The emigrant: Thomas Schumacher

14.02.2022 BFH graduate Thomas Schumacher has emigrated to the USA to start his academic career. He says that BFH provided him with an excellent launching pad for this step.

portrait thomas schumacher
‘BFH provided me with a practical foundation to work as a structural engineer’, says Thomas Schumacher.

What is your current professional role?

I am an Associate Professor of structural engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, USA. Currently, I am on sabbatical (my first one) in Switzerland and an invited professor at EPFL, collaborating on a research project with Prof. Brühwiler. My research includes condition assessment of civil infrastructure using non-destructive evaluation techniques, with a focus on concrete structures. As a tenured faculty member, I perform research, teach undergraduate and graduate courses, and am involved in university governance and professional service activities. I innovate, educate, collaborate, and mentor.

What attracted you to your profession?

Having grown up on a small dairy farm 20 km south of Bern, becoming a university professor was not exactly on my radar. I really became interested in and attracted to academia during the end of my doctoral studies in 2009. The breadth of the job is both challenging, but also what attracts me time and again. Every day is different, and I keep learning new things, both professionally and personally. The aspect that I enjoy most, though, is performing research together with colleagues and my students. The greatest reward I can receive is when my students succeed, find their passion, and land their own satisfying jobs.

What were your takeaways from your studies at BFH? Is there anything in particular that you still find helpful in your day-to-day work?

BFH was in the process of changing from ‘Ingenieurschule Burgdorf’ to ‘Fachhochschule Burgdorf’ when I attended it from 1996 to 2000. To keep it simple, I will still refer to it as ‘BFH’. BFH provided me with a practical foundation to work as a structural engineer. While the theoretical depth of background knowledge was perhaps not quite like what one would get from a university like ETH, BFH provided a solid education to make one a ready-to-work engineer. I still refer to scripts and notes I took from instructors like Erich Wyler, Walter Gisin, and Hans Hausammann, who were outstanding individuals, instructors, and mentors. I think BFH struck the perfect balance between theory and practice. Traditionally, the vocational track of professional training (apprenticeship) and undergraduate studies at BFH is directed at people who want to join industry. However, I feel that it also provided me with an excellent launching pad for a career in academia.

Every day is different, and I keep learning new things, both professionally and personally.

Thomas Schumacher
Thomas Schumacher university professor

Looking back, do you feel anything was lacking during your studies at BFH? 

BFH provided me with pretty much everything I needed to solve standard civil engineering problems. One thing that I would like to have been exposed to more is how one should approach non-standard problems, or how to deal with questions around existing structures. Given the amount of infrastructure we have already built, it is surprising how little students are exposed to structural assessment, asset management, and preservation. For example, our structural engineering courses were focused on the design of new structures but did not discuss how one would properly model and analyse an existing structure. Dealing with existing structures requires knowledge about sensors and instrumentation, monitoring, modelling, data analysis and interpretation, and repair and rehabilitation strategies. More generally, a research approach, i.e., how one finds useful and trustworthy information about a problem that is not in a script or textbook, would have been a useful skill for me to learn. Along with this, more exposure to programming and coding would have been helpful, particularly for my graduate studies.

After completing your studies and working for several years in Switzerland, you moved to the US. What led you to make that move?

I knew after graduating in 2000 that leaving BFH was not the end of my education. After working as a structural and project engineer for nearly five years, I was ready to continue my journey. I wanted to expand my education, get involved in research, and become proficient in another language. With a pathway that had been established previously, I applied to Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, USA and was offered a graduate research assistantship, starting in Fall 2004. Without a long-term plan, I took the opportunity and left.

Did you find it easy to adjust to a new culture and a new environment? What were the biggest challenges involved in moving to another country?

Adjusting to the life in the US was relatively straight forward. I had spent three months during the previous year in a language school in the San Francisco area, which prepared me well. The main challenge was leaving behind family and friends and start a new life in a place where I knew nobody. This was daunting but also super exciting. I learned quickly not to judge others before I understood more about their lives and background.

Enjoy your studies and soak it all up. Looking back, I have the fondest memories of my studies, both at BFH and OSU.

Thomas Schumacher
Thomas Schumacher University Professor

Is there anything about Switzerland that you particularly miss? In your work or your day-to-day life?

What I miss most is my social network: family and friends. I had a great job, was active in several clubs, which is a uniquely Swiss thing I have learned, and I lived close to my family. Switzerland has remained dear to my heart. Most Swiss probably don’t realize how good they have it, even compared to somebody living in the US. Of course, I also miss certain foods (e.g., chocolate yogurt) and cultural events.

Are you a member of an alumni organisation? What do you feel are the benefits of alumni activity at universities?

I am not yet a member of any alumni organisation. I think alumni can provide valuable feedback and support for students. Additionally, they can offer feedback to universities and colleges to ensure they are relevant to the evolving needs of practice and society in general.

What advice would you give to current and future students?

Enjoy your studies and soak it all up. Looking back, I have the fondest memories of my studies, both at BFH and OSU. It’s a time of freedom and exploration that is quite unique. Fill your backpack with knowledge and make friends.

What do you do in your spare time?

I spend time outdoors with my family; two daughters and my wife. We own a house, which means there is always something to build, fix, or maintain. We love to be outdoors, running, hiking, skiing, and camping. I also enjoy playing my guitar or saxophone or reading a science fiction book.