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UESI Member in Focus: Francelina "Lina" Neto

Friday, September 7, 2018

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Where were you born and where was most of your upbringing?

I was born in Sintra, Portugal. At five, I moved to northern Portugal, Porto, where I lived until 21.  I spent most of my upbringing around the ports in Porto and on the beaches of northern Portugal. I went to public schools in the fishermen's town of Matosinhos, and to the University of Porto for my bachelor's in engineering. Between six and 16, I spent most of my summer time in France with one of my uncles who worked as a civil engineer at large nuclear plant construction sites.

I finished my bachelor's in engineering in Portugal and got my engineering license from the Portuguese Order of Engineers. I started my career in Portugal, but went to pursue graduate studies in London, where I lived for almost five years.

What were some of the motivating factors for you to go into civil engineering and geomatics and who were some influential people in your career path?

My father was a mariner and coastal pilot. As far as I can remember, he would point at stars, show me his sextant, and tell me how to determine our position. I learned how important positioning is for everything in life: transportation, building, utilities, traveling, military, etc.

In our household, there were kids of all ages. My oldest sibling pursued mathematics and was drafted by the Portuguese army to do surveying and cartography. He also instilled in me a love for photography, which I have enjoyed since I was about seven.  His influence made me see the world through math and how it applies and explains everything in our surroundings.

My love for math to solve problems propelled me into engineering. I just was not sure which type of engineering. I wanted something different, something unique. I wanted to be able to solve people's problems in ways connected to the use of photography, geometry, and positioning. Geospatial engineering was it.

While at University College London, I came to appreciate the many possibilities of applying the technology that is usually used in geomatics. I felt on top of the world being in a department where the positioning know-how was being used -- from 3D virtual reality and fly throughs to planetary mapping, medicine, automation, building reconstruction, etc.

Adding my love for Legos (I am an avid fan and collector to this day), combining geospatial engineering with civil engineering made perfect sense!

What was your engineering education like?

I was accepted and enrolled in the Geospatial Engineering program at the University of Porto at a time when the engineering curriculum involved a minimum of five years. But first, I had to complete general education courses and a national examination before being accepted in the program. The curriculum included common calculus, physics, electromagnetism, etc..; and an additional broad range of courses from optics and astrophysics, through geodetic astronomy, photogrammetry, and GPS and positioning-related courses. A special component of my education at the University of Porto involved international opportunities: I was part of a special educational program and thus allowed to take courses abroad, or from international scholars.

I picked the United Kingdom as the next destination for my education. I pursued my studies at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and at the University College London. I got both my Master's and Ph.D. from the University of London, where I developed models for 3D modeling from airborne and spaceborne imagery, that were applied to mapping and positioning.  The diverse, international student body played an important role in my development as a person, as a scholar, and as a professional.

What are some important lessons you learned in your career path that you abide by still today?

As we grow in our professions, many of us tend to prefer the comfort of the well-known over the challenges of the unfamiliar. When faced with the challenges of the unknown, we tend to forget that these can be turned into opportunities. When I was younger, I used to accept such challenges faster. Recently, after spending many years serving one institution, I found it was hard to recognize an opportunity that lay somewhere else. An important lesson, then, is to recognize that opportunities can sometimes be hard to see.

But because opportunities do not often work out as expected, it is very important to be ready to adapt at a moment's notice.  Adaptation is at the basis of growth and success as we climb in our career. Even when my job seemed to be pretty well lined up, I had to face unexpected changes and find solutions on almost an annual basis. The capacity of adjusting to new situations and demands has always defined my success at work and with my network.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed at the job when you move into administrative roles. As responsibilities increase, so does stress. We all react differently to our environment. Protecting my inner energy has been the hardest lesson in my career. Only recently have I found ways to keep a protective membrane around me, to work on what's important, and not let other things affect me. 

What do you enjoy most about civil engineering and surveying and geomatics?

The common point between civil engineering and surveying and geomatics is the important role positioning plays. For the most part, civil engineering needs the data, surveying provides the data, and geomatics identifies new technologies and techniques to improve the accuracy, quality and delivery of the data. For most civil engineering projects, they all go hand in hand.

It is fascinating that so many civil engineering projects can't be designed without surveying data--whether these are related to land development, road design, or facilities and utilities management. It's the survey and data analysis that verifies the civil engineering project is accurate position during and after construction. I am very interested in emerging technologies and their applications in construction sites. I am also fascinated by the creativity of the younger generation of professionals. The new engineers are bridging between classical techniques and approaches to project design, to process optimization through technology.

As technology advances in both civil and surveying engineering, I am particularly interested in the evolution of education in these areas. How will higher education adapt to produce engineers who understand concepts and take maximum advantage from new technology? How will civil engineering respond to the demand for geospatial data while reducing this component in higher education programs? Politics is everywhere, including decisions that affect that intersection between civil engineering and positioning in general. I enjoy participating in discussions in both areas with professionals who may not even realize how connected they are and the impact they have on each other.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you see on the horizon in civil engineering and globally?

Civil engineering projects will increasingly become more complex and expensive. As tax payers and legislatures put more pressure on improving the status of our decaying infrastructure, utilities, maintenance and sustainability are already at the forefront of worldwide debates.

Although utilities are one of the pillars of engineering infrastructure, it is only in recent decades that these vital services received increasing prominence. One of our greatest challenges as a society and as engineers is to balance the cost of utilities maintenance and expansion. Without accurate data and the use of the most efficient and reliable technology and techniques, the price tag will be prohibitive. Accurate data will help pinpoint the problems to solve in our aging utilities infrastructure . New technology and techniques will expedite the work and reduce the costs.

As the population grows, the demands in the areas of transportation will also increase. There will be more transport of goods by sea, air, and ground, requiring appropriate infrastructure for the increasing moving of cargo across the globe. Although most cargo is transported close to the points of delivery by sea or air, the final delivery often impacts surface transportation . We will need to recover and expand roadways and look closely at using recycled materials (such as asphalt) to reduce the costs.

Finally, life cannot exist without water. We will need to put greater emphasis on how we use the water cycle and find better ways to optimize the way we use water, reduce waste, and improve its collection and distribution. There is an imbalance in the way water is used, impacting humankind in important areas from health to agriculture. Although there are many water-related initiatives, and much concern for the future, there is not a general agreement on what the possible solutions might be. One of the challenges is the cost of the supporting infrastructure necessary to move such initiatives forward.

What are some challenges for the future of surveying education?

Surveying education is at a cross roads. Traditional surveyors are concerned about the decrease of interest in the profession and the lack of educational programs. In general, people do not completely understand surveying as a profession and its relationship with engineering. Despite the high demand for geospatial/surveying professionals, the younger generation does not seek it as a career since there is no understanding of its importance as a whole. On the other hand, higher education cannot sustain small enrollment programs. Therefore, geomatics education has been reduced over the years.

Simultaneously, civil engineering education has cut its curriculum to respond to an increasing demand for faster graduation and broader programs. Surveying has been an easy topic to cut out of civil engineering programs. However, this denies the new generation of civil engineers are being denied the opportunity to understand new technologies in geomatics and geospatial positioning, which go beyond the historically offered surveying courses.

There is a growing concern among some civil engineers about a lack of understanding of the importance of geospatial engineering. The concern expands to the potential impact to the future of infrastructure, utilities, land development, and sustainability. The impact is not visible yet. The current generation of civil engineers is unaware of the problem since the great majority of them were not educated in the role of geomatics in civil engineering.

I am glad to see that ASCE UESI members are aware of the problem and the future impact to civil engineering. ASCE participation in the "Future of Surveying Forum" annual meetings and task forces is laudable. The role UESI plays will help define how positioning in general will be used in engineering. The alternative is letting others outside of ASCE define how civil engineering must conform to norms and policies.

Can you tell us about your current work and projects?

I just started a new position as Dean of the School of Engineering at the California State Maritime Academy. This new job is bringing me closer to my origin: the cross roads of the maritime industry, engineering and technology.

As an engineer, my individual interests are shifting toward the application of geomatics in unmanned autonomous vessels, and in underwater surveying. The school hired new faculty members with industry experience in under water cable systems and I expect developments in utilities engineering systems with maritime applications.

The university already has faculty expertise in renewable energy systems. One of my goals is to increase the education opportunities in new technology for autonomous vessels, and for the marine industry infrastructure. This may include curriculum development or development of student engineering projects opportunities. I intend to leverage my administrative position to generate opportunities for professional development of engineers in geomatics applications to the marine industry.

And your personal goals and plans for the next year?

My main goal for the next year will be adapting my engineering education skills to the marine industry programs and opportunities.

In my previous position at Cal Poly Pomona, I was fascinated by the civil engineering program for its vision in integrating civil engineering and geospatial engineering in ways that I had not seen anywhere else. Students graduate with the potential to be both P.E. and L.S., responding to a legal system that had identified civil engineers did not receive the necessary L.S. education anywhere else.  

At Cal Maritime, my first goal will be to bring new ideas and support to the newly formed School of Engineering. The maritime industry presents many areas for potential program development that attracted me. I am looking forward to exploring such ideas with the faculty, students, and stakeholders. Personally, I am already looking for personal growth in areas related to underwater surveying, autonomous vessels, and positioning technology related to the marine industry. Only time will tell how much I'll succeed in growing in these areas.