Standing at the terminal waiting to board his first-ever flight in 1972, Jean-Louis Briaud turned to his father. “I’m going to a country where I know no one, and I don’t speak the language. Do you have any final advice?” he asked.
“Well son, it’s simple,” said Briaud’s father. “Find a girlfriend the minute you get there, and she’ll solve all your problems.”
Jokes aside, Briaud was moving to Fredericton, Canada, to pursue a master’s degree at the University of New Brunswick. “I was born in France, but at the end of my bachelor’s degree in Paris, I wasn’t too keen on getting locked up in an office building,” he said. “I wanted to see the world, and graduate studies offered that chance. When I got to Canada, I was lucky to find my wife Janet, and she’s been solving my problems ever since!”
While pursuing a graduate degree in geotechnical engineering, Briaud worked as a teaching assistant and immediately fell in love with the career. “I was a tough grader. One day I arrived at my office to find that someone had taken my nameplate and placed it on the bathroom door,” laughed Briaud. “But I loved the students and the job, so I went to the University of Ottawa to earn a Ph.D. so that I could pursue professorship full time.”
Gone to Texas
Upon receiving his doctorate, Briaud received job offers from universities across Canada and the U.S. “What struck me about Texas A&M University was the people,” he said. “Aggies have a can-do attitude and a unique friendliness. I’ve been here more than 40 years, so I know I chose right.”
In 1978, the couple loaded up their beat-up Volkswagen and headed to Texas. What Briaud remembers most about the drive was the weather. “We started in Canada with the heat turned all the way up,” he recalled. “After a few hours, the heat was off; then the windows were down because we didn’t have air conditioning; and by the time we drove into Texas, we were leaning our heads out the window trying to get some air!”
Upon arriving in College Station, Briaud immediately noticed the size of the Riverside Campus and its potential use for large-scale tests. Geotechnical engineering relies on experimentation—the bigger the better—so Briaud and his colleagues began using the area for tests in 1978. As a geotechnical engineer, Briaud’s experiments focus on land components, like rock and soil, to determine stability and potential for building on. Unless it is floating or flying, nearly every structure requires the input of a geotechnical engineer.
Ten years after beginning his experiments, a national competition put on by the Federal Highway Administration and National Science Foundation sought to select a site for engineers across the world to use as a testing ground for large-scale geotechnical experiments. The Texas A&M campus was one of two locations chosen, and Briaud was named director of the newly formed National Geotechnical Experimentation Site.
“It’s been immensely helpful for us to be at the international geotechnical table in such a capacity,” said Briaud. “We do extremely advanced work when it comes to geotechnical innovation.”
In addition to the honor of serving as the site’s director, Briaud is a university distinguished professor and Regents Fellow, an award which recognizes and honors professionals who have provided exemplary service to society. He also holds the Spencer J. Buchanan ’26 Chair within the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering. Endowed chairs are elite academic positions held only by top professors, and funds from the endowed gift generate an annual income to pay for a professor’s research, travel costs and the salaries of his or her graduate assistants.
“The chair makes my work as a professor and researcher that much easier,” Briaud said. “I am better equipped to assist my students because of the assistance the university provides me through these funds.”
When asked what his greatest achievement is, however, Briaud doesn’t name his honors or awards; he says it’s his students. “The impact of a professor goes far beyond lecturing and grading,” he said. “My job doesn’t end when students leave the classroom. I want to help students make a difference, and sometimes that requires long-term dedication—even after they graduate.”
Briaud for President
Briaud’s dedication to selfless service is seen in various aspects of his career. In 2008, he was elected president of the Geo-Institute, a specialty membership organization focused on geotechnical professionals within the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and from 2015 to 2018 he served as a board member. Since 1990, Briaud has served on and chaired numerous committees within the ASCE, an organization 150,000 members strong. Recently, he was nominated to run for president.
“Sometimes people ask me why I want to be president,” said Briaud. “The job requires a lot of time and effort, but that’s like asking me why I want to help my students or my kids. I feel it’s my responsibility.
“Life is short, and I want to have an impact,” he continued. “If you only ever do things you’re comfortable with, you’ll never grow as a person.”
If elected president, Briaud has four goals that are top of mind:
1. Encourage young civil engineers and students to be more involved in the ASCE.
2. Generate improved interaction and communication between the various regions of the ASCE, both regional and technical.
3. Work to de-stress the budget.
4. Showcase the amazing work that the ASCE is doing across the world to members who sometimes don’t know the extensive efforts they are a part of.
“Ultimately, if I can create a stronger sense of family amongst the 150,000 members, I would be happy,” said Briaud.
To learn more about Briaud, his credentials and his presidential vision for the ASCE, visit https://www.asce.org/templates/person-candidate-detail.aspx?id=14988.
Dues-paying members of the ASCE are eligible to vote for Briaud and will be prompted to vote when they receive an email in early May. The vote can be cast online until June 1. To vote, use your online member login or request a paper ballot from the ASCE. Further information can be found at www.asce.org.