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For the Love of Bridges: An Interview with an Early Career Engineer

Written by: Marijke Wijnen

Andrew Geisel '16 Notre Dame Civil Engineering Graduate
Andrew Geisel '16 Notre Dame Civil Engineering Graduate

Andrew Geisel has been passionate about bridges for years. In high school he did a research project on the Brooklyn Bridge and he still remembers many of the facts about its construction and design. He therefore feels incredibly fortunate that his first job after graduating with a degree in civil engineering from Notre Dame is working on the construction of the new Goethals Bridge, which spans the Arthur Kill Strait, connecting Elizabeth, New Jersey to Staten Island, New York. I got a chance to talk to him about his new job, the transition from being a student to a working professional and of course bridges.

What have you been doing since graduating from Notre Dame just under a year ago?

I’m a Field Engineer for Massman Construction Co. Currently I’m working on the new Goethals Bridge. I work out of an office trailer next to the water on the New Jersey side of the bridge. We are working to complete the eastbound span of the bridge. Once we finish the eastbound span we can switch traffic over from the existing bridge. I’m working on as-built drawings, gathering all the data to see where things are compared to the design plans. I work with the technical manager and the designer to see what things we need to tweak in order to get everything to work.

What has been your favorite thing on the job so far?

Honestly, I’ve loved seeing the way the work progresses. One week you go to the top of the tower and you take an awesome picture of where the work is at and then you go up two to three weeks later and the bridge extends further over the water. Every time you go out and look, more is done and it’s an exciting feeling to actually be able to see what you’re helping to build.

Why is the Goethals Bridge being replaced?

The old Goethals Bridge is a truss bridge, which engineers as a whole have moved away from. Truss bridges don’t have what are called redundant members, so theoretically if a member fails, the whole bridge collapses. We don’t typically build truss bridges anymore and as they get old we replace them pretty quickly. Also, the the existing bridge is outdated, considered “functionally obsolete” and struggles to support the amount of traffic going between Staten Island, NY and Elizabeth, NJ. Traffic is bumper to bumper pretty much all day.”

What type of bridge will the new Goethals Bridge be?

The new bridge is a dual-span cable-stayed bridge, which is my favorite type. I did my senior bridge project at Notre Dame on a cable-stayed bridge. With suspension bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, you have to have big anchorages on either shoreline in order to hold all of the weight. With a cable-stayed bridge the forces are all balanced within the system, so you don’t have to take up as much space on the shore, which makes them better for inner city areas. It’s cool to see the process of putting up the cables, stressing them one-by-one, and balancing the system.

How well do you feel Notre Dame prepared you to take on the challenges of this new job?

Notre Dame’s program is oriented towards structure design rather than construction – which I believe is generally how civil engineering programs are organized. I did take a construction management class which helped to introduce me to many terms I would not have known otherwise. ND didn’t necessarily teach me a lot of technical construction knowledge such as making work plans, types of cranes/equipment, safety procedures, cost tracking, etc. this would be more of a construction management major. However, Notre Dame teaches us to be engineers who identify problems and develop creative ways to solve those problems. I feel equipped for my job because I was taught the skills to succeed, not just technical processes. I haven’t been faced with anything that Notre Dame hasn’t equipped me to handle.

What was the hardest part for you in transitioning from being a Notre Dame student to a working professional?

On the personal side of things, it was definitely hard moving away from being two-minutes from my friends and family and restarting in a new place. On the work side of things, waking up at 5:15am every morning, and being into work at 6:30am after a 30 minute commute. That was definitely very new and a lot of work to get used to. And in construction we work really long days. As engineers we get there at 6:30 in the morning. We work 10, 11, 12 hour days sometimes. That was a surprise to me. But you get used to it.

What advice do you have for students transitioning to their first post-college job?

Don’t be too picky with your first job. If you don’t land a job you think you should, or you're not getting paid as much as you think you should, that’s okay because really what you’re getting is the experience you need to get your dream job. Sometimes you’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to stick it out. Remember, you’re fresh out of school, you’ve got to do your time in the trenches. As you show you're faithful on the small things, they’ll start giving you a little bit more and a little bit more to do, more responsibility and more important tasks. You’ve got to be willing to work your way up.

What type of project would you ideally like to work on next?

Thankfully with Massmann it’s almost guaranteed to be another bridge project, so that’s exciting. They’ve got all sorts of jobs that are coming up.

Do you have a favorite bridge?

The Brooklyn Bridge always has been and always will be my favorite. I absolutely love it. It’s one of the last bridges made with pylons out of masonry rather than poured concrete. It’s one of the first bridges, if not the first, that used steel over wrought iron in its cables.The general public was at first skeptical that a steel bridge could be safe, so the man who designed the bridge had thirty circus elephants parade across it to prove to the public that it could hold significant weight.

Do you find yourself looking at bridges differently now?

I definitely look at bridges differently now. When I see a bridge, I don’t just see a way to get from here to there, I see the design process behind it and the construction process behind it and the years and years of hard work.