Alumni News Blog

  • Ireland’s ‘Forty Shades of Green’

    It took an American—none other than Johnny Cash—to quantify the greenness of Ireland in song, and I can tell you first hand that he had it right. As the plane broke through the floor of clouds on its descent into Shannon Airport, I sat simply awestruck at the sight of lush rolling hills and meadows and farms below me, broken up by a patchwork of stone fences. Those Forty Shades of Green spread out beneath my aerie felt at once both wholly alien and comfortingly familiar, as if I were returning to a home I had never known. That feeling never left me during the rest of my 11-day journey.

    For many Tech alumni in our tour group, Ireland was a bucket-list trip. And for me, it was much more than that; it was a return home of sorts. Both sides of my family claim deep roots on the Emerald Isle and I’ve always been in love with the country’s history, culture and folklore. In fact, I can trace my heritage back to medieval high bards—and while my last name, strawberry blonde hair and freckles aren’t that common in the U.S., I found they fit right in with the people of Éire.

    Ireland Street SignAfter arriving in Shannon, we traveled to Ennis, a lively town in County Clare that would serve as our home base on the first leg of our journey. We lodged at the Old Ground Hotel, a former manor house that not only oozed old-world charm and luxury, but also featured a great Irish pub. That first Guinness tasted great. We spent the day in Ennis, touring the city streets and stepping in for a brief tour of the ruins of a Franciscan friary. The highlight of the day was an after-dinner performance by a band of young musicians and dancers who shared rousing, traditional Irish sounds and steps with us.

    The next day we traveled by bus to Galway, the famed coastal city. Unfortunately, this was the only day the weather didn’t cooperate with us, as we endured a couple downpours on our walking tour. Some of us shopped for traditional Irish Claddagh rings, while others feasted on fresh fish and chips. The following day, excursions took us to The Burren, a region known for its unusual rock formations, and the Cliffs of Moher, a stunning seaside site better known to film fans as the Cliffs of Insanity, from The Princess Bride.

    Cliffs of Moher

    Our last day operating from Ennis, we ventured to the Aran Islands, where those iconic woolen fisherman’s sweaters are made. It was so warm that day—in fact, most of our trip went against Irish weather standards—I didn’t feel like buying one for myself, but that didn’t stop others, to be sure. We had a particularly lovely lunch at a small hillside restaurant overlooking Galway Bay, and felt fortified enough to make the trek up a steeper hill to see the ancient ruins of the Dun Aengus ring fort.

    Tom Crean's LagerOn our transfer to Killarney, where we’d stay the next two nights, we circled the Dingle Peninsula by bus and visited a museum honoring the remote, once-inhabitable Blasket Islands. We then made a quick stop in the quaint town of Dingle, where I found a pub and found out I very much like Tom Crean’s lager (you can’t drink Guinness all the time), brewed locally. We checked into The Malton, a stately, luxurious hotel, and I hosted a happy hour for my fellow travelers, courtesy of the Alumni Association. Yes, we even sang the Ramblin’ Wreck, much to the amusement of our non-Tech friends.

    After a good night’s sleep, we added a local tour guide to our entourage and drove the beautiful lengths of The Ring of Kerry, which offered spectacular views of the Irish countryside and coast. On one of our stops, we took in a surprisingly spectacular demonstration of sheep herding that had most of us wanting to take home a sweet, smart border collie for our own. Several photo opportunities later, we wound up our trek by touring the Muckross House, a 19th-century Victorian mansion that reminded us of an Irish Downton Abbey, only better.


    On the road between Killarney and Dublin, our last base of operations, we pulled in to see Blarney Castle and an elaborate series of lush gardens. Yes, I was one of the few who trudged up the narrow stairs of the castle and—with gymnastic, upside-down grace—kissed the Blarney Stone. I even have the $10 picture to prove it, though my wife not-so-secretly wishes that I hadn’t added the fabled “gift of gab” to my repertoire. Another stop took us to The Longueville House, where we enjoyed a refreshing, gourmet lunch and hobnobbed with the owners.

    By the time we reached Dublin, most of us were pretty done in. Still, we enjoyed a bus and walking tour of the city, which included stops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College—where we saw The Book of Kells and a fascinating exhibit on Irish high king Brian Boru’s 1014 battle against the Vikings. We then had the afternoon, evening and most of the next day free to tour cosmopolitan Dublin at our leisure, before tipping our Guinness glasses to each other at a farewell reception and dinner. Now those were 11 days well spent.

    I must admit I had never been on a small-group tour such as this one offered by the Georgia Tech Alumni Association through AHI Travel, and I was a little concerned that being cooped up on a motor coach with relative strangers—though many of us shared that Tech bond—was going to take away from the experience.

    The Burren

    My doubts proved to be completely unfounded. Our plucky band of seasoned GT adventurers, as well as fellow travelers from Emory, West Point, Cornell and Wilson College, got along tremendously well and the shared experience of witnessing Ireland’s marvels added greatly to our enjoyment. As one of the few solo tourists in the bunch, I was always invited to join couples and groups for dinners and drinks in our free time, and I never felt like a third wheel.

    Meanwhile, AHI took the worry out of nearly everything, giving all of us the freedom to simply enjoy ourselves fully rather than have to fret about logistics. The hotels, restaurants, guest speakers, tour guides and excursions that were prearranged and recommended all turned out to be first class. Tour Director Joannie Herbst—though tiny in stature—stood tall whenever a small problem surfaced, using her years of expertise and her careful planning to make the travelers in her care happy.

    One of the best aspects of this guided, small-group trip may surprise you as much as it did me. Having an exceptional bus driver like Danny Smyth made the long spells on the road between attractions immensely enjoyable. What’s more, on a tour such as this, I never expected to be able to get a glimpse of how a native Irishman sees the world. While nimbly navigating traffic, Danny spent hours telling us stories about his country, ranging from history to politics to simple tales of everyday life—and, of course, many, many jokes. If you were too tired to listen closely to him, his warm Irish accent and his words still did their job, lulling you to a happy sleep as those forty shades of green whipped by.


  • At Issue: What About Climate Change?

    How concerned should we be about climate change? Threats such as ISIS, ebola and shaky economies seem much more immediate and tangible than global warming. We asked two of Tech’s top experts in the field to discuss the issue.


    Uncertainty Doesn’t Mean
    We Shouldn’t Take Action

    By Judith Curry

    At the recent United Nations Climate Summit, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that “without significant cuts in emissions by all countries, and in key sectors, the window of opportunity to stay within less than 2 degrees [of warming] will soon close forever.” The premise of dangerous human-caused climate change is the foundation for President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So, is there an overwhelming scientific justification for the premise of dangerous human-caused climate change and the urgency for immediate action? I am concerned that the problem and its solution have been vastly oversimplified.

    The climate has always changed and will continue to change. Humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have a warming effect. However, there is enduring uncertainty beyond these basic facts, and the most consequential aspects of climate science are the subject of vigorous scientific debate: whether the warming since 1950 has been dominated by human causes, and how the climate will evolve in the 21st century due to both natural and human causes.

    There is growing evidence that the climate is less sensitive to adding greenhouse gases than has been predicted by climate models.  Solar variability, volcanic eruptions and long-term ocean oscillations will continue to be sources of unpredictable climate surprises.  Societal uncertainties further cloud the issues as to whether warming is “dangerous” and whether we can afford to radically reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the near term.

    Can we make good decisions under conditions of deep uncertainty about climate change? Uncertainty in itself is not a reason for inaction. Research to develop low-emission energy technologies and energy efficiency measures are examples of “robust” policies that have little downside. It is in America’s long-term political and economic interests to develop a renewable alternative to fossil fuels. However, attempts to modify the climate by reducing carbon dioxide emissions may turn out to be futile. The hiatus in warming since 1998 demonstrates carbon dioxide is not a control knob on climate variability on decadal time scales. Even if carbon dioxide mitigation strategies are successful and projections are correct, any climate impact would not be expected until the latter part of this century.

    Whether or not human-caused climate change is exacerbating extreme weather events, vulnerability to these events will continue—owing to increasing population and wealth in vulnerable regions. Climate change may be less important than rising populations, land use practices and ecosystem degradation. Regions that find solutions to problems of climate variability and extreme weather, and address relevant challenges of an increasing population, are likely to be well prepared to cope with any additional stresses from climate change.

    Judith Curry is Professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, specializing in the dynamics of weather, climate and the atmosphere.


    We Have to Start Paying Down
    Our Climate Debt Now

    By Kim Cobb

    As a climate scientist, I firmly believe that if Americans understood the facts about climate change, they would be concerned enough to support a comprehensive, data-driven plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nobody with any knowledge on the subject denies that carbon dioxide (CO2) derived from the burning of fossil fuels is measurably warming the planet. Nobody denies that the risks of climate change will accelerate as greenhouse gas emissions accelerate. And nobody denies that, given the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, the climatic response of our current emissions will play out over the lifetimes of our children and our grandchildren. They will inherit our generation’s climate debt, and its accrued interest, potentially in the form of irreversible impacts.

    Opponents of climate action cite grave uncertainties about the magnitude of future climate change impacts, but such uncertainties are two-sided. It is equally likely that future impacts will be less than or greater than those projected by climate models. So yes, there is a very small chance that climate change impacts will be relatively benign over the next century, with modest damages. But there is also a very small chance that those impacts will translate into economic “catastrophe”— in the jargon of economists who attempt to quantify climate change risks.

    In this sense, inaction on climate change is like betting against the house when you know the deck is stacked in its favor. You might be willing to lose a few bucks for a small chance of a huge payout, but you wouldn’t bet your life’s savings.

    For those who are concerned, it’s often unclear what, if anything, can be done to avert climate change. It is true that whatever steps we take today to limit greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will still accelerate over the next decades—the climate system and energy infrastructure both carry appreciable momentum.

    But by the same token, the longer we wait to begin curbing emissions in earnest, the tighter we lock future generations into a path of accelerating climate change. For every year we delay, we accept (knowingly or not) that the stabilization level for greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will be ever higher, and the associated climate risks ever greater. The recent agreement between the United States and China to limit emissions growth over the next decades is an important down payment towards collective climate action, but the most effective action will come when each and every American understands that they have a role to play in reducing emissions.

    The power of collective action is demonstrated during a class project in my “Energy, the Environment, and Society” course that I teach at Tech each spring. In the Carbon Reduction Challenge, student teams compete to reduce CO2 emissions over the course of two short months. The most successful teams engage with private-sector partners, and the savings they achieve are remarkable. One winning team averted over 180,000 pounds of CO2 emissions by recycling wooden pallets at a large manufacturing plant. That’s equivalent to taking 15 cars off the road for an entire year.

    If each American began to rethink how they conduct their own “business as usual,” and that of their workplace, we could begin to pay down the climate debt while paving the way for a sustainable energy and climate future for our children and grandchildren. A collective effort to reduce energy use, when combined with the continued development and deployment of affordable, low-carbon energy technologies, puts such a goal in reach.

    Kim Cobb is Associate Professor in the School of  Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, specializing in paleoclimates, climate change and geochemistry.

  • Building a Gas Pipeline Halfway Across the World

    At Georgia Tech, Decie Autin studied and trained to be an engineer, not a community relations expert. But when ExxonMobil selected her in 2008 to be the supervising project executive for the construction of a major new liquid natural gas pipeline, Autin knew that to be successful, she’d have to work closely with local families and landowners. It’s one of the many skills Autin has had to learn while moving up from front-line engineering to management.

    However, this project wasn’t situated in any community close to Autin’s home in Houston. The pipeline was to be built halfway around the world in Papua New Guinea.This location presented extraordinary challenges for Autin and her team—and not just due to the distance.

    For one, the Papua New Guinea Liquid Natural Gas (PNGLNG) pipeline proved to be intimidating simply because of the path it traces. “The line travels 700 kilometers to carry natural gas from the country’s highlands across terrain that’s very rugged, with lots of mountains and volcanoes, down to the coast near Port Moseby to be processed into LNG,” Autin says.

    Culturally, the country is also very different than the United States. “Papua New Guinea has more than 800 languages,” Autin says. “And its people are spread out, 85 percent of them living in rural settings, living in little pockets.”

    To complicate matters even more, most of the country’s roughly 7 million citizens had little-to-no experience seeing a woman in such a leadership position.

    All of these added up to make the PNGLNG project the most challenging one she’s ever worked on in her 30-plus years with ExxonMobil. The logistical hurdles of building the pipeline from mountaintop to shore were trickier than she could have imagined. “When you face problems, you need to work through the logic to solve them,” Autin says. On the PNGLNG project, we faced so many issues: ‘How do you move this, how do you get these people to agree, how do you work with the government?’”


    The pipeline’s remote point of origin demonstrated just one of several difficult problems that Autin and her team faced.

    There was a single 800-kilometer highway into the Hides area where the natural gas was drilled and produced—the last 200 kilometers of which were unpaved. Faced with either building an airport or driving supplies all the way up that road, Autin loaded up in a truck and surveyed the road for herself. What she found was a major infrastructure project: There were not just 200 kilometers of road to pave, but also 98 bridges to cross, many of which required upgrades to use. “We ran the economics, and the airport won out,” Autin says.

    Building the airport, the pipeline itself and other related work, the PNGLNG project employed up to 22,000 people at its peak. In total, more than 55,000 individuals from across the globe were somehow involved in the pipeline’s construction. After an estimated $19 billion in construction costs, the pipeline today produces 1 billion cubic feet of liquid natural gas each day.

    And it was Autin who stood in charge of making sure everything went as planned. “My commitment was to deliver on the entire project,” she says.

    Not only did Autin fulfill her commitment, she did so ahead of expectations. The PNGLNG project shipped its first cargo load of natural gas in May 2014, five months ahead of schedule. The liquid natural gas pipeline will meet rising natural gas demands in Asia—particularly Japan, Hong Kong and China.

    As happy as Autin is with the PNGLNG’s technical successes, she also found tremendous fulfillment in her role working directly with the people of Papua New Guinea. ExxonMobil sponsored numerous community efforts throughout the duration of the pipeline construction and, during her free time, Autin became very involved in developing programs to help empower and train the country’s women. “One of ExxonMobil’s core efforts across the globe is to help educate women,” Autin says. “Anytime you educate the women in a community, you expand the limits of what they can do.”

    In the end, Autin left a strong imprint on the nation—so strong that a Papua New Guinea firm, Hides Gas Development Company (HGDC), now sponsors the Decie Autin Engineering Scholarship for Women. HGDC Chairman Libe Parindali says Autin was chosen as the scholarship’s namesake to honor the pipeline as an impressive feat of engineering, as well as to tribute her humble and capable leadership.

    Autin’s reaction fit the chairman’s description. “At first I was embarrassed … then I was proud,” Autin says. “I’m very fortunate and very blessed. There were plenty of women on our project team. Of all people, I thought it was interesting that they wanted to honor me.”


  • ‘Getting In’ Harder Than ‘Getting Out’?

    With the number and quality of applicants steadily increasing, the competition for freshman admission has never been higher at Georgia Tech. In fact, in sheer statistical terms, it’s harder to “get in” than it is to “get out.” With the 2015 college application season now well underway, the Alumni Magazine asked Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions, to speak openly about the new realities of getting into Tech and share some tips for parents gearing up to help their kids through the complex admission process.

    Just six years ago, 62 percent of students who applied to the Institute were accepted. However, in 2014, the acceptance rate stood at only 33 percent—about the same rate as highly competitive private schools like Wake Forest and Boston College—and it could keep getting smaller.

    Last year, Tech moved to the Common Application, which decreased the admit rate approximately 8 percentage points, Clark says. “Applications soared to an all-time high of 25,872, compared to 9,988 in 2008,” he says. “And while Tech is growing, there’s a limit to the number of incoming students we can accommodate and continue to deliver excellent instruction and access to necessary resources.”

    That said, looking at the makeup of the 2014 freshman class, it’s still no easy task to become a Yellow Jacket. The average SAT score (including the written test) of this year’s enrollees was 1450, the ACT 30, and the GPA a solid “A” average. In addition, 94 percent of Tech’s freshmen this year took at least AP
    calculus or its equivalent while in high school.

    “With those scores and grades, it’s clearly a challenge for students to separate themselves from other applicants,” Clark says. “That ‘A’ average, for example, includes an average nine Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or dual-enrollment classes per student.”

    But, according to Clark, high school academic scores and grades are just one factor in the admissions process, albeit a very important one. “Statistically there’s not much difference between an SAT score of 1350 or 1400 when it comes to predicting how a student will perform in college,” he says. “That’s where extracurricular activities, personal essays and recommendations come into play and help us make decisions about which applicants are the best fit for Tech, and vice versa.”

    For high school seniors (and their parents) looking to separate their applications from the pack, Clark offers the following tips:

    1. Be “pointy” rather than well-rounded. In the past, admissions officers searched for well-rounded students who held a great breadth of experiences. Now, however, Clark and his staff—and admissions officers across the country—keep their eyes peeled for “pointy” students who instead have deep interest and skills in a narrower range of pursuits.  “Applicants who demonstrate an early passion and have been able to stay focused on it over a number of years really stand out. They’re much more likely to succeed and thrive at places like Tech.”

    2. Use the personal essay to make a connection. “Believe it or not, we read every essay,” Clark says. “But far too many students simply regurgitate what’s already apparent in their application materials. What we want to read is writing that showcases an applicant’s personality, passion and voice.” With the in-person interview no longer a common part of the admissions process nationally, the essay needs to make a strong impression, Clark says.

    3. Make parents your partners. The admissions process can be stressful for students and parents alike. “Instead of putting pressure on their kids, we encourage parents to create a partnership with them,” Clark says. “Parents should be in the crow’s nest, scouting out the process, but ultimately students are captains of the ship. When parents take over, students tend to shut down and tune out—which only makes parents more determined to force the issue.” Clark suggests that parents and students should set up safe times and spaces each week for talking about college and strategies for applying. “An early, honest, open dialogue with clear expectations is critical to everything going well,” he says.

    4. Remember it’s about fit. “It’s far more important that a student makes the right choice than it is for their parents to have a certain college bumper sticker on their car,” Clark says. Besides, when students aren’t really sure they’re applying to the right college, their lack of commitment and excitement typically shows up loud and clear in their application materials.

    5. Don’t assume that because you’re a legacy, it’s a lock you’ll get in. This goes for both students and parents, as there are just too many factors at play to ensure all legacies will get into Tech. “It’s still a factor we consider, to be sure,” Clark says. “Children and siblings and grandchildren of alumni typically demonstrate a great loyalty and passion for Tech, and we value such positive, long-term connections. But in the end our goal is to enroll the best overall freshman class possible.”

    6. Apply even if you’re not an engineer. “Tech has changed a lot, especially over the past 20 years,” Clark says. “We have a number of nationally respected programs from business to design to liberal arts. What makes Tech special is the commitment to a rigorous education that prepares you for a successful career, and that’s supported by the Institute’s ranking as the No. 1 return on investment among U.S. colleges.” Clark says that a class composed of students with a variety of academic majors ensures that Tech will continue to be well respected in all fields.

    7. Celebrate your success. Getting into college is a major achievement, no matter what college it is, Clark says. “After all the hard work that goes into the process, you need to celebrate each win and get excited about your hard work being recognized,” he says. “Embrace the schools that admit you and the opportunities you have in front of you, and don’t dwell on schools that do not offer you admission.”

  • Golden Teacher, Golden Anniversary

    bill-shaffer-033When Professor Emeritus of Economics Bill Schaffer, IM 56, lived in Towers dormitory as a student in 1952, the interstate highways had not yet cut their way through Atlanta. The only nearby TVs were at the Varsity.  And the student center was just a patch of kudzu. 

    A lot has changed since Schaffer first came to Georgia Tech more than 60 years ago. He’s watched the Institute—and the city of Atlanta—grow tremendously during the decades he’s spent on campus as a student and faculty member. And through it all, Schaffer remains a proud Yellow Jacket, this year celebrating an illustrious 50th anniversary of teaching at Tech.

    “If I had a motto, it would be to never let an opportunity go by,” Schaffer says.

    One of those opportunities came when he and some of his high school friends from Monticello, Ga., hitchhiked their way to Macon to take a Navy ROTC entrance exam. Though his friends didn’t make the cut, Schaffer did, and he enrolled at Georgia Tech the following year.

    After “getting out” with a bachelor’s in industrial management, Schaffer served as a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps and went on to earn a doctorate in economics from Duke University before returning to Tech to teach in 1964. Schaffer says teaching has been—by far—his favorite part of being a professor.

    Early in his career at Tech, Schaffer went out of his way to get to know his students, and he interacted with them as much as possible. It’s a tactic that made him a perennial favorite among Tech’s student body. In 1988, he was named Faculty of the Year by the Student Government Association.

    “Bill’s longevity at Tech is a true accomplishment and a testament to his love of teaching,” says David Laband, chairman of Tech’s School of Economics. “He loves the subject of economics and he’s passionate about it. I think it infuses his life with great purpose.”

    Schaffer also has a soft spot for students with poor grades. He says he’s learned that it’s often his worst students who go on to be the most memorable, and ultimately, successful. “You never judge a guy by what he looks like or acts like, especially in class,” Schaffer says.

    In 1966, a student with less than stellar test scores came to Schaffer with a unique  opportunity. That student introduced Schaffer to the president of the Atlanta Braves, the city’s then-new major league baseball club, who hired him to study the economic impact of the baseball team on the city.

    “This was the beginning of my career as a consultant,” Schaffer says. After that first study, Schaffer went on to examine the economic impact of sporting and cultural events in Hawaii, Nova Scotia, Conneticut and Montreal. Today, Schaffer is still active in the field, analyzing the impact of the arts in the U.S. and golf in Canada.

    In addition to being an anchor of the economics department, Schaffer has also volunteered countless hours around campus. He served for 20 years as an adviser for Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity he belonged to as an undergraduate, back in the days when fraternity dances required chaperones. He still serves as an emeritus adviser and is sometimes invited to teach the young Betas lessons in etiquette.

    As a member of the Georgia Tech Athletic Association’s Board of Trustees for more than 20 years, Schaffer has made many memories following his beloved Yellow Jackets. Among his favorite are the two times he took his sons to watch the men’s basketball team compete in the NCAA Final Four.

    And if that weren’t enough engagement, each fall, the Schaffers invite Bill’s students to their home for what’s known as a “Peach Party,” where they are treated to his famous homemade peach ice cream.

    Laband said he’s amazed by how committed Bill and Lee Schaffer are to Georgia Tech. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my career,” he says. “They are so woven into the fabric of the university.”

    One of Bill’s strengths as a teacher, according to his wife, is that he understands students are often overloaded with classes and activities. “Sometimes, professors won’t realize students have lives outside their class, but he does,” she says.

    Laband says when he approached Schaffer about  naming a chaired professorship in his honor,  Schaffer thought about it but turned it down, asking instead to create an endowed student scholarship. That’s pretty typical of  Schaffer: For 50 years, he has always put his students first.