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Co-founder of WashU EWB chapter devotes engineering career to service

One interview for an engineering student newsletter changed the course of Frank Bergh's academic career at Washington University in St. Louis, and ultimately, his professional calling.

Frank Bergh

Bergh, who earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 2008 with a minor in Spanish, was a sophomore and co-editor of EnSequitor, WashU's engineering student newsletter. Although he had declared electrical engineering as his major, he was searching for something more directly related to social justice and community development. For an EnSequitor cover story, he interviewed a graduate student and a faculty member who planned to start a student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA) at WashU. By the end of the interview, Bergh was appointed the chapter's co-founder and public relations chair. Six months later, he was elected president of the group, and soon after, decided to leave the university's baseball team: He had found what he was searching for.

"I dedicated myself to EWB-USA, then I realized that the apparent choice between getting an engineering degree and making the world a better place was really a false dichotomy," Bergh says. "Engineering is a people-serving profession. The work that I do as an engineer must address the real needs of real people. Otherwise, it's not worth it."

Since its founding in 2005, the WashU student chapter of EWB-USA has grown by leaps and bounds and focuses on four main projects: the Mekelle Blind School in Ethiopia, a medical device design team, the Guatemala Initiative and a local project in the Hyde Park neighborhood of St. Louis.

After graduating from WashU, Bergh went to work for Burns & McDonnell, an engineering consulting firm, helping utility companies plan for their future. His first assignment was an oil pipeline project.

"At that point, I had a difficult conversation with my manager about professional ethics and environmentalism," he says. "I became a conscientious objector to fossil fuels."

Within a few months, he became the firm's lead analyst on wind energy interconnection. During his 2½ years with the firm, he worked on more than 50 wind farms to help change the way electricity is produced in the U.S. and Canada.

Bergh then joined Nordex, a German wind turbine manufacturer, for which he was responsible for grid interconnection of wind farms in North, Central and South America, particularly in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Honduras, Uruguay and Chile.

"People in Chile, Honduras and most of Latin America pay more per kilowatt hour for their electricity than we do in the U.S. per kilowatt hour," Bergh says. "Developing countries are hungry for a paradigm shift away from fossil fuel-based industrialization and toward a clean, sustainable, affordable energy future."

Bergh has carried his desire to use his engineering skills to help others in his current job as director of engineering for SoCore Energy, which provides rooftop solar energy systems for commercial, retail and industrial customers. Based in Chicago, he leads a team of 11 engineers and architects to bring solar power to businesses in the U.S. and in Latin America. Recently, he traveled to Mexico as part of an international delegation to meet with government officials and Mexican construction companies, suppliers and distributors to discuss the future of solar energy in Mexico. He also recently returned from auditing six solar-energy manufacturing facilities in China.

Bergh is still involved with EWB-USA's Chicago professional chapter. Earlier this year, he went with an EWB-USA group to Guatemala to work with the Asociación Ak Tenamit, an indigenous Mayan cooperative in a jungle upriver from the Caribbean coast accessible only by boat. Partnering with the school and key local leadership, Bergh's team from EWB-USA installed and maintained solar panels, donated by SoCore, a solar-powered water pump, and an anaerobic baffled reactor sanitation system.

But his passion for social justice extends beyond his engineering career. Bergh lives in an intentional community called Emmaus House, part of the Catholic Worker movement, in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood, where Martin Luther King Jr. lived in 1966. Today, the predominately African-American neighborhood has high rates of poverty and crime.

"Emmaus House is a community that's dedicated to racial justice and racial reconciliation in North Lawndale," Bergh says. "We also offer overnight hospitality to refugees and undocumented immigrants and have strong relationships with local shelters and churches that do community organizing work."

In addition, Bergh is a contributing editor for Engineering for Change, a website focused on international humanitarian development and appropriate technology. He teaches an online course titled "Technology and Community-Based Development" at Colorado State University and Duke University through Village Earth, a grassroots support organization partnering with indigenous communities worldwide.

"It's important to stay grounded in an appropriate framework for doing this work so I don't allow my own biases or prejudice to interfere with the community's self-determination, as well as what is the appropriate technology or method of intervention being deployed in a given circumstance," he says. "I want to make sure the communities that I work with have access to the solutions they expect and deserve when they take a risk by trusting an international partner."

Bergh attributes his WashU Engineering education, as well as his involvement in extracurricular organizations, for preparing him to carry out his mission in his career and outside of work.

"I never could have imagined as a WashU student the type of work I'm doing now," he says. "The program didn't tell me what to think, but how to think. The extracurricular organizations, including EWB-USA and the Catholic Student Center, gave me a worldview where I'm going to continue to be involved in seeing engineering as a service-driven profession and looking for ways to improve the world around me."