By Dana FinneyFebruary 27, 2009
Champaign, Ill. - The National Society of Professional Engineers has named Dr. Kirankumar Topudurti 2009 Federal Engineer of the Year. Topudurti is deputy director for the Champaign, Ill.-based Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL), part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Engineer Research and Development Center.
The Federal Engineer of the Year Award (FEYA) recognizes excellence based on engineering achievements, education, professional and technical society activities, awards and honors, and civic and humanitarian activities. It is the crowning engineer achievement for the recipient and the federal agency of employment.
Growing up in India, Topudurti never planned to earn a Ph.D. and become a research engineer. The oldest of four children, "My goal was to get my undergraduate degree in civil engineering and quickly find a practicing engineer job to help my parents," he said.
But after graduating with his bachelor's degree, his life took a different direction. "Right after college, I met a professor who encouraged me to get my master's and Ph.D.," he said. "He also suggested that I seek my Ph.D. abroad because he said it would help me grow into something I never imagined to be possible. That 10-minute conversation changed my life."
Topudurti completed a master's degree in civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, then in 1984 headed to the United States on a full scholarship from the Illinois Institute of Technology at Chicago. "I borrowed $30 to come to the U.S.," he said.
At the time he arrived in the States, the environmental engineering field - especially hazardous waste engineering and management - was seeing explosive growth.
"Pursuing this area became my passion. Besides it being a highly interdisciplinary field, which was appealing, I knew I would take great personal satisfaction in taking care of the environment," he said.
Still envisioning a career as a teacher, Topudurti nonetheless accepted a position at Tetra Tech EM Inc. as a principal technical advisor. He believed that having practical experience in the field first would help make him a better teacher.
At Tetra Tech, he became fully engaged in research and development, leading teams that greatly advanced the science behind many innovative technologies including the E-beam technology, which uses a stream of high-energy electrons to destroy toxic organic wastes in polluted groundwater. His other significant area of research on field measurement technologies aided rapid, cost-effective cleanup of petroleum hydrocarbon contamination.
After joining CERL as a branch chief six years ago, Topudurti quickly advanced to become deputy director in 2007. "Federal service has given me the opportunity to do the two things I love the most - to do research and to lead."
Topudurti credits his family, teachers, and teammates over the years for his successes. About receiving the FEYA, he said, "I feel really touched by this honor and although it seems like an individual award, I don't believe for a moment that I could have reached this point in my career without the support of many people."