Eric Bristow saw his career path early on as a systems engineering major at UVA. Graduating in 1999, he now has 20 years of experience as a consultant, 17 of them at Deloitte Consulting LLP.
“I really enjoyed the problem-solving case study approach that we learned in the systems engineering program. It was applied instead of theoretical. We analyzed real problems. We weren’t just learning the technology and science, our professors taught us to communicate what it means,” Bristow said. He particularly recalled studying the space shuttle Challenger tragedy and the role communication played.
Those case studies and the influence of professors such as Donald E. Brown, James W. Lark III and emeritus professor K. Preston White Jr. led Bristow to his career. “They showed us how consultants use the engineering discipline to solve problems,” he said.
Much of his work at Deloitte is for the federal government, focusing on complex transportation systems and supply chains. In 2010, for instance, he helped roll out the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight program that matches passenger information against the terrorist watch list.
“More than two million people fly on 250 or so airlines in this country every day,” Bristow said. “The government had to set up a security system that didn’t interrupt commerce and implement it across all of those airlines. It’s a big challenge and interesting to work on.”
Bristow is an active alumnus, giving back to UVA as a donor and colloquia presenter. He’s also working to continue Deloitte’s funding of capstone projects and is involved in recruiting and career development programs on Grounds such as the Deloitte Consulting National Undergraduate Case Competition.
When he heard last year that civil and environmental engineering and systems were combining to create a new department, he reacted on two levels.
“Those two don’t go together, was the initial thought,” Bristow said. “You’ve got a lot of pride in your major and what you studied, and you don’t want it to go away. Also, I generally know what I can expect when I hire a UVA systems engineer. My thought was if that’s going to change, I need to prepare for it.”
Then he talked to Brian L. Smith and Peter A. Beling, respective chairs of the civil and environmental and systems and information engineering departments at the time, and the change made sense.
“Smart cities, smart infrastructure, for example, there’s no bigger engineering challenge than civil systems,” he said. “Civil and systems are heavily integrated today, and we’re missing something if we’re not thinking about them in those terms.”
He was also pleased that interdisciplinary opportunities for undergraduates will expand, and graduate research is already occurring across disciplines. UVA is among the first universities to remove institutional barriers, making its research and educational programs that much stronger.
“The intersection of systems and civil engineering and the way they interact with the environment to me is one of the most exciting areas in engineering today,” Bristow said. “Look at autonomous vehicles — that is a systems concept and a civil concept that people need to be planning around. There’s going to be a ton of really cool groundbreaking work going forward. In my opinion, this new department shows UVA is leading in educating the next generation of engineers.”