SWD Black History Month Spotlight: Michael Sterling, PhD

Michael Sterling, PhD, PE is the Branch Chief of the Water Management and Infrastructure Safety Regional Business Technical Division for the Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Michael Sterling, PhD, PE is the Branch Chief of the Water Management and Infrastructure Safety Regional Business Technical Division for the Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Michael Sterling, PhD, PE is the Branch Chief of the Water Management and Infrastructure Safety Regional Business Technical Division for the Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He has served in that position for the past four years. His area of responsibility includes 74 reservoirs and 760 miles of local protection projects, which have prevented more than $112 billion in flood damages.
Dr. Sterling has worked for the Corps of Engineers for 14 years. Previously, he served as the Chief of the Hydrology and Hydraulics Branch for the Galveston District. In this position, he was responsible for the hydraulic design of flood damage prevention, navigation projects and regulating reservoir operations. Other positions he’s held with the Corps include water management data manager in the Galveston District and principal investigator with the Engineering Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
A 1994 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering. He also received a Master of Science degree in 1998 at Texas A&M University in Agricultural Engineering. Five years later, Dr. Sterling earned his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University in Civil Engineering. He is a Registered Professional Engineer in the states of Texas and Mississippi. In 2015 Dr. Sterling was named Black Engineer of the Year for Professional Achievement (Government Category) during the 29th Annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) ceremony in Washington D.C.

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Dr. Sterling has also authored multiple papers related to coastal environmental transport modeling and monitoring. In his free time he spends his weekends supporting youth sporting activities in which his elementary-aged son is involved. He was able to take a break from his day to share some thoughts on his inspirations, career and Black History, and is an ideal representative of both Black History Month and National Engineers Week.
Q. Who or what inspired you to choose your career field?

A. My passion for science and engineering was birthed through participation in science fairs. In high school, I participated in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Intel ISEF is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition, providing an annual forum for more than 1,700 high school students from more than 70 countries, regions, and territories. This unique experience not only crystallized my ambitions to pursue an engineering career but also my desire to expand awareness of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers.

Q. What advice would you share with teenagers about choosing a STEM-related or government service career?

A. I would advise a teen who is inquisitive and likes solving problems to consider a STEM-related career.

Q. What has been your most memorable USACE project or program?

A. As part of its Flood Mitigation mission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency collaborated with USACE to update surge data for use in Texas coastal flood maps. I served as the Galveston District’s technical lead in this federal effort to revise flood maps in 17 coastal Texas counties, impacting 25 percent of the state’s population. This monumental effort occurs once in a generation; the last updates for coastal Texas were in the 1980s. The exercise required using supercomputing to update the surge estimates and extensive data collection and validation between the federal and county agencies.

Q. This year’s Black History Month theme is “The Crisis in Black Education.” Can you tell us about any education barriers you’ve overcome?

A. My K-12 educational experiences occurred during the 1970s and 1980s in a mid-sized central Texas city. I was part of the first generation to undergo forced busing to the “other side of the tracks” to racially integrate our local public school district. In implementing our school district’s desegregation plan, most of the campuses located in our city’s black neighborhoods had been closed. While attending integrated schools provided educational benefits, this change added physical distance and social barriers between these newly integrated campuses and the local black community. Despite these circumstances, I, along with many of my black classmates, became academic successes due to the support of individual teachers and administrators, coupled with the support of our families, neighborhood churches, and community groups.