Dr Michael Isaacson PEng: Seeking New Approaches for Meaningful Engagement

Photo credit: Andrea Sunderland Photograph

With an academic’s keen insight, Dr Michael Isaacson PEng seeks to bring creative solutions and innovative approaches to the Council table. “I like to focus on how to make things happen, and to do so in the most efficient and effective way,” he says.

A faculty member at the University of British Columbia (UBC) for over 35 years, Isaacson is the author of over 250 papers and has co-authored two books, including Mechanics of Wave Forces on Offshore Structures, a text that has been widely used in the offshore industry. He is also well known for his involvement in advancing the engineering profession—particularly during his tenure as UBC’s Dean of Applied Science, when he worked energetically to raise money for new educational facilities, recruit faculty and develop new programs—still finding time, amidst all this, for his teaching and research activities and his work as a specialist consultant on engineering projects.

On Saturday, October 27, 2012, Dr Michael Isaacson was formally inducted as President of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC at APEGBC’s 93rd Annual General Meeting in Victoria, BC. Innovation recently spoke with President Isaacson about his thoughts on his role as president.

Tell me a bit about your background.

My father was a mining engineer, and I spent my childhood in a remote mining community in India. I followed in his footsteps with an early interest in engineering. My university education included a broad, general engineering degree at Cambridge, and this has served me very well over my career. I continued at Cambridge towards my PhD, and then went to Honolulu to carry out research in my specialty area. My area of interest relates to coastal and ocean engineering, with a particular focus on ocean waves and wave effects on structures.

In 1976, I joined UBC, where I have remained throughout my career. My time at UBC has involved a mix of teaching, research, university administration, engineering consulting, and professional activities. I served as Head of Civil Engineering for five years and Dean of Applied Science for eleven years. I have also acted as a specialist consultant on several hundred coastal and ocean engineering projects. I have been a member of APEGBC Council since 2009 and I am currently a member of the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board.

What engineering and geoscience issues are you most passionate about?

As Dean of Applied Science at UBC, I was fortunate to encounter and interact with the full spectrum of engineering and science disciplines, including the more traditional branches of engineering as well as newer areas such as software engineering, biomedical engineering and mechatronics. This has given me an appreciation of the sheer breadth of our two professions and the diversity of engineering and geoscience cultures. As a consequence, I see a key issue is how best to serve our two professions across the full spectrum of areas, with the primary challenge being that one size may not fit all. For example, APEGBC’s regulatory role may be more relevant in civil engineering, where the member may be authorized to carry out certain tasks under specific “demand side” legislation. In others, such as biomedical engineering, other regulatory requirements may apply, typically to the product itself. So how best can APEGBC assure the highest standards of regulation, ethical activity and professional accountability in order to protect the public in this vast array of industries and activities, while engaging and attracting members over the full range of engineering and geoscience disciplines?

What professional accomplishment gives you the most satisfaction and why?

That’s a difficult one to answer, since I have gained the greatest satisfaction from the very diversity of my professional activities. This has included fundraising, teaching classes in Engineering Economics and Coastal Engineering, undertaking research on a particular hydrodynamics problem, or serving as a specialist consultant. For instance, I was a part of the leadership team that established UBC Okanagan (UBCO) in 2005, and in particular, I led the establishment of the School of Engineering at UBCO. This involved travelling to Kelowna every two or three weeks for two years! The School started at the time of UBCO’s founding, with about 60 first-year students and five faculty based in a few borrowed offices; it now has over 1,000 undergraduates, 100 graduate students and 40 faculty based in a new $70 million building.  Even the engineering projects on which I have been engaged have been wide ranging—work relating, for example, to earthquake-induced sloshing in a reservoir in California, the design of the Jaws attraction at Universal Studios Florida, large offshore platforms used for oil and gas recovery, or the design of marinas and breakwaters in British Columbia.

Given your background, what do you feel you can contribute to the leadership of the association?

I believe the breadth of my past experiences will be an asset, particularly in the area of governance.  This includes my role on the UBC Senate for 17 years, Dean of Applied Science for 11 years and a member of many boards and professional committees, where some parallels may be drawn with APEGBC. Each of the many organizations that I have been involved with tends to operate somewhat differently, and there are always lessons to be learned by seeing how others do things.

In your candidate statement you cite the importance of “assuring meaningful levels of member and stakeholder engagement.” How and where should APEGBC focus its efforts to engage its stakeholders?

A key approach, often overlooked, is to enhance APEGBC’s consultation processes. Meaningful consultation includes posing questions in a neutral way, keeping an open mind, listening, and being willing to modify pre-conceived positions. Our members understand and appreciate this. Of course, we should continue to assure a close two-way dialogue with our current and future members through the branches, divisions, committees, the Annual Conference and AGM, consultation structures, liaison activities, post-secondary institutions and high schools. We need to look for ways to continually improve with respect to providing our members with friendly, responsive and efficient services at all times. Based on my experience as a former Trustee of the APEG Foundation, one particular example of enhancing engagement may be for our Foundation to consider ways to expand significantly its resource base, so as to provide a broader range and higher levels of awards and other benefits for students preparing to enter our professions.

Review and self-examination are vital to the continuous enhancement and relevance of the association to members and to the public. In which areas do you see the greatest opportunities for improvement or development?

In my candidacy statement I referred to “enhancing the efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and accountability of all APEGBC activities and operations.” There is a need for continual assessment and improvement of our policies, practices and ways of doing things. There is a need to maximize transparency, for instance by assuring that open meetings of Council are used to the maximum extent possible. And there is a need to assure that every dollar in membership fees is spent efficiently and effectively. One such approach relates to the “Value-for-Money” process that we had instituted a year or two ago.

Getting in touch with the President

Correspondence directed to APEGBC’s President can be addressed topresident@apeg.bc.ca or President Michael Isaacson PEng c/o APEGBC, 4010 Regent St, Burnaby, BC   V5C 6N2.

Professional Profile

Dr Michael Isaacson is Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of British Columbia where he has served as Head of Civil Engineering and as Dean of Applied Science. With research interests in coastal and ocean engineering, he is Fellow of the Engineering Institute of Canada, the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, and a former Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering.  Among other honours and awards, he is also a past recipient of APEGBC’s highest honour for a professional engineer, the R A McLachlan Memorial Award.

According to Isaacson, four guiding principles drive his professional life: “One is to be service-oriented—to ask ‘how can I help you’ or ‘how can we make it happen.’ A second is to always be mindful of the big picture, and only get into the details when the overall direction has been suitably established. A third is to seek a diversity of viewpoints, learn and improve from these and engage in respectful debate. And, underlying all these is the need for enthusiasm, high energy and hard work.”

Personally Speaking

Dr Michael Isaacson PEng and wife, Sharon, have four children and five grandchildren between them. “All four children are happily married with successful careers—even though none of them opted for engineering!” he observes.

They share a second home in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast where they enjoy spending time whenever they can—gardening, hiking, meeting friends and relaxing.  They also enjoy travelling, including periodic visits to their children and grandchildren, an extended stay in Honolulu each year, and other overseas trips from time to time.

Reprinted with permission from Innovation | Nov/Dec 2012