He Founded an Engineering Group and Has His Own Research Lab

Vatsal Shah (left) in his lab with his adviser, NJIT Professor Dorairaja Raghu.

Here are a few things you should know about Vatsal Shah.

At age 23, he was one of the youngest persons in New Jersey to be licensed as a professional engineer. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers named him the 2013 “New Face of Civil Engineering.”

He works as project engineer for Hatch Mott MacDonald (HMM), where he has helped this global engineering firm create a geotechnical subpractice.

Though he works full-time, he’s also a part-time doctoral candidate at NJIT. He studies civil and environmental engineering, with a focus on geotechnical engineering -- the study of soil behavior.

He has his own laboratory in South Plainfield, where he models landfills and how they behave. Landfills take up valuable urban space and his research could help towns reclaim landfills for other uses. His lab is self-funded.

Sleep? What sleep? He routinely puts in 17-hour days -- long hours of work and study.

In 2014 the NJIT Alumni Association gave him the GeNext Award for Alumni Achievement. It’s an honor bestowed upon young alumni for significant professional accomplishments. He was the first NJIT grad to receive the award.

Despite these achievements, Shah admits he wasn’t always an achiever. When he was in high school, by his own admission, he was unmotivated, doing just enough work to get by. He was smart, but he lacked focus -- often didn’t feel challenged. When he took the SATs, he did exceedingly well but his grades remained mediocre. During his senior year, he realized he wanted to study engineering -- his father and great-grandfather were engineers -- and he found the perfect college for that: the Albert Dorman Honors College.

Shah and his father arranged a time to meet with Joel Bloom, then dean of the college and now president of NJIT. Bloom saw Shah’s potential, so he gave him a challenge: If Shah was to get all A’s during his last year of high school; he’d be admitted into the college. Shah took the challenge and ran with it – acing his last year: He was admitted into the Honors College. Since then, he hasn’t stopped running -- accumulating honors and accolades along the way. 

In this interview, Shah talks about how NJIT put him on the path to professional success and personal fulfillment.

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How did you get into engineering?

I was always predisposed to engineering. My grandfather was an architect and my father was a civil engineer. My father is known at NJIT for testing the concrete and steel that support buildings throughout the campus, including Laurel Hall, the dorm where I lived, as well as the library, where I really "lived," or spent all my time.   

Can you explain your lab research?

Generally, the purpose of my research is to understand and predict landfill settlement, especially their rates of gas generation. This work helps reclaim land and plan for green energy such as biogas created from the decomposition of the fill. In my lab, I’ve created and simulated mini landfills, and I measure how the organic fill material settles and decomposes with time. 

Why is this work important?

It’s for a combination of environmental and economic reasons. If we test and know how a landfill has  decomposed, then we know how it produces gas and how that gas can be used for green energy. An operator could capture the bio-gas and re-use it to power nearby homes. The tests will also tell us when it’s OK to build on landfills. Being able to predict when the sites could be re-used and how buildings and structures perform on the sites as they settle would allow for better reclamation. That land can then be re-used in valuable ways.

What is unique about your research?

Several methods exist to model landfill settlement, but none consider the rate of gas production and how it decomposes with time. I want to understand the variations caused by those changes and create a standard that can be used not just in N.J. but worldwide. Ultimately I want to create a process others can follow so testing can be performed for landfill settlement, gas production (green energy) and other analyses for engineering performance. My aim is to reclaim the land faster and more productively.

And you really fund the lab by yourself?

Yes, my lab is self-funded.  It’s essentially a small office with a large attached garage space. I pay for it by living at home, working full time at Hatch Mott, saving every penny and begging for any scholarship I can find. Ask me next about my nonexistent social life!  It is uncommon for a grad student to have his own lab- but some of the greats all started in garages -- think of Edison, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs -- so I’m just keeping with tradition!

Who are your academic advisers?

My adviser is Professor Dorairaja Raghu, who has been doing pioneering research on landfills since the 1980s. My co-adviser is Professor Taha Marhaba, the chairman of the civil and environmental engineering department at NJIT. Actually, my entire doctoral committee is brilliant – they have experience in industry and academia -- so I have great advice.  

Can you talk about your job?

I’m currently a project engineer with HMM, which is headquartered in Iselin, N.J. The firm is a strong supporter of NJIT alums -- we have more than 85 employees who are NJIT alums -- so it’s a great feeling to walk around and see all the NJIT pride. I've been working there full-time since 2008, immediately after graduating from NJIT with a degree in civil engineering.  I also earned a master’s degree from NJIT in 2009 while going to school at night. Through the years I learned that I have a passion for geotechnical engineering, and HMM has been extremely supportive of both my education as well as building my capabilities as a geotechnical engineer.

So you helped build the company's geotechnical capabilities?

Yes. Four years ago I created a geotechnical sub-practice within HMM’s environmental subdivision based in NJ. I manage a four-person team that focuses on geotechnical support for a large mix of projects for HMM.  I’ve noticed most people who start a new business practice or even manage are much older, but I was 23 when I started the group. I’ve been told it’s a remarkable feat for someone my age, but I think it shows even more the support of a great company. It’s been quite a challenge but at the same time it’s been a tremendous learning experience. I’ve pulled more all-nighters at work than during school, which I hate to admit, but it’s rewarding work, which is what matters most in life. 

What kind of projects does your group work on?

Engineering is ever-present, which is what I truly enjoy about this profession. We’ve worked on everything from bridges and tunnels, to schools and water treatment plans.

When a sinkhole opened up in Hackettstown this year and swallowed up a driveway and 500 feet of road, we were on the job to investigate the cause and design repairs to make it safe to pass again. Another project right now is designing a large school campus in Passaic for almost 3,000 students. Try designing multiple four-story school buildings on a site that used to be a lake with a thick, soft bottom and had been an old industrial complex and a hospital at different times! It’s great to be involved in the design of foundations and to understand the ground beneath these large, tall, and important structures -- and then to see your work in person.

How do you manage to both work and study?

With great family, friends and a sense of humor!  But I’m in what’s called an industry doctoral student: I work full time and go to school part-time while also doing research. There’s only a few of us in industry program, but it’s a perfect program for me and I’m grateful to NJIT for offering the program.

You’ve come a long way since Joel Bloom challenged you to get all A’s?

I enrolled in NJIT’s Albert Dorman’s Honors College in 2005 after President Bloom, then dean of the college, personally challenged me to find my best self.  A few months, ago I invited President Bloom to my lab and I gave him a presentation of my research. I also invited the president and CEO of Hatch Mott, Nicholas DeNichilo, as well as my colleagues and mentors. Both NJIT and HMM have believed in me and supported my research from the start, so I wanted to give them a special presentation of my work. I had lunch catered and we had a good time.  And, as fate would have it, a few years ago I had the pleasure of bumping into Albert Dorman of the Honors College while I was receiving my award from the American Society of Civil Engineers in Washington, D.C. He was shocked but pleasantly surprised to see one of his own at the ceremony.  I guess that means I’ve come full circle in life.

By Robert Florida