We asked our community of alumni, students, faculty, staff, and supporters to share their stories. This week we feature a Q&A with alumnus Neil Topliffe, PE, a Senior Associate at Mazzetti GBA. Neil received his BS in Mechanical Engineering in 2004.
Q: What kind of projects do you work on at Mazzetti GBA?
A: I help oversee construction of the New Stanford Hospital project (500 Pasteur Dr. in Palo Alto, CA). I work with the world renowned architect Rafael Viñoly, the medical planners at Perkins Eastman, and two of the nation’s oldest general contractors, Clark and McCarthy, to answer any questions about design intent, and review and approve products and submittals from the subcontractors. The New Stanford Hospital has defined my career since 2007, working on the utility master planning phase to develop the utility infrastructure to ultimately support the 824,000 square foot facility and the environmental impact report. I have been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to be with the project from concept through design, permitting, and construction. Soon we will be starting up pumps, air handling equipment, steam systems and all the specialty equipment and controls systems to support some of the most advanced medical imaging technology available in the marketplace today – which after 10 years is very exciting. The facility will house a massive emergency department and add 32 operating rooms to their existing facility making the Stanford Medical Center one of the largest surgery centers on the west coast.
Q: Is your work rewarding?
A: The world of design and construction is very rewarding, challenging, and in fact very diverse. As an engineering consultant with Mazzetti GBA, we have specialized in the design and construction of hospitals and clinics due to their criticality, complexity, seismic regulations and state mandated energy and resiliency challenges that are requiring many hospitals to renovate existing or build new facilities in compliance with the new standards.
California has adopted the Healthcare Without Harm challenge called the 2020 Challenge which requires hospitals and clinics to meet strict energy efficiency standards and 96 hours of completely independent off-the-grid operation to ensure they are not only standing after a natural disaster but operating without interruption and delivering exceptional care with minimal energy use intensity. The requirements are complicated, challenging and with so many changes in the healthcare world over the last few years – be it technological or policy based – hospitals rely on Mazzetti as their expert in the research of policy to design facilities capable of anticipating future requirements.
I am very fortunate to be a part of a team focused on the goal of energy efficiency and resiliency planning. In 20 years, hospitals in California will be the best in the world and I will be very proud to have played a part in that transformation.
Q: How did your education at UCSB prepare you for your current path?
A: Engineering school was very challenging. I remember studying from early morning to late into the night with a strained social life. I loved the diverse subject matter of the mechanical engineering major. Professors Meinhart, Turner, and Matthys - for fluid dynamics, machine design, and HVAC design, respectfully - each made a lasting impact in their own way. I remember Professor Matthys’ HVAC design class in particular because of how demanding he was in requiring every piece of information be documented with appropriate references. I still to this day meticulously list all my references as sort of a pet peeve and when I train young engineers I ask that they do the same.
Q: What kind of challenges did you face after graduation?
A: The year after graduation I moved to Santiago, Chile, where I lived for two years and designed long distance slurry pipelines for the mining industry. My Spanish was very limited but I started out translating the design documents from Spanish to English, and while doing so I learned the business by fearlessly asking questions. I suppose people started to take note – probably because my Spanish was so poor, but I was nontheless given additional responsibilities - such as helping with the two-phase fluid modeling software and working with the more experienced engineers designing the valve stations, pressure reducing stations, pumping stations and agitated slurry tanks.
Q: What are some things you liked most about being at UCSB?
A: UCSB and the area surrounding is a hidden gem in California. Living in Isla Vista is an experience that I’ll never forget. Things like working for the IV Food Co-Op and ultimately sitting on the Board, or protecting the snowy plover out on Sands Beach are great memories.
Q: Did you have memorable mentors from UCSB Engineering?
A: Professor Meinhart and his fluid dynamics class were really interesting and challenging. He was one of the youngest professors I had so I looked up to him as someone to emulate. I had a lot of respect for him so I really worked hard in his class to try and do well. I remember one of the questions on his final exam just totally stumped me. There was a nozzle with a fluid supporting a mass under its own weight, how high is the mass above the nozzle? – I was totally stumped! I hope I’m not giving away anything for his current students.
Q: Do you keep in touch with former mentors or fellow alumni?
A: Yes, of course! You don’t go through some of the most challenging years of your life without making lasting friendships! In fact, we just hired one of my former classmates, so we work together every day.
Q: What's your advice for students today that might identify with your career path?
A: Take your time, be patient and methodical. Too many young college graduates think they need to work quickly to be effective - we look for thoroughness, passionate curiosity, and the ability to fearlessly ask questions. You build your reputation on trust. Engineering is the easy part, working with all different kinds of people is the most challenging part about being an engineering consultant. Use every contact you can to help you in your future job search and keep in touch with people.
Thank you, Neil!