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BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY STACY NEWGENT
J.P. Mohsen

PROJECTING A CAN-DO SPIRIT

Once drawn to movie-making, ASEE's president remains a man of action.


Had he pursued his own youthful inclinations, the man who is now ASEE's president might never have entered engineering. Growing up in Iran, J.P. Mohsen had celluloid aspirations: "I wanted to go into television and cinema," he recalls. "I studied and followed it every minute of my time." He had even been accepted to a college in Tehran that specialized in the field. His father had different plans, however: "He said 'OK' - but it was one of those 'OKs' we've all heard before. Basically it was, 'Don't you dare!'" As a superintendent of schools, Mohsen Sr. had traveled to the United States and, duly impressed with its education system, wanted his son to attend an American college. So after graduating from high school, Mohsen left Iran for the first time at the age of 17, enrolling at the University of Louisville.

Mohsen doesn’t question his father’s choice. “Sending me to the U.S. was a real sacrifice for my parents,” he says. “They weren’t rich. How many people make it in the film business?” He also decided that if he were to get a degree, he wanted to see a good return on the investment: Civil engineering seemed an ideal choice. At the time, Iran was awash in construction projects, from dams to skyscrapers. All the same, Mohsen never abandoned his interest in photography. He held several exhibits of his work during his undergraduate years and helped pay his way through college working as a wedding photographer. Even today, should you visit his office, you’ll find some of his best shots handsomely framed and displayed.

Coming to a new country with only a rudimentary facility with spoken English proved daunting, but Mohsen immersed himself in his new culture. “I even had luncheons at the Baptist student union so I could socialize and improve my English,” he says. Academically, he found that his schooling in Iran had prepared him well for engineering, particularly in math. During his first year, he tutored several other students in calculus. “I never loved math, but I learned it and did well in it,” he says, adding, “We keep saying you have to be good in math; and you do have to be good. But you don’t necessarily have to love it. You just have to accept it and learn it.”

Forced to Decide

Throughout his undergraduate years, Mohsen intended to return to Iran to practice engineering. But historical events set him on a new course. By the time he flew home in the summer of 1979, the American-backed shah of Iran had fled, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had become the country’s new leader. When, in November, Iranian militants overran the U.S. Embassy, holding 52 Americans captive for more than a year, relations between the two countries became increasingly bitter. Though filled with uncertainty in this turbulent environment, Mohsen eventually came to a realization: “I had to make up my mind and stop putting my life on hold. I decided to continue pursuing my education in the U.S.”

He returned to Louisville, and after completing a master’s degree in engineering, was offered a position as an instructor in statics by the engineering dean, Harry Saxe. It was then that Mohsen discovered a new passion: teaching. From the outset, he was a natural.

Former student Michael Osborne recalls being impressed enough by the first undergraduate course he took with Mohsen to choose him as his master’s thesis adviser. “He would do whatever it took to make you succeed,” says Osborne. “I was a hands-on, mixing-concrete type of guy, and he helped come up with a project that worked well for my thesis. He was very adaptable. If someone wanted to read a book all day long, he could make something work for them; if you liked to work with a shovel in your hand, he’d find something for you, too.” Osborne adds that he has rarely met a professor as personable as Mohsen. “He’s the type of person who’s never met a stranger. I’ve known him for almost 20 years, and I’ve never seen the guy in a bad mood.”

Mohsen topped off his first master’s with a second one in engineering management. He also continued teaching, and “that was the first time in my life that I got the idea that I might want to get a job as a faculty member in engineering. Before, I thought it might be a gig I’d just do for a couple of years.” Once he decided on an academic career, Mohsen took a leave of absence from Louisville to complete a doctorate at the University of Cincinnati. There, he researched a technique known as white-topping: laying a thin layer of concrete over an existing asphalt pavement. Though now a commonly accepted practice in pavement rehabilitation, at the time, white-topping was a novel concept and one that contributed to significantly to reducing the cost of highway construction.

A Teacher's Quest

It was while Mohsen was still working on his Ph.D. that ASEE held its 1986 annual conference in Cincinnati. His department chair, Jim McDonough, suggested he attend. Mohsen felt ASEE offered something he hadn’t found elsewhere: guidance on how to improve his teaching. Other technical society meetings had helped him refine his skills as a researcher, “but what was lacking was finding mentors and places where I could learn to teach better.” ASEE’s New Engineer Educators division particularly appealed, especially with its “Tricks of the Trade” sessions, where seasoned professors share their best classroom strategies. “I absolutely loved those sessions,” Mohsen recalls.

Ever since that first engagement, Mohsen has been a dedicated ASEE member, serving in more than a dozen positions, from campus representative to member of the Board of Directors. Familiar to many through his activities, Mohsen has gained respect for his efforts. Former President Jerry Jakubowksi was introduced to him in the late ’90s, when Mohsen was a national campus rep. “He’s a real go-getter and a hard worker with new ideas,” says Jakubowski. Former President Wally Fowler agrees: “J.P. infects those around him with his energy and enthusiasm. He isn’t afraid to put a new idea on the table and then volunteer to implement it.” Adds Fowler, “He’s a doer — he’s not someone waiting for things to happen. He says, ‘How can we make it happen?’ and he goes out and does it.” Several former ASEE presidents contacted by Prism said they always felt that Mohsen’s can-do attitude, wealth of ideas, and easygoing personality would propel him to the top of the organization.

A formal training process could help new faculty become more effective in the classroom, says Mohsen. “That’s something that is missing right now.”

That attitude was reflected in his efforts to improve the system for campus representatives’ annual reports. Mohsen helped pioneer use of an electronic version of the reports, which led to a sharp rise in the number submitted, and ultimately enabled ASEE to gain a better understanding of the state of engineering education on U.S. campuses. As a national campus rep, Mohsen threw himself into creating activities and technical sessions for campus reps at the annual meetings. In 2006-07, he played a central role coordinating the Year of Dialogue activities.

Mohsen recognizes that during the year of his presidency, he has to focus on what he wants to accomplish. “You can be very grandiose in your plans,” he says. “You need to be very reasonable in what you can do.” Nonetheless, he has a number of goals. The Year of Dialogue work has resulted in a plan that now has to be implemented. He also hopes to encourage more global outreach at ASEE. And he wants to improve faculty development. A formal training process could help new faculty become more effective in the classroom, says Mohsen. “That’s something that is missing right now.”

While leading ASEE, Mohsen continues to pursue research interests. He is working with electrical engineering and physics colleagues at the University of Louisville to develop a system using remote sensing to evaluate the condition of bridges. Current procedures require that workers physically climb the bridges to inspect for structural integrity. At U of L, they aim to develop a more affordable and effective alternative, one that could help prevent disasters like the 2007 failure of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis.

Combine that effort with his continuing role as chair of the civil engineering department at Louisville and you have a scenario that probably won’t leave much time for Mohsen and his wife, Carol, a psychiatric therapist, to indulge in their favorite pastime – cruises. The two have taken almost 30, including five to Alaska and one through the Panama Canal. But Jim Melsa, ASEE president in 2008, has no doubt that Mohsen will achieve all his goals. Melsa describes his colleague as someone who has “a great joy of life.” He adds that Mohsen “is also intense, with a deep commitment to do things. I’m sure that that bias towards action will prove helpful for him in the year ahead.”


Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.

 

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