Since joining the University of Mississippi faculty six years ago, Cristiane Surbeck has built a sterling reputation for teaching excellence, renowned research and generous volunteer service.
“What I most like about teaching is the ability to bridge classroom work to professional work,” said Surbeck, an associate professor of civil engineering. “In the classroom, I can never simulate exactly what the working world is like, but through giving group projects and expecting student autonomy and accountability, I can start showing students what skills they need to really perform as engineers in the workplace.”
Surbeck came to UM from the University of California at Irvine, where she received her master’s degree and doctorate in environmental engineering. She is proud that she completed her master’s degree while working full time, passed the P.E. exam on the first try and completed her doctorate while raising her son during his baby and toddler years.
In her time at UM, Surbeck has spearheaded the environmental engineering graduate program and received the School of Engineering faculty teaching award in her third year of teaching. She also served as chair of the Sustainability Committee and the International Council of the Environmental and Water Resources Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“Most of my research projects in a broad sense have to do with water pollution,” Surbeck said. “I have a project with Dr. Jim Chambers in mechanical engineering and NCPA, and my graduate student, Alex Kajdan, on detecting sediment pollution in rivers.”
Surbeck also has a project supported by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Geological Survey. She, along with graduate student Parker Capps of Sunflower, is characterizing bacterial pollution in lakes.
“Dr. Surbeck is a wonderful adviser and person,” Capps said. “Through her experience and professional relationships in the environmental engineering field, I have been provided great opportunities to further my knowledge and future career.”
Capps said Surbeck is very skilled at guiding her studies in a way that makes her think a step further – to consider and analyze things she wouldn’t have before.
“I have learned a lot from her and know I will continue to learn more,” she said. “She is someone I look up to, and a great example for engineering students to follow.”
Surbeck also has an outside-the-box project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to start a research program on social sustainability. “My angle on it is to evaluate how civil infrastructure, such as roads, water treatment plants and power plants, impact surrounding communities,” she said.
Surbeck is co-faculty adviser for the UM chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Her involvement stems from childhood memories of growing up in Rio de Janeiro.
“I was 9 years old, living in the relative comfort of a fifth-floor apartment, when I started paying attention to the news on TV about communities in my own city that lacked running water and sewage collection,” Surbeck said. “By the time I was 13, I had an ongoing list of potential careers for me that could also somehow help these communities.”
She eventually picked engineering as a college major and profession. Other milestones in her life took priority over helping disadvantaged communities: making money, getting married, obtaining her professional engineer license, being a mom and becoming a professor.
“Now, with the support of my family, the University of Mississippi and Engineers Without Borders (or EWB), I find myself in the perfect personal and professional situation to directly help a community in need,” she said. “It’s rewarding to work on a project that has so many facets: planning, design, diplomacy, monitoring, teaching and international travel.”
Surbeck’s work ethic and dedication have gained the respect of her colleagues and admiration from her students. Among those colleagues is Marni Kendricks, assistant dean of the engineering school.
“When my good friend and I meet for coffee, we sometimes strategize over EWB,” Kendricks said. “But other times, it’s about life issues in general. Cris is very often my voice of reason and a source of encouragement.”
While Surbeck said she believes every small achievement is important, a few things stand out for her.
“While I worked for an environmental consulting firm in California, I traveled to Mexico, Brazil and several parts of the U.S. to conduct environmental liability projects at manufacturing plants,” she said. “I designed, operated and maintained several treatment systems to clean up groundwater and soil contamination in the Los Angeles area.”
Surbeck’s husband, Greg, is an electrical engineer-turned-paramedic.
“If you call 911, he might be the one helping you,” she said. “My son, Collin, is 11 and in fifth grade. He is in the Oxford Children’s Chorus and does tae kwon do.”
Growing up in a family of avid tennis players, Surbeck considers tennis her lifelong sport. Other hobbies have included piano, guitar and volleyball.
“I still do those when I have some free time, but I’ve taken up tae kwon do, which keeps me mentally and physically strong,” Surbeck said. “It also keeps me humble, especially when I get kicked in the face.”
Kendricks has sparred with Surbeck and understands where she’s coming from.
“Cris is very often the organized, calm, composed type, but don’t think for one second she’s a passive personality,” Kendricks said. “Once I tried sparring with her in a karate class. Nope – she’s totally real!”