to know about sustainability that they may not already be learning in the classroom?

I think that students need to know that there is and can be a sustainability element to everything. I also believe that as the students progress through the program, they begin to realize this. They come to understand that every entity can be more sustainable, and any business or industry can choose to have fewer environmental impacts, while still conducting business and continuing to make a profit or see substantial savings. Something I think students, and many people, do not realize is that anyone can be a sustainability professional. Any profession, and any degree can lead to sustainability career. There are so many facets to sustainability that whether you are an engineer, urban planner, business major, lawyer, etc., you can have a career saving the planet from harm. If you are passionate about environmental issues, what could be better than making a living fulfilling your passion.

What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the Sustainability Management program has to offer its students?

By far the greatest benefit to the students is access to a tremendous menu of educational topics of which to choose from along with learning from some of the world’s most renowned sustainability professionals that make up the faculty. Topics such as renewable energy, greenhouse gas assessment, green infrastructure, environmental justice, sustainable financing, and water conservation, are among the program’s core sustainability curriculum. Additional prospects exist in the program for students to learn about environmental law and policy, as well as the opportunity for students to practice writing and communicating the issues regarding sustainability management. Other side benefits that the Sustainability Management program has to offer include the vast network of colleagues, faculty and alumni that students can become acquainted with during their time at Columbia.

What advice would you give to your sustainability management students who are not already working in the field of sustainability?

My advice to students that may not yet be working in the field of sustainability is to be patient, work hard at finding that sustainability position and keep looking until you find one that you like and is well-fitting, as they are out there. There are many positions including the title of “director of sustainability” for most entities including cities and municipalities, universities, restaurant chains, airports, etc. If that direct job is not available, then maybe working for a director of sustainability may be a great first step. Also, what I tell students is that they can always make their current position a more sustainable one through the knowledge and education that they are receiving at Columbia’s SUMA, or they can use their sustainability knowledge to help move upward within their current organization.

Lastly, I always tell students about my career journey. I have worked at the MTA New York City Transit for 32 years in the environmental engineering division and with Columbia University for over six years. I wrote my first book, Sustainable Mass Transit, in 2017. The common denominator is that I have always worked hard at what I am doing, while always having a great time doing it. There is nothing more satisfying than having a career that you enjoy. I wish that for everyone, and any way I can help the next generation of students get to that point also brings me great joy!

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit the website to learn more.

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