Published June 4, 2020
When Robert Harrison graduated from the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1983, he was brimming with passions and interests. While he didn’t know where exactly his career would take him, he was confident that his education and training as an engineer could provide the foundation he would need—to explore, to work collaboratively, and to make a difference.
Over the last 37 years, Harrison has again and again found this to be true, working in the engineering/construction industry to build industrial gas facilities, chemical processing plants and energy infrastructure around the world, all while giving back to the UB community.
It was for this dedication and commitment to guiding the next generation of engineers that Harrison was honored with the Dean’s Award for Achievement, the highest honor presented by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Awarded annually to recognize exceptional professional achievements and/or substantial contributions to the practice of engineering or applied sciences, the Dean’s Award also carries the distinction of the awardee addressing the graduating class.
“Leadership is influence, and Bob's leadership has significantly influenced the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in many ways,” says Kemper Lewis, SEAS dean. “I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Bob for the past six years and have the utmost respect for his commitment to excellence, his integrity in leadership, and his generosity in serving our programs in so many ways. I am forever grateful for his dedication to UB, to our students, and to being a leader of character.”
“I have tried to live my life by the philosophy of ‘anything worth doing is worth doing right,’” says Harrison, who is currently the vice president of engineering and construction at Transmission Developers, Inc. “It is enormously satisfying when an organization that you have the utmost respect for recognizes you for your accomplishments.”
During his video address to students as part of the school’s virtual commencement ceremony, Harrison said that one of the key takeaways from his career has been the value of getting outside of your comfort zone.
“While the entire world is living outside their comfort zone during these times, the engineering world is playing a vital role in helping us to understand how to best navigate our way through the unknown and save lives,” Harrison told the Class of 2020. He gave several examples of how engineers have risen to the challenges of this difficult time and make a difference—in data and analysis, swift construction of emergency structures and production of medical supplies.
And, he looked to the next chapter of our country’s story. “Moving forward, sometime soon, we will be looking at this challenge in the rearview mirror and focusing on economic recovery. One crucial way to accomplish this is through investment in infrastructure. In the renewable energy sector, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created to speed our transition to carbon free energy sources. In the transportation sector, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created to build out and rehabilitate our roads, bridges and transit systems.”
“What do these initiatives have in common?” he asked. “Both demand the unique skillsets of engineers of all disciplines.”
Harrison’s perspective draws on his long and varied career, which began in the natural gas industry as plant supervisor/field engineer in a liquefied natural gas plant for a predecessor company to National Grid. He progressed into a senior project management role at Linde AG, where he carried out design and build projects around the world. This appointment included a three-year work assignment in Germany, which was a life-changing experience for Harrison, his wife Gilda (BA ’84, BS ’86) and family.
During his time with EMCOR Group, Harrison began as vice president of operations. However, upon seeing the opportunities presented by changing energy markets, Harrison took on the role of vice president, construction services in EMCOR’s energy subsidiary. In his most recent role as vice president, energy infrastructure at AECOM, he led the turnaround of their unprofitable energy division making it the fastest growing unit at AECOM.
Since 2015, Harrison has been a leader at Transmission Developers, Inc., a project development company that brings large-scale renewable power to urban load centers via high voltage, direct current transmission lines.
Harrison has returned to UB to talk about his varied, dynamic professional experience at the annual SEAS Career Perspectives and Networking Conferences and in more casual talks with students. In 2018, he was honored for his dedication to connecting with students with the SEAS Mentor of the Year award.
“Interacting with students is very rewarding,” Harrison says. “These very smart, young people are about to embark on what will hopefully be a rewarding career and if I can play a very small part in helping to nudge them in a helpful direction, that is all the thanks I need.”
Harrison also serves on the school’s Dean’s Advisory Council and as chairman of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering’s Advisory Board, where he has been able to see the positive effects the board’s recommendations have had on the department.
“I have been extraordinarily blessed to have had such a rewarding career that afforded me so many opportunities to travel, to indulge my intellectual passions and to have so much fun. And it all started at UB.”