By Jennifer Herseim and Kari Lloyd
Georgia Tech Alumni Association
Members of the CEE community were recognized by the Georgia Tech Alumni Association for their achievements, dedication to the Institute, and commitment to service as part of the 2022 class of Gold & White Honorees.
Mike Messner, CE 76, was awarded the Joseph Mayo Pettit Distinguished Service Award, the highest award conferred by the Alumni Association in honor of his outstanding support of Georgia Tech and community service. Rafael Bras, K. Harrison Brown Family Chair and professor, and Reginald DesRoches, former Karen and John Huff School Chair, earned the Honorary Alumni Award in recognition of their devotion to the greater good of Georgia Tech.
The awards were conferred at the Gold & White Honors Gala on Feb. 3. Below, learn more about the honorees and their many personal and professional accomplishments.
K. Harrison Brown Family Chair and Professor
The field of hydrology is almost unrecognizable today versus what it looked like when Rafael L. Bras graduated in 1972.
“Everything has changed so fast that what I learned originally is now wrong. It’s been a great time to be a hydrologist,” Bras says.
Granted, Bras played a large part in the field’s evolution over the last five decades. His research in ecohydrology—or as he describes it, “the close waltz between the water cycle, the Earth’s surface, vegetation, and the atmosphere,”—has contributed to modern hydrology, which today acknowledges the interaction between land masses and the atmosphere at a much more global scale than previously.
Bras’ research and consulting work has taken him around the world, from studying the impact of deforestation in the Amazon to advising on flood control in Venice to investigating how the rain forest in Puerto Rico (where he was born) responds to and recovers from hurricanes. He maintains an active international consulting practice alongside mentoring and teaching the next generation of scientists, who will go forth to transform the field even further.
Bras earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and D.Sc. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also spent 32 years in the faculty of the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. Among many awards, Bras is an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Puerto Rico, and the Academies of Science and Engineering of Mexico. He was distinguished professor and dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine.
In 2010, Bras came to Tech to serve as the Institute’s provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs. “I was convinced that Georgia Tech presented a profile of a university that was willing to take risks and was on the right trajectory. I wasn’t disappointed,” he says.
Under Bras’ leadership, Tech opened the Shenzhen campus in China, launched the successful Online Master of Science in Computer Science program, adjusted the academic calendar, and reimagined the modern university library through the Library Next initiative. He also launched Arts@Tech, which has brought a new degree of creativity to curriculum and to campus spaces.
In 2020, he stepped down as provost, remaining a professor of civil engineering at the Institute.
“Being provost was one of the most fun times of my life. It not only allowed me to work with very bright people, but to help an institution that had a culture of excellence and of risk taking, which resonated with me.”
President of Rice University
Growing up, Reginald DesRoches had all the traits of a destined engineer—he was good at science and math and always tinkering. But the “A-ha” moment that made him want to become a civil engineer was literally Earth-shaking.
In 1989, he was a mechanical engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, when he experienced his first major earthquake. “It got me completely fascinated with earthquakes,” DesRoches says. “As an engineer, it got me thinking about why some things collapse and some don’t.” That curiosity drove him to become a civil engineer and expert in seismic risk engineering.
Building better, stronger structures doesn’t end with his research. As a leader in higher education, DesRoches makes organizations stronger, too. Since July of 2020, he has served as the provost of Rice University. This November, DesRoches was named Rice’s eighth president. When he takes office, he will become the first Black person and first immigrant to lead the university.
Born in Haiti, DesRoches returned to his country of birth in 2010 to lead a team of engineers as part of response efforts following one of the country’s most catastrophic earthquakes. The experience reinforced why engineering matters, he says.
“I had been to various earthquake sites before, but I’d never seen anything like the earthquake in Haiti,” DesRoches says. “It emphasized the work that we do as engineers. That really brought home to me the importance of building things safely.”
In 1998, DesRoches joined Georgia Tech’s faculty as an assistant professor. He rose quickly through the ranks to become the Karen and John Huff School Chair and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. During his time at Tech, DesRoches oversaw significant changes to the school, including the complete renovation of the civil engineering building, a rise in the number of endowed chairs, and the increase in the school’s graduate rankings to No. 2 in the country (U.S. News & World Report).
As he looks ahead to the future of Rice University, DesRoches says he’ll take a page from Georgia Tech’s playbook.
“Tech is absolutely a leader in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is a major focus for us at Rice,” he says. “Tech also has one of the best research reputations in the world. In a way, we’re at the early stages of what I saw Tech doing while I was there, in terms of becoming the research powerhouse that it is today. I’d like to see Rice get there, too.”
Among numerous recognitions and awards, DesRoches was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2020, received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2002, and is a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Mike Messner, CE 76
Co-CEO & Portfolio Manager, Seminole Management Company, Inc. (Retired)
Civil engineering might not seem like the ideal background for a successful career on Wall Street, but Mike Messner is here to prove you wrong.
Having founded the profitable hedge-fund Seminole Capital and led it for 23 years before his retirement, Messner says more than any formal financial education, his undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech set him up for success.
“I often say that more civil engineers should think about careers like this. Civil engineers build things that last a very long time. Having that long-term perspective is a very good way of looking at investing—or really any set of problems.”
With his wife, Jenny, the Messners’ philanthropic giving has contributed significantly to the enrichment of the sciences, culture, and community. They founded the Speedwell Foundation, which provides full study abroad scholarships to students in central Pennsylvania and supports efforts to restore and expand public parks and green spaces in major U.S. cities. The Messners’ support also made possible a new, one-of-a-kind, solar-powered endangered species carousel at the Smithsonian National Zoo. The carousel includes hand-carved and hand-painted representations of endangered species, with one exception—a yellow jacket.
The Messners were also early supporters of the G. Wayne Clough Georgia Tech Promise Program and supporters of the Frederick Law Olmsted Professorships in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Giving back to Georgia Tech has been a central part of Messner’s life, and his support is helping the Institute maintain its position as a leader in higher education by recruiting and retaining outstanding faculty. In 2018, Messner launched the Messner Faculty Endowment Challenge, which supports the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering through dollar-for-dollar matching, up to $5 million, for endowed faculty chairs. He has also supported the Rafael Bras Scholarship Endowment. Messner, a member of The Hill Society, has also served on the Georgia Tech Foundation Board of Trustees and the Civil and Environmental Engineering Advisory Board.
He is currently a Professor of the Practice for the Scheller College of Business and the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, where he teaches courses on management and civil engineering to the next generation of problem-solvers.
“When you grow up in Atlanta, you know that Georgia Tech is a really good school, but it’s not until you go away that you realize how important that education has been,” Messner says. “And the model of ‘Progress and Service’ is just as good a model as you can have for any university.”
Messner’s outstanding contributions to the Georgia Tech community are a clear example of the Institute’s model of “Progress and Service” at work.