Andrew Loo: Engineering a better world

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Andrew Loo at Georgia TechFrom the moment he first picked up a Lego® block, Andrew Loo dreamed of becoming a civil engineer. That’s why he applied to Georgia Tech.

“I built entire cities from Legos® – with fire stations, harbors, airports, everything,” says the Alpharetta native.

“Everything you see on the Science Channel? I thought it was so cool. I was going to build that.”

Four years--and an undergraduate degree--later, Loo still has the passion that fueled his childhood dreams. But his academic interests have shifted.

That’s why he’s now a Georgia Tech graduate student, studying environmental engineering.

“My senior year at Tech, I took a class—Environmental Technology in the Developing World—and it got me really excited about environmental engineering. I saw a need for what environmental engineers do—help people get access to things like clean air and clean water that could really make a difference in their lives--and that my skills in civil [engineering] would still be needed.”

Loo says he would not have had this perspective if he had spent all of his time at Georgia Tech crunching numbers and checking codes.

“The number-crunching was a big part of it, of course, and I got used to the drill: 'keep working on the numbers until you get it right',” he said.

“But that didn’t excite me. I couldn’t see myself sitting in a lab or in an office all the time, checking equations.”

How did he know this?

Like many CEE undergraduates, Loo spent time in the field – as an intern at a civil engineering firm in Malaysia and as a field researcher in Nicaragua. In different ways, both experiences helped him rethink his academic and career goals.

“In the summer of 2012, I went to Malaysia where I was paired up with a licensed engineer to design an office building. I had to learn a new code – the British code – to get the work done. That was difficult, but I got it down after awhile. The hardest part was staying inside, doing the design work. I found I was a lot happier when I was outdoors, on site, checking the work.”

Andrew Loo surveying land for a water system in NicaraguaLoo had a very different experience the spring of 2013 when he visited Nicaragua with his environmental engineering class. There, he was tasked with helping villagers upgrade their old, contaminated wells into a safe and sustainable water distribution system.

“What you see is that it takes them so much time to gather water that they don’t have time to do other things, like go to school. It’s a really clear trade-off,” he said. “And I found that every day I was there, I couldn’t wait to get up and get to work. I loved it.”

After graduating from Georgia Tech in May, Loo returned to Nicaragua to do four weeks of follow-up field research before starting graduate school this fall. Using a free water modeling software program, he reviewed data on the age, chlorination levels, and pressure that was needed for the new system. He also taught villagers how to use surveying equipment so they could complete the project.

Andrew Loo surveying land“The age of the water matters because if the water hasn’t been chlorinated long enough, it may not of had enough time to disinfect all of the pathogens in it. I used my civil skills to help them begin constructing a water tank.”

If Loo had had any reservations about switching his graduate school focus from civil to environmental engineering, it ended with that return trip to Nicaragua.

"The way I look at it is maybe the child that I help as an environmental engineer just needed a better chance at life. Because getting clean water made his life a little more manageable, he didn’t get sick, so he could go to school. Maybe he could then do something really great that could truly benefit the world.”

Now that's a career.