175th Anniversary Oral History Project

Treasuring the Voices of Pitt Engineers

175_9.jpgTo mark the 175th anniversary of engineering education at the University of Pittsburgh, the Swanson School of Engineering endeavored to record the memories of alumni and faculty who have helped to shape our legacy.

For millenia, engineers have created new knowledge that has transformed the human condition. Engineering however is more than a profession - it is a celebration of lifelong learning that engages the world with transformative effect. The vignettes below are a testament to the Pitt Engineering family who, since 1846, has transformed communities, countries, and the world.

These vignettes are a sample of each individual's story - their full oral histories will be archived as a gift to the University of Pittsburgh Archives. We hope that their experiences will inspire us all, especially the generations of Pitt Engineers to follow.

Alumni

Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Robert (Bob) Agbede was the first Black student to enroll in Pitt’s Mining Engineering program in 1975. Under his leadership as owner and CEO, Chester Engineers became one of the largest African-American-owned engineering firms in the country. Agbede is currently Vice Chairman of Hatch USA. He serves on the Swanson School’s Board of Visitors and is Chairman of the Diversity Committee. His advocacy led to the creation of the Robert O. Agbede Scholarship, which goes to Black students studying engineering at Pitt, and the Robert O. Agbede Annual Diversity Award, which encourages recruitment and retention of Black faculty and students.

Give them a chance.

Robert Agbede

Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1984 to Coptic Egyptian parents, Daniel Armanios won a Henderson scholarship to study mechanical engineering and political science at the University of Pittsburgh as a Pitt IMPACT scholar (now EXCEL). He was the first Pitt engineer to become a Rhodes Scholar, earning master’s degrees in management and water science policy from the University of Oxford before earning his PhD in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford. In 2015, he joined the faculty in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

I just realized how little I knew

Daniel Armanios

Born in Homestead, PA in 1940, Elayne Arrington was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Engineering. She went on to work as an aeronautical engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, where she supported Cold War aviation reconnaissance efforts. Professor Arrington was hired as faculty at the University of Pittsburgh after earning her PhD in mathematics in 1974, becoming the 17th Black woman in the U.S. to earn this degree. She remained on the Pitt faculty until her retirement in 2018.

It was time

Elayne Arrington

 

You had to prove yourself at every turn

Elayne Arrington

Originally from Bethlehem, PA, SaLisa Berrien earned her degree at Pitt while caring for her young daughter as a single mother. She credits the mentorship of the late Professor Emeritus Karl H. Lewis, Founder and Director of the Pitt Engineering IMPACT Program (now EXCEL), for enabling her to finish her degree. After graduating, Berrien began her career at Pennsylvania Power and Light, before moving to Philadelphia Electric Company. She is CEO and founder of COI Energy, a startup that helps companies reduce energy waste, and a member of the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees.

That’s not what an engineer does

SaLisa Berrien

Born in Erie, PA, Charles (Chuck) Bleil transferred to the University of Pittsburgh from Penn State Behrend to study chemical engineering. He gained experience in the field through a work study position in the Chemical Engineering Department and a summer position at Texaco in Louisiana. Following graduation, Bleil joined Procter and Gamble as a research and development engineer and continued to work for the company in various positions throughout his decades-long career.

You kind of learn what you can and can’t do

Chuck Bleil

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Carol (Simko) Christobek graduated summa cum laude and was named “Man of the Year” by the Omicron Delta Kappa honor society. She met her future husband, Mark, while studying at Pitt. The two married in Heinz Chapel in 1977, before moving to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to pursue their respective careers at Bethlehem Steel. Carol joined the chemical company Ashland Global in 1996, where she led global IT services, which included expanding services in Hyderabad, India. She retired in 2019.

Man of the Year

Carol Christobek

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Mark Christobek met his future wife, Carol, while studying at Pitt. The two married at Heinz Chapel in 1977, before moving to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to pursue their respective engineering careers at Bethlehem Steel. Christobek went on to earn a master’s degree in industrial engineering at Lehigh University, followed by a PhD at Temple University. He spent 17 years as faculty at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

We met at Freshman orientation

Mark Christobek

Born in Braddock, PA in 1934, Bruno R. Graziano was raised mostly by his grandparents, Czechoslovakian immigrants who spoke Slovak at home. After serving in the Air Force, he attended Pitt with support from the G.I. Bill, studying electrical engineering, which had been a passion of his since childhood. His engineering career spanned over 30 years, with roles at General Electric, Westinghouse, and IBM. He applied his Air Force experience to his work designing military equipment and technologies, including in-flight radar systems and the Hubble space telescope.

He was always looking down.

Bruno R. Graziano

Marvin Perry Jones was born in rural Virginia in 1934, where he spent his early childhood on his grandfather’s farm and dreamed of flying airplanes. He was awarded an athletic scholarship to attend Pitt, where he ran track and field, participated in ROTC, and earned his degree in mechanical engineering with a focus in aeronautical engineering. After working briefly for Lockheed Martin, he was called to join the Air Force, where he went through pilot training and later flew planes in Vietnam. In 1965, he became Pan Am Airways’ first Black pilot.

We’ve come a very long way

Marvin Perry Jones

Born in 1995 in Lancaster, PA, Emily Kloncki came to Pitt to study microbiology and environmental engineering. Drawing on the microbial fuel cell research that she began in high school, she worked under the mentorship of Professor David Sanchez at the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, where she was a Research Assistant. Following an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she was hired as a planetary protection engineer for the Mars Europa Lander mission. She is currently working on her PhD at UCLA.

I can’t believe I did this

Emily Klonicki

As a civil engineering student at Pitt in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Joseph (Joe) Lagnese was active as a jazz musician and has remained so throughout his life. After working for the U.S. Air Force for several years following graduation, he spent most of his career running his own engineering consulting firm—Duncan, Lagnese, and Associates—based in Pittsburgh. He established a scholarship at Pitt to support Black students to study environmental engineering.

The routine was school, work, jazz

Joe Lagnese

Leo Li was part of the first class of students at the University of Pittsburgh’s Sichuan University Pittsburgh Institute (SCUPI). Born and raised in Hunan Province, China, he moved to Chengdu in 2015 to attend SCUPI, before coming to Pittsburgh to finish his studies on the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus two years later. After graduation, he got a job as a product design engineer for Cooper Tire and Rubber Company in Finley, Ohio.

That number is who you are

Leo Li

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Roberta Ann (Robbi) Luxbacher got her first job delivering papers at the age of eight. After graduating with her degree in chemical engineering from Pitt, she was hired by Exxon in Houston as a technical sales representative and rose through the ranks to become Vice President of Natural Gas in 1999, making her the first woman vice president of an Exxon operating business. She ultimately served as an officer of ExxonMobil Corporation and a Global Vice President. She retired in 2014 and remains active as a Trustee for the University of Pittsburgh.

I was interested in getting A’s

Robbi Luxbacher

Jeffrey (Jeff) Mascaro is executive vice president and chief operating officer of Mascaro Construction, a company founded by his father, John C. (Jack) Mascaro in 1988. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Jeff Mascaro joined his father’s company as an employee and worked his way up to run the company alongside his two brothers. Their father, Jack Mascaro – also an engineer and a Pitt alumnus – made a gift to the Swanson School of Engineering in 2003, establishing the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. He died in July 2020.

We miss him.

Jeffrey Mascaro

Ruthann Omer was Pittsburgh’s first woman municipal engineer. Her father, Fred Omer, was founder and owner of civil engineering firm Gateway Engineers. Involved in the family business since childhood, Ruth Omer graduated with her degree in civil engineering and worked alongside her father until his death. She took over as company president in 1994 and served in that role until her retirement in 2018. While at Pitt, she became active in the Society of Women Engineers, an organization she later led as national president for 16 years.

Pitt was the working man’s school

Ruthann Omer

Born in Bellevue, PA to Italian immigrant parents in 1934, Nicola (Nick) Sirianni spoke Italian at home and aspired to be a commercial artist. After receiving a scholarship to attend Pitt, he changed course and enrolled in the School of Engineering. As a student, Sirianni was very active on campus, participating in both the marching band and the Skyscraper Engineer magazine. He was named “Mr. Pitt” in 1956. He spent most of his career working at Westinghouse.Class of 1956 (B.S.), Industrial Engineering

I learned to look at the big picture

Nick Sirianni

Lester (Les) Snyder III is a third-generation Pitt alumnus whose father and grandfather both attended the university. After sustaining an injury as a soccer player at Grove City College, he transferred to Pitt to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Pitt engineer. Snyder spent much of his decades-long career as an engineer at Mellon Stuart Company, American Bridge and Barton Malow. He is currently President and CEO of Infrastructure and Industrial Constructors USA, LLC—branded as i+iconUSA.

He wasn’t going to let me give up

Les Snyder III

John Swanson began his engineering career at Westinghouse, where he worked on the NERVA nuclear rocket program and learned computer programming—a skill he would apply to his PhD dissertation research in applied mechanics at Pitt in the late 1960s. In 1970, he founded Swanson Analysis Systems, Incorporated (ANSYS), a software company which grew from three people working out of Swanson’s farmhouse in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania to a 4,000-person company distributing software globally. In 2004, he received the Fritz Medal, the highest award in the American engineering profession. In 2007, he made a gift of $41.3 million to the University of Pittsburgh’s engineering school. Today, it is named for him: The John A. Swanson School of Engineering.

They had the power of Hoover Dam in that little tin can

John Swanson

I didn’t know for 15 years that I was an entrepreneur

John Swanson

 

 

George Surman grew up in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania during a period of economic struggle in the region. While a student at Pitt in the early 1950s, he participated in ROTC and the ROTC band. After earning his degree, he went to work for IBM, where he spent his entire 37-year career, applying his electrical engineering expertise to the company’s growing work in computer technology. He served concurrently in the Army Corps of Engineers for 31 years and continued to work part-time as a computer technology consultant following his retirement in the 1990s.

The guy saved my life

George Surman

David Tannenbaum was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where he spent much of his childhood tinkering with circuitry and wiring at his basement workbench. Tannenbaum studied electrical engineering at Pitt before pursuing his law degree at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He started his career at Bell Laboratories—first as an engineer, then later as a patent attorney–and went on to grow a large patent law practice in Dallas, Texas, where he wrote the fundamental patents for many of the technologies that we still rely on today.

I was always tinkering

David Tannenbaum

Mary Tannenbaum entered the field of electrical engineering at a time when there were very few women in the discipline. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Pitt while raising her first of two sons as a single mother. Throughout her career, she worked in telecommunications as a building engineer, a technical sales representative, and a systems engineer—for companies including AT&T and Bell Laboratories. She retired in 1999 to raise her granddaughter with her husband, David.

Master of my own destiny

Mary Tannenbaum

Stephen (Steve) Tritch was born in Butler, Pennsylvania. After graduating with his mechanical engineering degree in 1971, he accepted his first job at Westinghouse Electric Corporation in the Power Circuit Breaker Division and went on to earn his MBA from Pitt in 1977. Tritch held a number of positions at Westinghouse throughout his 39-year career there, including in the Advanced Energy Systems Division and the Commercial Nuclear Divisions. He was named CEO of Westinghouse in 2002, holding this position until his retirement in 2008. Tritch served on Pitt’s Board of Trustees from 2007 to 2019.

A tough job.

Stephen R. Tritch

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1988, Sossena Wood came to Pitt to run track and study engineering. As an undergraduate, she was Chapter President of the University of Pittsburgh’s National Society of Black Engineers, and she became heavily involved in the Society’s national arm as a graduate student. She credits her involvement with Pitt Engineering’s EXCEL Program for inspiring her to attend graduate school. After completing her PhD, Wood joined Carnegie Mellon University as a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow in Biomedical Engineering.

Who am I in this space?

Sossena Wood

After graduating from Pitt with her degree in chemical engineering, Mary Zeis began her decades-long career at Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1978, as one of the company’s first female engineers. She stayed with P&G in various roles and sectors until her retirement in 2009. Throughout her life, Zeis has been a steadfast advocate for the rights and representation of women in engineering—internally through her work at P&G and after retiring as a volunteer with the Society of Women Engineers in Pittsburgh.

I’ve always been a women’s libber

Mary Zeis

Faculty

Professor James Thomas (Tom) Cain completed both his undergraduate and graduate education at Pitt before joining the faculty in 1970. He led the effort to create the Computer Science Accreditation Board to establish standards for computer science programs in the United States and worked to expand accreditation globally. Throughout his career, he held close to 30 different positions in the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, where he was elected President in 1995. He and his wife established the James Thomas Cain and Jacquelyn Stone Cain Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2011. He was a close friend and colleague of Professor Marlin Mickle, a Pitt innovator who holds the University record for invention disclosures filed, and who passed away in 2015.

A very good friend

Tom Cain

MEMS Faculty 2000-present
Professor Minking Chyu was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1951. He studied nuclear engineering as an undergraduate student in Taiwan before emigrating to the U.S. for graduate school in mechanical engineering and beginning his research focusing on heat transfers within jet engines. Professor Chyu was on the faculty at Arizona State University and Carnegie Mellon University before joining the faculty at Pitt in 2000. His nuclear engineering background was valuable in helping to start the nuclear engineering program at Pitt. He led the effort to establish the Sichuan University Pittsburgh Institute (SCUPI), a collaborative degree program and partnership between the Swanson School and China’s Sichuan University, which welcomed its first class of 100 undergraduate engineering students in 2015.

You want to make something happen

Minking Chyu

Professor Ronald Hoelzeman spent over 50 years at the University of Pittsburgh, earning all of his degrees in electrical engineering before joining the faculty in 1970. He began his engineering career at Westinghouse and came to specialize in computer engineering—a field that didn’t exist when he began his studies—with a focus on optimization techniques and computer architecture. As faculty, he helped develop the first Model Curricula for Computer Science and Engineering, playing a major role in getting universities across the country to more formally offer this emerging field of study, including the creation of Pitt’s Computer Engineering program.

Engineering was everywhere

Ron Hoelzeman

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Professor Kim Needy earned both her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Pitt, completing the latter while she worked as an engineer for PPG Industries. She went on to work for Boeing in Kansas, where she earned her PhD in industrial engineering from Wichita State University before returning to her alma mater as a member of the faculty in 1993. She left Pitt in 2008 to become IE Department Chair at the University of Arkansas. She was later named Dean of the Graduate School and International Education, and, in 2020, she became the first Dean of the College of Engineering. Her research interests include engineering management and sustainable engineering, and she is a co-author of the textbook Fundamentals of Engineering Economic Analysis.

I was an accidental graduate student

Kim Needy

Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1977, where he established a reputation as an outstanding teacher and developed research in civil litigation. He served as Dean of the law school for eight years before being named Interim Provost in 1993, Interim Chancellor shortly thereafter, and, finally, Chancellor of the university – a role in which he served from 1995 to 2014. Chancellor Nordenberg was closely involved with the Swanson School of Engineering throughout his tenure in administration and helped to oversee sweeping transformations in the School over time. Following his retirement as Chancellor, he has remained active as Chair of the Institute of Politics and Director of the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy.

The process of change does not come easily

Mark Nordenberg

Professor Larry Shuman joined the engineering faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 and served for 32 years as Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. As faculty, he worked with various interdisciplinary and multi-university research projects, including developing pre-hospital care systems in rural areas throughout the U.S. He also worked extensively in the area of engineering ethics and education. Professor Shuman’s legacy includes development of the engineering co-op program; assisting with the founding of the bioengineering program; and establishing a robust international study initiative. The latter was inspired by his time as Academic Dean for the Semester at Sea program.

Is this what you want to do?

Larry Shuman

Harvey Wolfe began his research on healthcare systems as a graduate student, working with nurses at Johns Hopkins University Hospital and developing some of the early nurse staffing models as a pioneer in the field. He continued his hospital work after joining the faculty at Pitt in 1964, developing the Health Service Research Group. He also served as a consultant to Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania. Professor Wolfe went on to serve as Chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering as well as President of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineering. He later received the Institute’s Albert G. Holzman Distinguished Educator Award, as well as its highest honor, the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Industrial Engineering Award recognizing his many contributions to human welfare in the field of industrial engineering.

People are much more erratic and difficult to deal with than machines

Harvey Wolfe

Savio L. Y. Woo, a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, is a pioneer in the field of bioengineering. Born in Shanghai, China, his family fled to Hong Kong after the revolution in 1950; he later emigrated to the U.S. to study engineering. Professor Woo began his academic career in orthopedic research at the University of California, San Diego and was subsequently recruited by the University of Pittsburgh, where he founded the world-renowned Musculoskeletal Research Center. In 1998, he was awarded the International Olympic Committee’s first Olympic Gold Medal and Prize for Sports Science. Professor Woo and his wife, Pattie, used the prize money to create the Asian-American Institute for Research and Education (ASIAM) that has awarded over $1.5 million in scholarships and fellowships for up-and-coming students and researchers.

And that’s how I survived

Savio L-Y. Woo

Project team

 

Supervisors


Mary Besterfield-Sacre
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor, Director of the Engineering Education Research Center

Paul Kovach
Director of Marketing and Communications

Larry Shuman
Distinguished Service Professor of Industrial Engineering and Interim Department Chair

Project Director and Story Editor


Erin Anderson
Assistant Professor, Department of English

Interviewers and Audio Producers


Noelle Mateer
Graduate Student, Department of English

Susan Peterson
Graduate Student, Department of English

Joshua Palmer
Graduate Student, Department of English