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An Interview with Sebastian Bryson the College of Engineering’s First Black Full Professor

February 18, 2022

In the spirit of Black History Month, we are publishing an interview with L. Sebastian Bryson, Hardin-Drnevich-Huang Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, who became the College of Engineering’s first Black full Professor on July 1, 2021.

Bryson joined the UK College of Engineering faculty in 2006 after teaching at Ohio University for five years. He worked as a geotechnical engineer for CH2M Hill for six years before earning his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 2002. Bryson holds a joint appointment in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and just began a term as the Department of Civil Engineering’s director of graduate studies.

In 2021, Bryson was granted Diplomate, Geotechnical Engineering (D.GE) certification by the Academy of Geo-Professionals. 

What were your thoughts when you were notified that you were being promoted to full professor?

For me, it felt like a load had been lifted from my shoulders. Being promoted to full professor announces to the world that you have achieved the level of senior faculty. I was really happy about that. It was one of the few times when I’ve pumped my fists and yelled, “Yes!”

The funny thing is, I was never in doubt. I knew my dossier would stand for itself, and my department chair, Reg Souleyrette, had encouraged me to go up for full professor. I felt very confident in my publications, the amount of grant money I’ve been awarded, the number of Ph.D. students I’ve graduated and the quality of my teaching. While it was never in doubt, it still felt good.

What are your thoughts on being the College of Engineering’s first Black full professor?

I’m a Black civil engineer who grew up in the 70s and 80s. I’ve always been the first, the only, or one of two or three. When I joined the Department of Civil Engineering in 2006, I was the first Black faculty member in the department. But it wasn’t until I went up for full professor that I realized that I would be the first Black full professor in the 156-year history of the college. One of my colleagues heard that and said, “That can’t be right. It’s 2021!”

What do you say when people express surprise like that?

I say we’re engineers, so let the data be the data. How many Black and Latino students are enrolled in engineering at the undergraduate level? Master’s level? Ph.D. level? How about at the faculty level? How about within the SEC? There are so few of us and we’re not producing enough. When you start looking at it that way, what else do you expect?

But I would be remiss if I did not make clear that I have had an excellent support system around me since coming to UK. When George Blandford—who was department chair at the time—hired me, he was very cognizant of the pitfalls that Black faculty fall into at predominantly white institutions. As soon as you walk through the door, they want you to be the chief diversity on everything. They want you on every diversity committee, task force and panel. But those are tremendous drains on your time and resources, and not only do they not count toward tenure, you’re penalized because when you’re engaged in those activities, you’re not writing proposals, graduating students or writing papers.

George Blandford recognized that, and he told the dean at the time that he didn’t want me to get involved in any of that until after I had been awarded tenure. I was very appreciative of that. Later, once I became tenured, I could participate in those kinds of things.

What do you think this means for the college? 

When I discovered I’m the first Black full professor, I began to see it as an opportunity to inspire junior faculty and graduate students of color. Many times, you don’t have individuals of color in those positions because they don’t see others who look like them reaching high levels of success. Consequently, they say that it’s unattainable. By having someone like me here, hopefully they will say, “I can do this.”

What motivates you at this stage in your career?

I’m motivated to build things that will last after I’m gone—to leave a legacy. I’m at the point now where the students I taught in 2006 or 2007 are vice presidents at companies. That just blows me away. One of my former Ph.D. students recently let me know he’s going up for tenure and I thought, “Man! How long have I been doing this?” So, I’m starting to look over the fence at administrative roles and the possibility of becoming a department chair, dean or provost. Becoming the director of graduate studies for the department is a first step.

What do you believe you still have to offer as a researcher, teacher, and mentor to junior faculty?

One of my research thrusts is using satellite data to help assess and predict geo-hazards like landslides, sinkholes and earthquakes. That’s something I’m working on with NASA researchers, Kentucky Geological Survey researchers and the U.S. Geological survey. I want to see us get to where we can predict when and where a landslide will occur, or even an earthquake.

As far as teaching, Covid turned out to be a strong motivator for me to innovate and improve my lessons. I had never thought I could put design-level classes online, but I’ve been upgrading to facilitate online delivery. I’ve been blessed to have a good rapport with my students.

What made you want to be certified as a Diplomate by the Academy of Geo-Professionals? What does this mean for you professionally?

Any profession in science and engineering that deals with soil and rock is a geo-professional. The organization got started because of a recognition that what we do is critical to all aspects of science and engineering. Certification declares that these professionals have reached a certain level of expertise and are recognized worldwide as an expert. It’s like taking the Professional Engineers exam, except here the AGP looked at my whole career—as a consultant, as a professor at Ohio University and my 15 years here at UK.

How does it feel to be considered an expert, to have devoted so much time and interest in something over decades?

There are times when you achieve something, and you play it down. You get an award, put it somewhere on your desk and forget about it. When I received certification, I felt it acknowledged that my focus and attention to certain details of my profession had come to fruition. I appreciate it when my colleagues refer to me as an expert in something, but with this certification, it is the peers in my profession who have said I stand out. And, again, graduate students and junior faculty seeing me receive this level of certification provides an example of what is possible.

What do you think it is about you that makes students comfortable connecting with you?

I think it’s because I hit a bunch of cross-sections. I’m from the South, but I’m Black, I’m very conservative on some views but liberal with others. I’m an evangelical Christian. I revel in multi-cultural, multi-ethnicity environments. I’ve got an open-door policy. Come in, and I’ll put my feet on the desk, and we can talk about anything you want.