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Tonya Nilsson (Dr. T): The Future of Sustainable Cities

Tonya Nilsson (lovingly known as Dr. T) is a Civil Engineering lecturer at Santa Clara. She teaches structural and materials courses and develops hands-on, interactive methods of engineering instruction. Dr. T has a Ph.D. from UC Davis, a Masters from Stanford and a Bachelors from Cal Poly. She also advises the Engineers Without Borders club.


In this conversation, we discuss the social impact of civil engineers, what makes a great professor, the future of construction, engineers without borders, and Dr. T’s impressive outdoor hobbies.

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Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What kind of social impact do civil engineers make?


Tonya Nilsson: Now that I’ve reflected on it and gained some wisdom, I realized that civil engineers save more lives than any other profession in the world. Period. Doctors have nothing on civils.


Now I realize that when I design a building that does not fall down in an earthquake (which is not common in many parts of the world), then I have that impact. Goods and health services can get to people quickly because of transportation systems.

When you think about the Haiti earthquake, the death toll there was unacceptable, but the number of deaths that occurred post-earthquake due to cholera outweighed earthquake deaths. Cholera doesn’t occur in the United States because of civil engineers. There are so many places in the world where you turn on the tap and you can’t drink that water. We mindlessly turn on the tap and waste that precious water.


As one student once said, “civil engineers make inside possible.” So, you’re welcome.


GC: In thinking about the next 20-50 years with new technologies and people moving to cities, what role will civil engineers play? How will our cities look different in the future?


TN: In 2020 all new homes in California have to be net-zero. In 2030 all new commercial buildings will have to be net-zero. There’s so much happening with self-driving cars… then sensors on buildings… It’s exciting!

GC: What role have outdoor activities played in your life?


TN: I think the willingness—I don’t want to say take risks because I don’t consider myself a risk-taker—but it’s a sense of adventure. The climbing led me to be more of an outdoors person which led me to spend six months traveling around South America. It really built my empathy.


Outdoor sports are great. Anxiety is such a big thing now, and you have to go out and do something that brings you peace and fills your soul. My husband and I have been rock climbing now for 28 years. Then I have a large contingent of women I trail run with. I have an 18-miler scheduled this weekend. Many hours in nature in the foothills and it’s fabulous.


All of these things are challenging. All the things I do cause me to face fears and uncertainty. When you’re 8 miles out on a trail run and you have to get back and you’re tired, you can just give up or say “this is going to hurt a little, but I can get past it.”


When I go into Rwanda and see how these people live… I talk all the time about how soft we are as Americans. We work 8-hour days (ok most of us work a little more than that), but people there are sustenance farmers walking to get water and firewood. The adults are malnourished so that children can have three meals a day. Their lives are incredibly physical and it humbles me so much. Having these challenges reminds me that life isn’t always easy and that I’m so privileged to be able to create a challenge for myself.

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