Adrian Pais: Gold Standard

Adrian Pais, 2009 chair of IEEE GOLD, has big plans for getting GOLD groups around the world involved in more grassroots-level projects—especially humanitarian ones

6 May 2009

Think globally and act locally. That’s the philosophy of Adrian Pais, 2009 chair of IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD). Pais has big plans for getting GOLD groups around the world involved in more grassroots-level projects—especially humanitarian ones.

As one of his main initiatives, Pais, an IEEE member, is planning to help GOLD groups organize local humanitarian workshops that feature presentations by engineers involved in such projects. That way the engineers can share their experiences and advise GOLD members looking to get involved in community outreach. The first workshop was held in Boston in October.

Pais, 29, is the right person for the job. As chair, he oversees 30 GOLD representatives from IEEE’s 10 geographic regions and more than 50 000 members. A “citizen of the world” his entire life, he has experience in humanitarian projects. Born and raised in Zambia by parents who emigrated from India, he went to high school in the United Kingdom, went to university in New Zealand, and now lives in the Netherlands. Two years ago, he spent eight months touring the world presenting his paper Challenges of Engineering in the 21st Century.”

All that work is on top of his day job as a mobile network consultant for the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), in Delft. In the little extra time he has, he is helping develop technological infrastructure in rural Zambia.

The idea to hold the global humanitarian workshops came about after that first one proved to be such a success. It attracted more than 115 attendees. Speakers discussed their humanitarian work, inspiring members to get involved in similar projects. Pais says he is confident future workshops will be fruitful, partly because he thinks young engineers find humanitarian work interesting and important.

“The humanitarian aspect of engineering is very inspirational for young people,” says Pais, who served as the 2007-2008 editor of GOLDRush, the group’s quarterly newsletter. He says he hopes the workshops will teach members something he has learned: how to work in a variety of locations by understanding how various cultures affect an engineer’s work.

“Exposure to different cultures and people with different social backgrounds has given me a good understanding of the differences, challenges, and opportunities that exist around the world,” he says. “That understanding has made me adapt to working with a variety of cultures, and the importance of that adaptation is what I want to teach the next generation of engineers.

“The goal of GOLD is to develop great young leaders for IEEE, and I want members to know they can make a big difference at the grassroots level,” he continues.

Pais probably got his tech genes from his father, a mechanical engineer. He fell for electrical engineering after a high school electronics course, and he earned a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. (bypassing a master’s) in EE, specializing in wireless communication, from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in 2001 and 2006. As a grad student, he worked as a radio network design engineer at Vodafone New Zealand.

He joined the university’s IEEE student branch in 1999 to participate in its events, discussions, and seminars. When the branch fell dormant in 2002, he helped invigorate it by promoting the benefits of membership.

“IEEE is an excellent way to develop leadership skills and give back to the community,” he says. “IEEE makes a big difference for members. It gives people opportunities they don’t get in their classes or workplaces for networking, engaging in discussions, and developing themselves personally and professionally.” Today the branch has more than 230 students.

After graduating, Pais won first place in a competition sponsored by the U.K.-based Institute of Engineering and Technology for his paper about the challenges engineering should address to serve humanity. The prize included the opportunity to travel to five cities around the world to speak about his findings.

“The paper focused on ethics and social responsibility of the engineering profession. Technical professionals need to be concerned not just with the technological aspects of work but with the culture and environment where it is taking place,” so they can develop appropriate technical solutions, he says.

One of the stops he chose was Zambia. There Pais heard about the work of Gertjan van Stam, a Dutch engineer who founded LinkNet, the first rural Zambian Internet cooperative, whose users share the cost of Internet connection and wireless infrastructure and maintenance. (Van Stam will be profiled in the June issue of The Institute.) Pais went to the rural village of Macha to check out the cooperative’s work and ended up spending three months in the spring of 2007 assisting in the training of local technical workers and in the development of a school program for learning via the Internet. Pais and van Stam, with others, wrote of their work in “Bringing Internet Connectivity to Rural Zambia Using a Collaborative Approach” for the 2007 IEEE/ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) International Conference on Information. And Pais persuaded van Stam to join IEEE.

Pais returned to Zambia for a week last year to help develop a framework for a master’s degree program at the University of Zambia’s Macha campus.

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