A Co-op Experience Becomes a Career in Cleaning Up NYC's Waterways
Civil engineer Ryan Bertani '18 seeks green solutions with HDR
He has visited his father's home country of Uruguay since he was a young child and has noticed, at his favorite beach, ocean overtaking the sand more every season, a legacy of rising sea levels and erosion. His mother composted before it was fashionable, and Ryan Bertani ’18 has found himself doing those little things that he says can make a difference for the planet: avoiding plastic utensils and Styrofoam, shutting off lights, deciding that, living in Jersey City and working in Manhattan, he really doesn’t need to own a car.
All of these moments inform his work today, as he tries to find new solutions to an old environmental problem. And he is doing this at one of the world’s most prestigious engineering consulting firms, where he and his team are poised to make a big difference.
Bertani is a civil Engineer in Training (EIT) who works with green infrastructure and storm water management with HDR, in its Manhattan office. His specialty: rain gardens, permeable pavement structures and underground systems that combat water runoff and combined sewer overflow (CSO). CSO is an ongoing battle in cities like New York with older sewer systems in which storm water shares one main sewer pipe with raw sewage bound for treatment plants. During a heavy rain, this antiquated system can overflow, discharging polluted water into rivers and streams.
Helping to prevent CSO with green infrastructure means capturing rainwater before it even flows into a storm drain — which means less water flowing through city streets, picking up noxious chemicals and combining with untreated sewage that can pollute New York’s mighty bodies of water.
“The work we’re doing now is going to lead to better water quality in our community, in the Hudson River, the East River and in Jamaica Bay,” Bertani says.
About 200 people work inside HDR’s Manhattan office — a sleek, open floor plan with large windows overlooking Seventh Avenue, just a few blocks from Times Square. The firm has offices around the world and its project portfolio is vast, from a state-of-the-art medical center in China to sustainable housing in Vancouver, a new university science center in Berlin to a bridge-widening project in St. Louis and dam safety initiatives in Seattle.
Bertani’s work centers on the city’s beloved green spaces — its parks and recreational areas. The project’s territory: Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Designing blueprints for new green structures, his work also involves site visits and investigations with his team, and later collaboration with construction crews.
When it comes to green infrastructure, “rain gardens are the ones that everyone loves,” he says. “They reduce runoff and improve the site aesthetically.” The gardens are actually complex systems with engineered media, such as sand, compost and gravel, that work below the ground to absorb water, filter out pollutants and control runoff.
Bertani also works with permeable asphalt and concrete that is installed strategically throughout the parks, designed to allow water to flow through the surface, similar to grass. Another green structure: detention storage chambers that are installed below the ground to store and delay water runoff.
“What’s a small area of permeable pavement going to do?” Bertani asks. “But if you do it over multiple parks over a decade, you’re going to make an impact.”
His work is part of a larger effort by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to reduce CSO into New York Harbor in a cost-effective way. But these projects also deliver many community and environmental benefits, including increased urban greening, urban heat island reduction and more habitats for birds and pollinators across the city.
The Linden, New Jersey, native had long been an aspiring engineer but discovered his love of green infrastructure when he landed a co-op job with HDR while at Stevens.
“It didn’t feel like work, it really felt like I was doing something I wanted to do,” he recalls. “And it was something where I could see my impact.”
He enjoyed the freedom and responsibility that HDR gave him, assigning him projects like any full-time employee. The company was so impressed that he was later hired again for an internship and then brought on fulltime, right after graduation.
Bertani praised his experience at Stevens, from the co-op program that exposed him to several real-life engineering experiences, helping him discover work he really loves, to the curriculum that encouraged the critical thinking that he brings to his job today.
But Bertani’s path to Stevens was far from certain. He is the son of immigrants; his mother is from Argentina and his father arrived from Uruguay in the U.S. with just $200 in his pocket. Bertani won a Stevens scholarship and says that he never could have attended the university without it.
Scholarship money meant he could cover meals for two months at school, he said, make some needed trips home — and also keep his focus on completing his degree.
So today, he wants to give back. As a Stevens Technical Enrichment Program (STEP) and Lambda Upsilon Lambda fraternity alumnus, he is committed to advancing diversity in STEM, devoting his time and making donations to these groups.
This drive to give back — and to improve his community — runs deep. Bertani sees himself doing this now and in the future through civil engineering.
“When I get older, I can tell the younger generation: ‘I worked on these projects. I improved the Hudson River so you can swim in it now.’”