Professor Mir M. Ali is one of the world's leading structural engineers and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA.
'The Bridge: Joining East-West Nations and Cultures While Treading Life's Difficult Path', is his memoir. Dr Ali masterfully tells his life story in five parts of the book.
He successfully encapsulates every important detail of his journey to becoming one of the world's leading structural engineers from a small coastal town of Patuakhali in coastal Bangladesh after receiving his college education and work experience in Dhaka, and then travelling to Canada and the United States to further his education.
In the process, he befriended Fazlur Rehman Khan, the great structural engineer who designed some of the world's tallest structures, including the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center in Chicago.
Dr Ali has collaborated with Fazlur Khan on various projects when the two worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the firm that is a leader in building skyscrapers around the world. The author attributes his success to his parents and friends.
The book is an interesting read for general readers, students, and teachers; especially the younger generation can benefit greatly from Dr Mir Ali's experiences and advice.
Dr Mir Ali reflects on various aspects of his career spanning five decades in the following interview with Dr Ahmed S. Khan.
Ahmed S. Khan: What things have you missed most about your homeland by crossing the bridge?
Mir M. Ali: Despite the gains I made by being in America, personal and professional, I feel I have also lost a part of me in terms of my eastern heritage- my native values and culture.
I unwittingly allowed my children to be confused victims of biculturalism. And of course, I suffer from ongoing nostalgia, being separated from my native land and people.
If I had returned to Bangladesh, I could have helped my native country in whatever way I could within the constraints that existed there.
I was far away from my parents during their old age when I should have been there to serve and comfort them.
Your area of expertise is structures; what trends do you see emerging in skyscraper design and construction? What does the future hold for structures?
MMA: Skyscraper construction is still evolving. Through the Jeddah Tower, which is currently under construction, new structural systems allowed the height to reach 1 km.
Human creativity, ego, aspirations, and drive will likely push the height further to realise the "mile-high dream."
I am against this because it has numerous undesirable consequences; I discussed these in some of my previous papers and writings, as well as in my book 'The Future of the City'.
This is not a structural issue because we have technology not only for structures that are becoming more sophisticated, but also for constructability, HVAC, vertical transportation, electrification, and plumbing, among other things.
For various reasons, the future of supertall and megatall skyscrapers may not be as bright, but I also believe in indomitable human ingenuity and drive.
Dr Fazlur Rahman Khan was one of your closest friends. What kind of person and professional was he? What special memories do you have of his friendship?
MMA: Dr Khan was an engineer's engineer who touched the sky with his skyscrapers but was mindful of the ground under him.
He was a modest and kind person with humility, a humanist, and he could talk to anyone. Despite this, he was professionally aggressive, always thinking of better ways to design buildings.
He was a good communicator and a quick thinker with a fertile and decisive mind. If he was upset with someone, he could quickly forgive and suppress his anger.
I remember his polite demeanor the first time I met him in his office, where he spent an hour amidst his hectic schedule. His occasional advice helped me in my professional life.
I found him to be very personable with others at Bangladeshi cultural functions. He could chat comfortably with children, men, and women.
In terms of teaching and learning practices, how has academia changed over the last five decades? What impact has technology had on education? What does the future of engineering education look like?
MMA: Technology has taken over education. Teaching is now through PowerPoint presentations and use of digital technology. Distance learning through online courses is becoming universal.
Although it has some benefits, I don't like it much as the social and human touch is getting lost. Professors and students are losing human interaction and chemistry to the point where they may not even know each other. The students will be strangers to one another. Also, it makes it easier to cheat.
Engineering education is overly technical, resulting in engineers who are poor communicators. More diverse courses in the arts, finance, and so on should be introduced to provide students with a well-rounded education that prepares them to be verbal and interact with society.
To keep up with the world's evolving technological landscape and the changing needs of the profession and society, engineering education must be reformed.
What are some of the life lessons you have learned? What are your major accomplishments and regrets?
MMA: I learned a lot of lessons, and I've written about them in my book. Here are some examples- 1. Good health is the best asset we have. 2. Manage your money well as it is hard to save but easy to spend. 3. Avoid making enemies as life is too short. 4. The world is a beautiful and fun place and so feel the wonder. 5. Happiness comes from the feeling of self-worth. 6. Accept imperfect behaviour of others since humans are imperfect. 7. Democracy works best when voters are well-informed and think independently. 8. Avoid giving unsolicited advice. 9. You don't need to be the centre of attention. 10. If you start a project, finish it as finishing is winning. 11. Work hard and smartly; rewards just happen. 12. Intelligence and wisdom are different things. 13. Smartness means you are self-reliant and can defend yourself. 14. Life is complex; so, seek patience and ease.
My major accomplishments include being a successful academic respected in my field, the author/editor of several professional books and articles, as well as my memoir.
I have two regrets: the first is that I was unable to take care of my parents in their old age, and the second is that I did not spend enough time with my children when they were young, unintentionally making them victims of biculturalism.
What advice do you have for students who will enter the professional world with the vital task of facing the existing challenges?
MMA: Work hard and focus on your studies. After high school, a few years of student life is a relatively short period of time compared to your future working life, when you will face professional challenges.
In a figurative sense, you are ships that are currently being built and will sail in the sea of work life once completed. Make yourself strong enough to withstand the perils of the sea.
Learn as much as you can from your professors and gain technical and practical knowledge so that you are well prepared when you shift from the academic to the professional world.
Continue to learn, think about better ways to design, and strive to develop expertise in whatever you are doing.