Alumni Spotlight: Steven Chapra

When Steven Chapra (PhD ’82) was 10-years-old he wrote a letter that marked the beginning of his work in environmental engineering.

“I wrote to [U.S. Senator] Barry Goldwater telling him that I did not think damming the Grand Canyon was such a good idea,” Chapra says.

Today, Chapra holds the Louis Berger Chair for Computing and Engineering in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Tufts University. He is also a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and in 2013 he was chosen as one of the five inaugural Fellows of the Association of Environmental Engineering & Science Professors (AEESP).

His motivation for environmental engineering started with his love for the outdoors. He was introduced to fly fishing through an outdoors club he joined as a child in New York City. The trips to the NYC reservoirs were inspiring and he has gone on to fish around the world.

“My fly fishing is part of why I stayed in engineering, so I could be outside and work on  the water.”

Chapra’s primary professional goal is to “apply engineering, mathematics and computing to maintain a high-quality environment in a wise and cost-efficient fashion and to share this knowledge with others.”

Chapra adds that “keeping the environment clean and healthy” is something he considers a family value. He was taught by his father to be a steward to the environment and passed that value on to his son.

Chapra has served the environment using his computer skills. He’s developed several environmentally-oriented software packages, including QUAL2K and LAKE2K, which are widely used for river and lake water-quality modeling. He learned about computers while earning his PhD at U-M.

“My education at Michigan was really excellent in terms of computing.”

As a student, Chapra and his advisor Professor Ray Canale established computer courses for engineers and realized they needed a textbook. Together, they wrote Numerical Methods for Engineers, which was the first textbook to come with a floppy disc companion. It has been adopted at over 150 universities throughout the world.

Chapra says developing the book was “so exciting because we really changed the way people taught computers to engineers.”

Writing such a successful text was a memorable part of Chapra’s time at U-M but he says what he remembers most is raising his son in Ann Arbor.

“I was a single parent while I got my degree and the thing I remember the most was trying to write my dissertation while bringing up my son… I would take him to the U-M games, Bo [Schembechler] gave my son an autographed poster.”

Chapra also developed his friendship with Canale, which remains strong to this day.

“I was sitting in his [Canale’s] office and he rode in on a bicycle wearing a hockey jersey and carrying a hockey stick on his back. That was the start of our friendship.”

When he completed his PhD, Chapra took an associate professor position at Texas A&M University. After four years he moved on to become a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and after eight years there he started at Tufts University where he has worked since 1999.

He has been recognized as an outstanding teacher at Texas A&M (1986 Tenneco Award), Colorado (1992 Hutchinson Award) and Tufts (2011 Professor of the Year Award).

His advice for students is “to look for the thing they have a passion for…I followed my heart and I have been so happy. I’m getting paid to do my hobby!”

In every last lecture Chapra gives in one of his courses, he shares his tips on life.

“I say health, family, friends and doing something you love to do are the keys to life.”


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