Category Archives: Southwestern Division Office Employee Spotlight

Southwestern Division Office

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.


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.

Division Regional Business Director, Perez talks Hispanic heritage, education for students, young professionals

Southwestern Division Public Affairs Office

For many Hispanics, their journey to attain their “American Dream” began from counties near and far and perhaps a generation or more removed. For Pete Perez, the Regional Business Director for Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, his journey began as a youngster growing up in the south side of San Antonio, Texas and has brought him to the ranks of senior leadership in our nation’s government and interactions with some of our national figures such as Ashton B. Carter, the 25th Secretary of Defense.

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Perez shares personal anecdotes to encourage students and junior professionals. He is also a member of the Senior Executive Service, a cadre of executive leaders within the Federal Government who lead America’s workforce. There are 41 members of the Senior Executive Service in the Army Corps of Engineers and 279 SES members in the U.S. Army. The number for Hispanics is even smaller: Perez is one of only two Hispanic members among the 41, and nine among the 279.

Observing Role Models

Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Perez said his parents were his foundational role models, who strongly emphasized the importance of education. “My personal motivation was driven by meeting my parents’ expectation that I go to college, continue my education in whatever field appealed to me and make a difference with the opportunity I was given.”

Perez’s educational roots were in the culturally enriched environment of San Antonio’s south side, where he attended St. Leo’s Catholic School and then Central Catholic High School, a college preparatory school and one of the oldest high schools in San Antonio with many prominent executives and political figures among its alumni. He then attended Texas A&M University, where he graduated with a degree in civil engineering, and began a professional career with Powell & Powell Engineers and Consultants in Dallas.

Perez was also quick to note that he did not graduate at the top of his class, but was able to achieve through perseverance. “I’m an example of how anything is possible with just a little support. I think there needs to be some energy expended on that part of the student body population that represents the middle of the bell curve because you never know what might come out of it. I did. If I can come out of the bell curve, through perseverance and dedication and a long list of lifelines thrown at me within the organization, good things can come your way.”

Throughout his career, Perez has developed a network of coaches and mentors. “These folks exposed me to the wealth of opportunities and how that aligned with my own career goals,” he said. “The message was consistent from the coaches and the mentors: If these are the things that you want to do, here is what is required; there would be some mobility involved; there would be some cross-functional exposure required, as well as an understanding of all the Corps of Engineers programs.” I had some really sage advice from some great leaders within the Corps: James Dalton, Jim Hannon, Bob Slockbower, even going back I had a slew of people who were advising and guiding even when I wasn’t aware of it.”

Expanding Your Comfort Zone

After graduating from Texas A&M University, Perez began his civil engineering career with a job in the private sector. After several years, he joined the Corps of Engineers in San Antonio, working out of the Fort Sam Houston Project Office and the Kelly Air Force Base Resident Office, primarily on Army and Air Force projects. He held positions of progressively increasing responsibility within Engineering and Construction at multiple locations including San Antonio, Korea, Alaska, and Galveston, Texas. This career progression led to him becoming the Deputy District Engineer for Programs and Project Management in the Galveston District. He was honored with a Professional Achievement Award from the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference in 2002 for his work as a Resident Engineer at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea.

Geographically speaking, career moves — from San Antonio to Korea to Alaska to Galveston — covered the breadth and depth of the Corps mission areas, and helped prepare Perez for higher-level positions with each move. Each move incorporated specific professional development goals. “For example, my assignment in Galveston was a radical departure for me,” Perez said. “My first 15 years were almost solely focused on the military mission, very little on civil works, and Galveston District further diversified my skill sets and professional development by totally immersing me in civil works.”

Leadership assignments also provided unique opportunities to develop not just on the technical skills, but also on “soft skills” – presenting information, building relationships, building consensus, and working through difficult issues. Perez notes, “There is really an art to communication that builds trust and confidence with your stakeholders, and that foreshadows for the future. Your clients are generally going to be the same. Thus, it is your relationship skills that help the partnership survive the ebbs and flows, continuing to maintain the trust and confidence that we will meet our commitments and deliver quality products. That’s critical.”

Sharing With Others

Public service provides the underlying motivation for Perez’s activities within USACE. He shares, “For me, the reward I got was seeing the airman or the soldier when we were turning over a family housing project, to see the look in their eyes, and they earned it. For what they do everyday in service for our great nation, they deserved it. There’s no greater feeling in the world.”

Developed by these experiences, Perez continues to overcome personal and professional challenges with an optimistic spirit. He states, “For me, the goal is to get out in the community and inspire those that maybe do not get the attention or the encouragement that they may need. I can use myself as an example. I am someone who persevered and worked hard. I think I can be an example that anything is possible. I can tell the story of how I overcame, how I leveraged talents that God has blessed me with. At the same time, I think I can also tell the story of the great opportunities that the Corps has and how everyone can contribute by being a part of this great organization to make a difference in the lives of our men and women in uniform and to our Nation.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter meets with APEX participants at the Pentagon Sept. 14, 2015.  (DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz).
Defense Secretary Ash Carter meets with APEX participants at the Pentagon Sept. 14, 2015. (DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz).