Plenary Profiles

Words from the Front Line

CEOs of two very different organizations talk about changes in the global economy and what engineers need to know to keep pace.

The plenary/opening session of ASEE's Annual Conference & Exposition will be conducted on Monday, June 21, at 8:30 a.m. and will feature presentations by Richard B. Priory and Ralph Snyderman.

By Ray Bert

Power Player

Richard P. Priory

  • Age: 53
  • Occupation: Chairman of the Board, CEO, Duke Energy Corporation
  • Hobbies: Golf, investing, family
  • Favorites Movie: Planes, Trains, and Automoblies
  • Quote: "Let's just quit talking and get it done."
  • Favorite Restaurant: The Palm (Charlotte)
  • Favorite Teacher: Mr. Herzog, 11th & 12th grade mechanical drafting. "I probably wouldn't have gone to engineering school if not for him."

As CEO of Duke Energy Corporation, a $24 billion international energy firm, Richard B. Priory controls, among other things, pipelines that supply 12 percent of the natural gas consumed by the United States. But he is just as concerned about a pipeline of a different sort-the one that supplies his company and industry in general with a steady stream of engineering talent. "We aren't lacking engineers, but we are having a shortage of those engineers who are fully qualified to step in and hit the ground running," Priory says.

Priory himself is familiar with engineering education from both sides of the lectern. Now chairman of the board  and chief executive officer of Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corporation, Priory holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the West Virginia Institute of Technology and a master's in engineering from Princeton University, and spent three years as a structural engineering professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte before joining Duke Power in 1976.

In light of the conference theme "Engineering: Education to Serve the World," Priory says he plans to talk about the significant role of engineers in corporations' global dynamics. His industry has recently seen the downside of globalization. "We're still in the throes of dealing with unrest in the monetary systems in Asia," he says. "In many ways it's an engineering chore: plotting your way through a problem and still making a profit." Priory adds that many countries are deregulating and privatizing formerly government-run power generation facilities in an effort to reduce energy costs to consumers through greater efficiency.

Changing to meet customer demands is something that Priory feels is also applicable to education. From his vantage point, engineering schools today are doing a good job in this respect. "They seem to have a better understanding that they need to change with the needs of the marketplace," he says.

But what kind of changes? What skills does an engineer need to get a job in the power industry today? "When I graduated, a grounding in engineering fundamentals was ample ticket," Priory notes. "Today, the price of admission is a little higher." In particular, he says that engineers at Duke Energy need to understand the global and commercial aspects of the business to be successful, because engineers are "deeply involved" in decisions in those areas. And especially in an industry that has historically been tightly regulated, Priory says that engineers would be wise to learn-and schools to teach-how government mandates affect a company's performance and day-to-day operation. The United States has taken steps toward deregulation, but Priory maintains that we are behind other countries in that respect. Still, "There are regulatory decisions daily that affect our industry," he says.

Priory also notes that Internet savvy has become "a competitive necessity," even in his industry. As a case in point, he mentions a recent Duke business transaction in Santiago, Chile, in which "things occurred on the 15 minutes" and would have been much more difficult without the rapid and reliable communications capability of the Net. "Paperwork be damned-it just doesn't work anymore," he says.

But even with the growing need for engineers with nontechnical skills, solid engineering fundamentals and technical creativity are still, of course, vitally important. Priory says that development of better energy conversion and oil and gas recovery methods, in particular, have turned technology advances into a "competitive weapon" in the energy industry.

Though Priory's engineering education may not have been broad enough by today's standards, it did launch him on a career that included a rise through the ranks from design engineer to the very top of an industry giant. And he maintains that in addition to technical knowledge, he learned lessons during his education that he still uses every day. The most important? "If you work hard, a lot of other things will take care of themselves."

21st Century Doc

Ralph Synderman

  • Age: 59
  • Occupation: Chancellor for the Health Affairs, Dean of the School of Medicine, Duke University; CEO, Duke University Health System
  • Hobbies: Running, skiing, hiking, reading
  • Favorites Movie: Young Frankenstein
  • Quote: "The harder I work, the luckier I get."
  • Favorite Restaurant: Nana's (Durham)
  • Favorite Teacher: Ludwig Eichna, M.D., professor of medicine, SUNY-Downstate. "He taught me about professionalism."



When Ralph Snyderman, M.D., accepted his first faculty appointment as an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University in 1972, he couldn't have had any idea how closely he would end up working with engineers within his chosen profession. Yet nearly 30 years later, as Duke's chancellor of health affairs, dean of the school of medicine, and CEO of the Duke University Health System, Snyderman often finds himself discussing engineering and medicine in the same breath-at times as if they were not separate disciplines at all.

"There has certainly been a convergence of medical and engineering technologies," Snyderman says. "And there is a tremendous opportunity for biomedical engineering to impact the quality of healthcare." As evidence, he cites the genomics revolution, and the importance of biomaterials in creating artificial organs and joints.

Snyderman, a featured speaker at ASEE's annual conference, will address the conference theme of "Engineering: Education to Serve the World" by discussing the globalization wrought by the Internet on the medical profession-issues that are parallel to changes in engineering practice. "The sharing of information-through both communication and collaboration-is very important to research, which is very important to medicine," he says, adding that information technology also makes continuing medical education and medical consultation between doctors in different countries more feasible.

After earning his medical degree from SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in 1965, Snyderman spent five years as a public health officer at the National Institutes of Health before joining Duke as an immunology and rheumatology specialist. His research helped determine how white blood cells respond to chemical signals to defend against tissue damage, and he is an internationally recognized authority on inflammation research.

Snyderman briefly left Duke in 1987 to join pioneering biomedical technology firm Genentech, Inc., as vice president for medical research and development. Since returning to Duke in 1989 as chancellor, he has often been called upon to contribute to the national debate on healthcare reform.

The biggest challenge in the healthcare profession remains reconciling quality medical care with the need for insurers to make money and for hospitals-even nonprofits such as Duke-to stay afloat. Snyderman, who was recently quoted in Time magazine as saying "The whole managed care system could kill us," feels that there is a lesson for the engineering profession in the healthcare tussle: the ability of a profession to perform well in circumstances where a conflict exists between "providing a social good and satisfying vested financial interests."

There are other parallels between the fields, as well. Duke's status as a teaching hospital places it in a position-familiar to engineering schools-of trying to find sufficient time for both teaching and procuring revenue through grants. "We expect excellent teachers," Snyderman says, "but it isn't easy to quantify scholarly achievement in teaching-though that may be debatable." He says that Duke has challenged the faculty to come up with an effective teaching "yardstick."

With the ties between engineering and medicine growing stronger and the lines between the two beginning to blur in some areas, transfers between the disciplines seem like a bankable trend. But do engineers make good doctors? "My subjective opinion is that engineers do very well in medical school, because they have many of the necessary problem-solving skills," Snyderman says. He suspects that engineers in general would need to enhance the "social and humanistic" skills that medicine requires. Still, he concludes, "Some of the best students I've had have engineering backgrounds."

And what of the revolution in medical procedures that practicing engineers are bringing about-not just in the biomedical area, but software and computer engineers? "The ability of, for example, an attending cardiologist to instantly pull up a patient's years-old angiogram or X ray is transforming for medicine," he says. "And this is just the beginning."

Ray Bert is associate editor of PRISM.


return to PRISM online