Since his youth, Dr. Stewart Taylor has been drawn to spending time near the water. In this episode of the BechTech Podcast, learn how Stew turned his passion for water into a successful career specializing in hydraulics and hydrology.
Stew joins communications specialist Jennifer Whitfield to discuss:
- The evolution of his career which has led him to his current role as corporate manager of Geotechnical & Hydraulic Engineering Services
- How Bechtel Fellows help our customers solve challenging technical problems
- The importance of understanding the principles within your areas of expertise
Interviewee: Dr. Stewart Taylor (ST)
Interviewer: Jennifer Whitfield (JW)
JW: Thank you for tuning in to the BechTech podcast, a podcast where we highlight the incredible technical specialists who work at Bechtel. I'm Jennifer Whitfield, and I'm joined today by Corporate Geotechnical and Hydraulic Engineering Services manager, Dr. Stewart Taylor. Stew’s technical expertise isin hydraulics and hydrology. Stew also serves as the chair of the Bechtel Fellows, a distinct group of our colleagues who have made outstanding technical contributions enabling them, under executive sponsorship, to undertake special responsibilities and assignments and to inspire others within Bechtel. Thank you for joining me today, Stew. I'm looking forward to our chat.
ST: Thanks, Jennifer. I really appreciate the opportunity.
JW: Let’s get started. Stew, can you tell us a bit about your career and how you've progressed to where you are today?
ST: I joined Bechtel in 1981 in the San Francisco office. After I completed my master’s degree in hydraulic engineering, I provided hydraulic and hydrologic engineering support to a large variety of projects and in different businesses such as mining, civil infrastructure, and nuclear power projects. I left Bechtel in 1985 to pursue a Ph.D. in water resources engineering, and after completing that degree, I went on to serve as an assistant professor at the State University of New York in the Department of Civil Engineering. After being a professor for three years, I decided that really wasn't something I wanted to do. I really wanted to be in the engineering construction business. I provided hydraulic and hydrologic engineering support primarily to fossil and nuclear power projects. I became the chief engineer for the Geotech group in 2000. And then, I went on to become a Bechtel Fellow in 2005. Subsequently, I joined the corporate engineering organization in 2006 as the corporate manager for Geotech and later in the role as manager of people and technology, which was focused on employee development, work process improvement and technical innovation. And now in my current role, which I assumed in 2018, I'm the manager of the Geotech group. This is a centralized technical specialist group comprised of geotechnical, hydraulic and earthquake engineers and earth scientists, and this group supports projects in all of our global business units.
JW: That's quite the career so far. You mentioned the Bechtel Fellows. You became a Fellow in 2005, and now you serve as the chair. Can you talk more about the Bechtel Fellows program and about the selection criteria for becoming a Bechtel Fellow?
ST: Being selected as a Bechtel Fellow is the highest level of recognition for a technical specialist at Bechtel. The Fellow’s primary charter is to manage Bechtel's many technical excellence programs and advise management on technical strategy and trends that affect our business. But the real value that the Fellows provide to Bechtel is by introducing new technology or innovative approaches that make our proposals more competitive and help us win new work. The Fellows also help solve challenging technical problems that help us deliver our projects.
JW: Let's talk a bit more about your technical specialty in geotechnical and hydraulic engineering. Can you talk in more detail about this specialty and highlight some of your achievements along the way?
ST: The Geotechnical and Hydraulic Engineering Services group is actually comprised of multiple disciplines, so we have a variety of specialists in our group. My own specialty is hydraulic and hydrologic engineering. This involves the conveyance of liquids and engineering systems and evaluation of flood hazards posed by different natural phenomena like storms, floods on rivers, dam failures, hurricanes, and tsunamis.
There are two achievements that stand out for me. One was when our group supported the development, engineering, procurement, and construction of a large coal-fired power plant on one of the Great Lakes. This project involved a complex cooling water intake structure and system that supplied nearly 2 million gallons a minute to two fossil power plants that had an offshore intake that went two miles of tunnel, a backup shoreline intake, and a large-scale pump intake structure. So, we conceived this system. I remember sitting in my office with another one of our hydraulic specialists, and we sketched out the scheme on paper. We worked with our customer, worked with some specialty contractors to take this concept into design and into construction, and this was successfully constructed. It had a lot of high-risk elements, but we think we did a good job of managing those risk elements, and the plant started up and has operated successfully since then.
Another example in the early-to-mid-2000s that we were involved in was a number of licensing projects for new nuclear power plants. Our group was involved in a number of early site permits and combined license applications. Our group had a lot of input to these license applications because the NRC process requires evaluations of geohazards. We assisted our customers in obtaining their licenses to construct and operate nuclear power plants. One that was particularly memorable for me was, you know, the first early site permit that was issued in the United States. It was for Vogtle 3 and 4, and now Bechtel’s in the process of constructing and completing those two new units, and this, you know, this type of work with the NRC and success in obtaining licenses and working through the regulatory process and understanding the geohazards has helped position us for projects like VTR, Natrium, and other new nuclear projects.
JW: How did you develop an interest in hydraulic and hydrologic engineering, and what type of training did you do to become this type of technical specialist?
ST: When I grew up, and really, for most of my life, I've always enjoyed being on the water or near the water or in the water. And whether this is sitting at the beach watching the waves roll in, standing in the stream fly fishing, snorkeling, or being on a boat, I always enjoyed those activities. But I think about what it did, and just being in the water and observing it and feeling it, I think it sort of drove me to understand the physics behind what I physically observed and experienced. That, whether consciously or subconsciously, when I was completing my undergraduate degree, I was really motivated to pursue my [...] master’s degree in hydraulic engineering. So. in terms of training, I did pursue graduate degrees, and that was certainly helpful in in terms of formal education. You know, I would add that to be a technical specialist, obtaining graduate degrees is not essential. It's helpful, but it's not essential, and I think what is essential is having a natural curiosity and willingness to invest in learning. The other thing I found out over my career is teaching others is a great way to learn. I think I learned more preparing and delivering courses than I ever did taking college courses.
JW: What would you say has been the most rewarding aspect of being a technical specialist?
ST: Yeah, most rewarding, I'll have to say, has been working with my colleagues to solve complex technical problems on our projects. I have many memories of sitting in the conference room or an office with a whiteboard and working through the details of a solution. And over time, I've really come to appreciate that how we work together collaboratively always leads to better solutions. And I'm also very fortunate to be surrounded by highly qualified and very motivated people.
JW: What would you say are the most challenging parts of your specialty?
ST: In my field, what I guess has always been known, we're trying to do a better job of quantifying […] uncertainty associated with natural phenomena. So, you know, nature is unpredictable. Weather forecasts […] say it's going to rain, and then it doesn't rain, or they say it's not going to rain, it rains. There's this element of natural variability that's very difficult to quantify, and then also for the systems we deal with, we can't fully characterize all the characteristics of a hydrologic system at the scales that we’re interested in from an engineering perspective. So, when we do some type of analysis, historically, there was a single number as the output of that analysis. For example, what's the 100-year flood level for this particular project if the project was adjacent to a river? In reality, we don't know that number with certainty, and there really is a range of values that are characterized by a probability distribution. The methodology and framework for dealing with this and quantifying this are evolving. But there's still a lot more work to be done, and I think we will be doing a lot more of this type of work in the future.
JW: How would you say you specifically have made an influence in the hydraulics and hydrologic engineering field, and what contributions have you made externally to Bechtel?
ST: I have published papers and peer-reviewed literature that added to our body of knowledge, and a number of those papers have been widely cited by others. I was working on one early site permit project, and there was an analysis that we had done. I, along with another Bechtel employee, had just authored a paper that was published in the literature, which was actually cited in the analysis. Our regulators were aware of this paper, and it really streamlined the review process for that particular section of the early site permit application.
It really answered many of their questions and the approval process was very much simplified. In addition to publications, I served on a number of technical standards committees, primarily the American Society of Civil Engineers, because I'm a civil engineer, and the American Nuclear Society. These committees produce manuals about practices and standards that are used in the industry. Being involved in the development of these types of industry guidance documents highlights Bechtel's technical excellence in these areas. In terms of industry recognition, I'm an ASC Fellow. There's an organization called Environmental Water Resources Institute, or EWRI, which is actually a branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers. I'm a Fellow of that organization as well. I've received awards from EWRI Service to the Profession Award and also the EWRI Standards Development Council Service Award.
JW: This might be a little tough to answer given all of your experience and accomplishments, but what would you consider to be the most significant project, role or moment during your career?
ST: With Bechtel so far, you know I can't point to a singular project role or a moment. Just thinking back, certainly being selected as a Bechtel Fellow and being recognized by our Board of Directors was certainly memorable. But when I think back, it's really a culmination of a number of project milestones. For example, I mentioned some of the licensing work we did for customers wanting to license new nuclear power plants. You know, when you get to the point where the NRC issues licenses and it's published in the Federal Register, to me, that's a signal that all the work we did that went into that contributed to the successful outcome of the project. Other examples of milestones are when we've worked very hard to design, for example, a cooling water system, and that project is designed and it's constructed. They started up, and the plant goes into operation without any hiccups. You know, those types of events are also very memorable, so it's those types of milestones that provide validation that you know the time and energy I invested has resulted in a successful outcome for our customers.
JW: What advice would you give to the next generation, especially those who are aspiring to pursue technical specialties within the EPC industry?
ST: You know, reflecting back on my career, the advice I would give is, and this might sound trite, but I would say understand the first principles in your chosen field. For me and the type of work I do, for example, that would include having a good understanding of conservation of mass, momentum and energy. You know, the principles that surround those sort of fundamental physical laws. We have great technology today. There's lots of software off the shelf, lots of new tools associated with artificial intelligence that can really make a step change in the way we do our work, so I certainly would advise the next generation to take advantage of that new technology, but don't ever lose sight of the first principles. So, when that technology spits out a result, you have an understanding from a first-principles perspective. Does that result make sense or not? Because I can assure you that many times these models produce results, they can produce results erroneously, and you need to have the first-principles background to make sure you catch those types of things. And then, the last point I would make is [to] work on your communication skills. Both your speaking as well as your technical writing. What I've observed in the past is someone can be a really good analyst, but unless they're able to convey their ideas and defend their ideas to others, that limits them in their career advancement. So, that's the advice that I would provide.
JW: I love that advice. Stew, thank you for joining me today and speaking about your technical specialty and your exciting career.
ST: Thanks, Jennifer. I appreciate you having me.
JW: To our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our Technical Excellence blog to be alerted when new podcasts featuring our technical specialists are published.
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