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Engineers honored at 112th annual ceremony

2013 Engineer of the Year

Maureen Valentine

College of Applied Science and Technology, Rochester Institute  of Technology

Maureen Valentine came to her chosen field by a circuitous route.

“I think civil engineering found me, not I found it,” says the associate dean of Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Applied Science and Technology.

As a child, Valentine had little thought of being an engineer, dissuaded by the kind of work her father, a civil engineer, did in the field.

“He was a sanitary and sewer guy,” she explains. “I thought that sounded awful.”

She did develop an interest in rocks and minerals through the local gem and mineral society. She put that knowledge to use as an undergraduate student. A psychology major, she found herself talking to civil engineers.

“I saw the other side of civil, the side of civil that would value communities,” she says. “I could use the geology interest that I had and build foundations and build retaining walls and do things that I didn’t realize existed.”

Changing direction, Valentine acquired a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and then headed off to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She graduated in 1982 with a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering, a form of civil engineering that encompasses soil, rock and the structures built on them.

“It’s really trying to predict the engineering nature of a natural material,” she explains.

Valentine then worked for a number of firms while following her husband, a Navy officer serving on a Trident submarine, from base to base around the country. Her early years in the field were a bit of an eye-opener.

“In the beginning of my career, I really experienced the typical … woman in a man’s world,” she says. “(It) never bothered me; it was always one of the challenges that I took on kind of head-on.”

Her work also presented the kinds of challenges she relishes. While her husband was stationed at the naval base in Kings Bay, Ga., Valentine’s employer assigned her to help build the foundations of a new weapons-handling wharf.

“It was a very large structure that a Trident submarine could pull into and be out of observation capability from overhead satellites and radar,” she says.

Returning to the Rochester area, Valentine joined RIT in 1993 as an assistant professor. Teaching gave her the opportunity to see once again the hurdles that young women can encounter in engineering fields.

“I really saw the challenges that some young women had,” she says. “I saw it as an opportunity to help them succeed.”

Valentine drew on her experience to help RIT’s women students succeed academically and in their careers. While serving as the university’s Miller professor, she helped create her college’s Women in Technology program, which provides social and academic support, mentoring and help in developing business skills for the women in RIT’s technology degree programs.

“My high points come when I see my students succeed—at least on the student side,” Valentine says.

As associate dean, Valentine has helped the College of Applied Science and Technology’s faculty search committees bring greater gender and racial diversity to faculty ranks. For her efforts, RIT presented her its Changing Hearts and Minds Award. Valentine is also active in several professional organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers.

Valentine was diagnosed with breast cancer in January. She is on leave from RIT while undergoing treatment and hopes to return to work this summer. In the meantime, Valentine enjoys spending time with her two children, kayaking, crafts, scrapbooking and photography when treatment allows, as well as hiking with her husband.

“The local parks are wonderful,” she says.

2013 Kate Gleason Young Engineer of the Year
Courtney Reich
NOHMs Technologies Inc. at Trison Business Solutions Inc.

Most of us may try to avoid thorny problems, but Courtney Reich seems drawn to them.

“I’ve always liked to solve problems and find new ways to do things,” she says.

That desire has taken Reich into the thick of local hydrogen fuel cell development.

As an undergraduate student at Kettering University in Michigan, Reich fed her desire to solve problems by studying mechanical engineering.

“Mechanical engineering is really nice because it’s not so specifically focused on one piece of how things go together, how things work,” she explains. “It’s pretty broad.”

Upon graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in 2006, Reich headed off to Rochester Institute of Technology to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. After graduating summa cum laude, she signed on to work at General Motors Co.’s hydrogen fuel cell development facility in Honeoye Falls.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Reich and her team helped develop an essential part of GM’s fuel cell, called the stack.

“I worked on almost every individual component that would actually go into the fuel cell stack,” she says with pride.

By the time GM moved fuel cell development to Michigan in 2013, Reich was supervising all preproduction operations in Honeoye Falls, had one patent under her belt and had applied for another. Wishing to stay in the Rochester area, she signed on as a contractor with Trison Business Solutions Inc. Her first assignment: to help set up the Battery and Energy Storage Technology Test and Commercialization Center at Eastman Business Park.

“I worked on the facilities, equipment, operation and safety designs of that facility,” she says.

The private, non-profit facility is slated to hold a grand opening on April 30. Moving on from the BEST project, Reich was assigned to NOHMs Technologies Inc. As operations manager, she helps guide the development of materials to be used to make the next generation of batteries.

“We do different materials for lithium sulfur battery applications that could basically replace your typical lithium ion (battery) that’s used in the industry right now,” Reich explains. “We’re going to be selling the component materials.” Reich gives her energy to a number of non-profits in her off hours, seeking to benefit her field and those interested in it. As co-chair of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council’s energy innovation work group, she helps connect local companies with the assistance they need.

“We’re responsible for bringing forward projects or ideas of companies in the area that could benefit from funding or other assistance,” she says.

Reich also is a past president and secretary of the Rochester chapter of the Society of Women Engineers and founding president of the Greater Rochester Area Alumnae Chapter of Alpha Sigma Alpha Sorority. She enjoys spending time with her husband and children and staying fit via Zumba in her off hours.

2013 Engineer of Distinction
Allen Casey M/E Engineering P.C.

Allen Casey looks back on his years as president of M/E Engineering P.C. with more than a touch of satisfaction.

“I’m very proud of the successes of the business,” he says.

Casey’s journey up the corporate lad-der might be said to have begun when he was a student in the electrical program at Edison Technical High School.After graduating, Casey entered Rochester Institute of Technology, and a co-op experience with Johnson Controls Inc. helped persuade him to seek a career in electrical engineering. At the time, the firm specialized in the installation and maintenance of heating, ventilation and air conditioning control systems.

“I was exposed to the construction side of the engineering business,” Casey says. “I liked the physical portion of it and dealing with the people (and) construction projects from scratch.”

In 1973, Casey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. After working for a number of East Coast architectural and consulting firms, he returned to the Rochester area. Forming a partnership with three co-workers, he helped found M/E Engineering in 1991.

“We decided that if we were going to real-ly reach our goals, the four of us would be better off doing it on our own rather than doing it for somebody else,” he says.

From the original four, M/E Engineering has grown to have a staff of 145 under Casey, billing more than $20 million annually. The firm made the Rochester Business Alliance’s Rochester Top 100 list 10 times from 1995 to 2009 and has twice earned a place on the Zweig Letter Hot Firm List.

In recognition of Casey’s achievements, RIT named him a distinguished alumnus of the Kate Gleason College of Engineering in 2004 and conferred the title of Outstanding Alumnus on him in 2009. While helping to guide M/E Engineering, he serves on the New York State Board for Engineering and Land Surveying, the board of directors and executive committee of the Monroe Community College Foundation, and the boards of other non-profits.

Casey enjoys spending time with his wife, playing golf and visiting their cabin in Hemlock.

“I like to get down there and paddle around the lake and just sit back and look at the countryside,” he says.

The father of two grown children, Casey also is looking forward to welcoming his first grandchild in May. He might have more time to devote to his family relatively soon; he has sold his stake in M/E Engineering and plans to retire within two years.

Walter Cooper
Eastman Kodak Co., retired

Walter Cooper’s roots go back to Clairton, a small Pennsylvania town.

“It was a community that had a steel mill, a small chemical plant, and outside of town there were coal mines,” he says.

Cooper emerged from that town to become a high-level Eastman Kodak Co. executive and a leader in the local civil rights movement.

As a high school student, Cooper combined academics, athletics and service to others. Though he entered college on a full academic and athletic scholarship, he continued to extend that helping hand during his summers. Forming a club with other local high school graduates and college students, Cooper helped raise money for Little League Baseball.

Cooper’s father worked in the local mines and mills. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Cooper set out to help his family—he had six brothers and sisters—make ends meet.

“I was No. 3 in terms of age, and so there were a fair number of siblings who were much younger, and they were still at home,” he explains.

Hoping to find a job, he met with a recruiter from E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co.’s research facility in Wilmington, Del. The man was surprised to learn that Cooper is African-American.

“He ended up by saying, ‘Well, you have excellent credentials, but we don’t hire blacks in our research facility,’” Cooper says. “I was somewhat shocked, but then I composed myself, and I said, ‘Well, you have a problem,’ and I walked out.”

Changing direction—for the time being—Cooper undertook graduate studies. In 1956, he became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Rochester. Hired as a research chemist by Eastman Kodak, Cooper began rising through the ranks of Kodak Research Laboratories.

“I was the first person to use semiconductors in electrochemical processes,” he says.

While pursuing his career, Cooper became an active advocate for civil rights. He was president of the Rochester branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and helped found Action for a Better Community and the Rochester branch of the Urban League. At his urging, the local Urban League branch initiated a campaign against lead poisoning.

“We were the first … probably in the country to have a concentrated drive against lead poisoning that impacted on the learning capabilities of youngsters in schools,” he says.

Cooper also traveled extensively with his late wife, Helen, and became a father and grandfather. By the time he retired from Kodak in 1986, he had risen to become a research associate at KRL and to head the unit’s research innovation committee.

He went on to serve as a member of the state Board of Regents—he is a regent emeritus now—and to devote his energy to other causes. Cooper, now a great-grandfather, has volunteered so much time and energy to one Rochester city school that the district changed the school’s name. In recognition of his work, the students of the Dr. Walter Cooper Academy School 10 recently held a celebration in his honor.

Jay Friedrich Künzler
Künzler Biomedical LLC

An interest in optics runs straight through Jay Friedrich Künzler’s family to its German roots.

“My great-great-grandfather designed stained-glass windows for the cathedrals in Heidelberg,” he says.

Drawn to chemical research that focuses on optics, Künzler made his way up the ladder of Bausch & Lomb Inc. and eventually founded his own firm in Canandaigua. As president of Künzler Biomedical LLC, he develops materials that could be used for new ophthalmic applications.

Künzler acquired a bachelor’s degree in chemistry/biology at Valparaiso University in Indiana, then headed off to Bausch & Lomb, following a path similar to his father’s.

“He was an optometrist by training, but he got into R&D and basically did that his entire life,” Künzler explains.

Künzler started as a chemical technician in the firm’s research lab. Over the next 38 years, he advanced in research at Bausch & Lomb, developing products and materials that helped make the firm a leader in such areas as contact lens manufacture. Along the way, Künzler earned a master’s degree in materials science and engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in macromolecular science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Künzler has 100 patents and many awards to his name, but he is most proud of playing a pivotal role in the development of the first silicon hydrogel used in the manufacture of contact lenses.

“That was one of my biggest inventions,” he says.

The new material proved to be a boon to contact lens wearers and to Bausch & Lomb. Before the hydrogel was developed, contact lens wearers removed their lenses at the end of the day—or suffered harm to their eyes. The gel helped make possible the development of a lens that could be worn for up to 30 days at a stretch. Bausch & Lomb’s PureVision contact lenses were the first ones on the market to incorporate the material.

“It still, actually today, remains a big, big moneymaker for Bausch & Lomb,” he says.

By 2013, Künzler was a distinguished research fellow for Bausch & Lomb and head of its polymer chemistry department. When Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. acquired the firm, he struck out on his own. Künzler Biomedical LLC, a solo operation, opened its doors last November. “My main focus, right now, is on contact lens materials,” Künzler says.

In March, the American Chemical Society inducted Künzler as a fellow in the polymeric materials science and engineering division.

Künzler, married and the father of five, is an avid runner, karate student and hiker.

Diane Trentini
Optimation Technology Inc.
Diane Trentini began developing software engineering skills at the controls of a sewing machine on her family’s farm in Ontario, Wayne County.

“I grew up solving problems,” she says. “I had an engineering mindset, although I applied it using textiles.”

That mindset helped take Trentini to an executive office at Optimation Technology Inc., where she is vice president of marketing and sales.

Trentini first experienced computer programming in high school, when the field was catching fire.

“I would go to the high school before school, because that’s when they offered computer classes,” she says. “It was definitely an exciting time, because it was all brand-new.”

Her grades and skills caught the attention of staff members at Scientific Calculations Inc., a local firm that specialized in computer-assisted design software. The company gave her a full scholarship to college and a summer job.

“I started … in the engineering center, helping with administrative things for the trainers,” she says.

Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics, Trentini signed on with the company full time as a software engineer. One of her early assignments took her to London and Paris, where she installed, tested and demonstrated some of her firm’s products for European clients. Trentini stayed on after Harris Electronic Design Automation acquired Scientific Calculations, then moved to Optimation in 1992 as a senior software engineer.

One of the largest projects Trentini has worked on for Optimation involved the development and installation of the Monroe County Water Authority’s supervisory control and data acquisition system. The system that she and the others on her team put in place integrated 26 substations that controlled hundreds of water tanks, pumps and valves. Trentini went from one substation to the next, helping to install the new system and make it work while removing the antiquated system. Among other improvements, the new software lets the authority know the condition of its water system.

“We were able to take a system that would take six minutes to update data so that it could update it within a matter of seconds,” Trentini says.

Trentini’s career has advanced at Optimation. She has worked in and led almost every division. She held a seat on Optimation’s board of directors from 1996 to 2013, when a private equity firm acquired a majority ownership in the firm, and is currently the board’s corporate secretary. Trentini is a past president and member of the Rochester Engineering Society, among other professional associations.

Trentini enjoys spending time with her husband and three teenage daughters. She puts on the miles as a member of the company’s running teams—she has been Optimation’s Corporate Challenge team captain since 1994—and practices yoga, leading a weekly class for co-workers. Less strenuous activities include reading, and Trentini is a member of a book club.

“One winter we read ‘War and Peace,’” she says. “We ate a lot of borscht.”

2013 Kate Gleason Young Engineer of the Year Finalist
John Papponetti
LaBella Associates DPC

You might say that John Papponetti was naturally drawn to a career in structural engineering.

“With my passion to build things, I went the structural route of the civil engineering field,” says Papponetti, who is a vice president and bridge project manager for LaBella Associates DPC.

That passion has spurred Papponetti to help design or oversee the construction of many bridges and other structures. He is an expert on preventive bridge maintenance.

Papponetti has always liked working with hand tools. When he was in high school in Albion, his uncle, a civil engineer, gave him some advice.

“Based on what I liked to do, he recommended a civil engineering field,” he says.

Papponetti earned an associate degree in construction engineering technology and went on to study civil engineering technology at Rochester Institute of Technology. Though civil engineering covers the design of roads, buildings, dams and other structures, he was drawn to one type in particular.

“I was just driving around, seeing all these bridges, and thinking, ‘Aw, man, it would be really cool to design this bridge,’” he recalls.

Graduating in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree, Papponetti joined Bergmann Associates P.C. as a structural engineer. On his first project for the firm, he helped design the Colonel Patrick O’Rorke Memorial Bridge, which spans the Genesee River in Charlotte.

“I did a lot of detailing work and small design tasks,” he says. “It was pretty exciting.”

From there, Papponetti helped provide construction support services for Bergmann’s clients, to bring business to the firm and to manage some of its projects.

“You basically oversee all of the tasks of the project,” he explains.

While each project brought its own set of interesting challenges, Papponetti took particular pleasure in monitoring the condition of some of Rochester’s bridges. Bergmann had been hired to help the city maintain the structures.

“It was our responsibility to assess the condition of their bridge inventory and make recommendations to the city … as to the need for repairs or maintenance for their bridges,” he says. “I got a lot of exposure to the maintenance side of what we design.”

Rochester eventually contracted with LaBella Associates DPC to monitor bridge conditions. Papponetti joined the firm in 2004. In addition to his other duties for LaBella, Papponetti monitors the condition of some of Rochester’s bridges and oversees the repair and replacement of bridges around Monroe County.

“My responsibilities as a project manager have been managing all of our local bridges, which are the bridges that are owned by the county, the city, the towns, the villages,” he says.

After years of focused field work, research and study, Papponetti has earned a reputation as an expert in preventive bridge maintenance. He was recently appointed to the subcommittee on structure maintenance of the Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Research Council. Papponetti also is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and several other professional organizations.

A husband and father, Papponetti also finds the time to pursue another of his interests—firefighting. The veteran volunteer firefighter has given his time and energy to fire departments in Albion, Brighton and Penfield, taking his place on the fire line or as an officer or emergency medical services worker. The Albion Fire Department named him EMS Officer of the Year in 1999 and Fire Fighter of the Year in 2001. Papponetti serves with the Penfield Fire Company as vice president.

Papponetti enjoys time with his wife and two small children. But even at home he seems unable to put down his tools for long.

“I’m finishing off a portion of my basement for a playroom for the kids,” he says.

Stephen Percassi Jr.
Bergmann Associates P.C.

You might say that Stephen Percassi Jr. likes to do things in a big way.

“I’ve always been the kind who likes to build things with my hands—things usually that are larger in scale,” says the project manager for Bergmann Associates P.C.

Since Percassi became a structural engineer over 14 years ago, he has helped build large structures, such as bridges that span the Genesee River and Lake Champlain.

Percassi had no idea what kind of career he wanted to pursue when he enrolled at SUNY Buffalo as an undergraduate. An introductory engineering course helped him find a direction.

“The thing that drew me to civil and then structural engineering was … the relative sizes of the things that they were constructing,” he says.

While he found the scale of structural engineering projects attractive, such projects also seemed straightforward to him in a way that other types of engineering work were not.

“You can usually get a very good understanding of why it is that they work, why it is that they function,” he explains. “There’s nothing hidden.”

Percassi earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at SUNY Buffalo and went on to pursue a master’s degree in structural and earthquake engineering.

“In the lab, we did an experimental testing of a bridge structure on their earthquake simulator,” he says.

Graduating in 2000, Percassi joined Erdman Anthony & Associates Inc. as a design engineer. One of his first jobs there was helping to design and build the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge, which has carried highway traffic over the Genesee River since it opened in 2007. The bridge has won awards from a variety of engineering organizations, but Percassi seems proudest of the acclaim it has gained from those much closer to home.

“That structure will be there for probably 75 years,” he says. “Although hundreds of people worked on that bridge, to my kid that’s ‘Daddy’s bridge.’”

Percassi went on to help design or build other bridges or important structures for Erdmann Anthony, while taking more and more responsible positions with the firm. Since joining Bergmann last February as a project manager, Percassi has eased into projects, one involving the replacement of a CSX Corp. railroad bridge in Perinton.

“It’s very small, but … because it’s part of an active railroad, we have a very limited amount of time to get the old bridge out and the new one in,” he explains.

Percassi is a member of a number of technical societies, including the Western New York chapter of the Association for Bridge Construction and Design. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three children, hunting, skiing, playing golf and coaching his daughters’ T-ball team in season.

4/18/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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