Carmel Valley professor — Most Influential Faculty Award’ winner — steps down as civil engineering chair after a record 18 years

Janusz Supernak (Photo: Jon Clark)

By Arthur Lightbourn

“Whatever I do,” says Janusz Supernak, “I’m passionate about it. I don’t like to do things half way.”

That includes being a civil engineer, college professor, singer, songwriter, church organist, and a U.S. nationally ranked ping-pong player.

Supernak, 66, the Polish-born San Diego State University professor who recently stepped down as chair of the department of civil engineering after serving a record 18 years, was honored at SDSU’s 2011 commencement with the university’s “Most Influential Faculty Award.”

During his tenure as chair (the longest in the college’s history), the multi-talented Supernak was successful in creating two additions to the civil engineering program: environmental and construction engineering; and is credited with bringing in more than $4 million in external contracts to SDSU.

He is the author of more than 100 papers and research reports on intelligent transportation systems, traffic engineering, transportation economics and travel demand analysis; and he remains on the faculty as a professor, doing research and teaching courses in transportation engineering and engineering economy.

He has lectured in 14 countries and at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including Oxford, Kyoto University, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Nanyang University, Singapore, and at the BOKU University of Vienna.

SDSU is the only university in San Diego offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil, environmental and construction engineering with close to 700 students.

We interviewed Supernak at his home in Carmel Valley where he lives with his Polish-born wife, Iga, a materials engineer and former model, who also shares his love of music and singing — he, a baritone, and she, a soprano. They met in Cracow seven years ago through mutual friends and have been married almost six years.

“Stepping down as chair position,” he said, “gives me more time for my music, my sports and, most importantly, for time with my wife.”
Department chairs normally serve a three-year term with a possible two-year extension.

“I was asked to continue many times and it resulted in a record 18 years at the helm,” he said. “Since we had a very successful accreditation visit in 2010 with all three of our engineering programs — civil, environmental and construction — receiving the maximum six-year accreditations, it was a perfect time for me to step down to give someone else to start preparations for the next accreditation visit in 2016.

“Accreditation is a very demanding and time-consuming task for any chair, even with just one program, and we have three.”

Supernak was born in Deblin, Poland, 60 miles south of the then war-ravaged Polish capital of Warsaw. “I sometime joke that I waited to be born until the war was over. The war ended in May, 1945, and I was born a month later on June 20, 1945.”

His father had been station master at various railway stations in Poland before becoming an executive with a railroad consortium in Gdansk. While growing up, Supernak, with his parents, his older brother and younger sister, lived in company-provided apartments in railway stations.
“With trains passing by all the time,” Supernak recalls, “it was always interesting.

“My field is transportation engineering and maybe it’s something in my genes. My father was in the transportation area, my two grandparents were associated with Polish railways, and my brother also has a Ph.D. in transportation,” he said.

As a youth, Supernak showed a talent for writing, music and architecture, but when his father died of cancer at age 40, the 13-year-old Supernak decided he should concentrate his efforts working toward a profession in which he could “earn some money.”

He began tutoring fellow students in mathematics, switched from a liberal arts high school to a technical high school and subsequently was accepted at the Technical University of Warsaw, the premier engineering university in Poland, where he earned his undergraduate degree (1968), his master’s degree (1970) and his Ph.D. (1977) in civil engineering with an emphasis on transportation.

While working as a researcher in environmental development at the state-run Transportation Department in Warsaw, he went to a conference England to present a paper.

“The civil engineering chairman of SUNY (State University of New York at Buffalo) liked my paper on a mathematical modeling of how traffic is generated in cities and invited me to come to America.”

Supernak served as a visiting assistant professor at SUNY, 1980-81; and served as associate professor at Drexel University, Philadelphia, 1981-84; and, in 1984, moved to San Diego and joined the SDSU faculty as an associate professor. He was promoted to full professor in 1988.

Most rush-hour motorists regard freeway driving as an ordeal to be endured for the privilege of living and working in sunny San Diego, but Supernak has long regarded the I-15 as a “national lab” for creating better traffic management systems.

From 1997 to 2001, he was the principal investigator of the $1.2 million federal grant pilot program for the Congestion (Value) Pricing system on the HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes of the I-15. The successful implementation of the computer-controlled trip pricing geared to traffic volume was a world-first now imitated by other cities to improve highway traffic flows.

“Traffic unfortunately is a phenomenon of our civilization and it’s not going away because of growth and San Diego has tremendous growth. The problems we are facing as traffic engineers will only be more complicated,” he said.

But solutions like HOT lanes and soon to be introduced “managed lanes” on I-15, he added, will definitely help, combined hopefully with other solutions including flexible work hours and “smart growth” to reduce commuting distances.

Looking even more into the future, Supernak anticipates seeing traffic engineers further develop “intelligent highway” experiments in which highways will be equipped with magnets and vehicles with special devices that will allow vehicles to be automatically controlled and guided safely and evenly through rush hour traffic.

For civil engineers, the future bodes well for job opportunities, particularly in the areas of transportation, water-delivery systems and construction upgrading of the country’s aging infrastructure, Supernak predicts.

He is particularly proud of his role in winning the contract for a World Bank-sponsored program to provide graduate training for engineering instructors from Nangarhar University, Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Two instructors just earned their M.S. degrees from SDSU and another six are completing master’s degrees at SDSU’s partner school, the Technical University of Cracow, Poland.

Supernak is co-director of the program that not only is training teachers but has created coursework for implementation of a new, strong civil engineering curriculum at Nangarhar.

“This is a project that will make really true friends in Afghanistan,” he said. “Those people are very influential…They will say Americans did something really good for them. So, if we want to win hearts and minds, that’s the best way to do it.”

His passion for music has been with him throughout his life, beginning as a boy, growing up in a household where music and singing were an integral part of family life.

For the past 20 years, Supernak has served as the volunteer organist and cantor at the Polish Catholic Mission in Pacific Beach. He and his wife perform in a quartet at the church.

He has written and composed more than 50 songs and recorded two albums: “My Prayer” and “Christmas in San Diego,” which won first prizes at the International Multimedia Festival “Polish Homelands,” in 2006 and 2007.

His song, “My Lullaby,” is the title song in the award-winning album by Polish jazz singer Aga Zaryan.

His song, “I Found My Perfect City,” was the popular vote winner in a contest for a song about San Diego organized by San Diego Magazine and radio station Sophie@103.7. It has had more than 4,000 hits on YouTube.

In addition to his musical interests, Supernak is an avid table tennis (ping-pong) player. He is a frequent competitor in San Diego Table Tennis Association tournaments, often against skillful Chinese players at the Recreational Center in Carmel Valley, and solo against a robot in his garage. At the 2008 U.S. National Competition in Las Vegas, he was ranked 16 in his age group.

All through his career in the U.S., Supernak has maintained an abiding connection with his native Poland.

He is president of the San Diego-Warsaw & Mazovia Province Sister City Society and active in the House of Poland in Balboa Park, the Polish-American Congress, Polonia Technica and Polonia United.

In 2004, he arranged for Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to give a lecture at SDSU that attracted an audience of 1,200.

Quick Facts
Name: Janusz (pronounced: “Ya-noosh”) Supernak, Ph.D.

Distinction: San Diego State University civil engineering professor, who served for a record 18 years as chair of Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, recently was honored at the 2011 commencement with receipt of SDSU’s Most Influential Faculty Award.

Resident of: Carmel Valley

Born: Deblin, Poland, 66 years ago

Education: B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in civil engineering, Technical University of Warsaw, 1968, 1970, 1977 respectively.

Family: He and his wife, Iga, have been married six years. Like he, she was born in Poland, is also an engineer and sings with him in a quartet at the Polish Catholic Mission in Pacific Beach where he has served as volunteer organist and cantor for 20 years.

Interests: Music, singing, songwriting, table tennis, chess, Sudoku and travel.

Favorite composers: Chopin and Mozart

Favorite singers: Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole

Favorite films: Classic European films by directors Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman are his all-time favorites.

Favorite travel: Japan and India

Recent readings: “4 Diets 4 Blood Types: Eat Right 4 Your Type,” by Dr. Peter J. D’Adamo; and poetry by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz.

Philosophy: Strive for a balance among intellectual, spiritual and physical activities. “It works for me.”

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Posted by Staff on Jun 27, 2011. Filed under Carmel Valley, Featured Story, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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