An honorary degree for an engineering legend

(Edmonton) Jacob Masliyah, a legendary figure in the history of oilsands research, received an honorary doctor of science degree this morning from the University of Alberta. Masliyah told the graduating class of engineers that stick-to-itiveness and continual learning are keys to a successful career.

Masliyah, a professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, arrived at the U of A in 1977 and made his name with breakthrough research into oilsands extraction. Masliyah’s leadership is recognized as vital to the university’s emergence as a world leader in bitumen research.

Masliyah told his convocation audience that as a young boy, he taught himself how to take daunting challenges. He equated the back-breaking work of construction workers digging a deep hole, one shovelful at a time, with a learning challenge he faced in school.

Masliyah’s fifth-grade labour was memorizing and reciting poetry, in French. The doggedness of the workmen made an impression. Masliyah devised a study plan:

“If I learn one poem every two days, by the end of three weeks I will have learned them all and I will have one week to go over them one more time. I did just that. I passed the exam, and here I am today.”

Masliyah applied the same principle to his engineering career. He was always willing to learn more. In 1990, Masliyah needed a thorough understanding of how, when mixed with water, a single grain of sand separates from a coating of bitumen. He set aside a year to pore through volumes of research to figure it out.

“But, shovel by shovel, word by word and page by page,” said Masliyah, “I came to appreciate the surface science ramification to bitumen recovery from oilsands and tailings management.”

That extra effort allowed Masliyah to move the science of oilsands processing forward, helping to minimize the use of water and energy to produce bitumen.

Masliyah urged the undergraduate, master’s and PhD engineers sitting before him to never sit back, thinking they know everything about their profession.

“Never stop learning. Never stop expanding your knowledge, not just in the engineering field but in the fine arts, history and science. Be a well-rounded engineer.”