Joseph P. Drago

Joseph Drago served as a judge for our 2018 Undergraduate Research Symposium. 
Joseph Drago served as a judge for our 2018 Undergraduate Research Symposium. 

New York City native Joseph "Joe" Drago graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1972. He continued his education at Illinois with a master’s in Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering before launching a distinguished career in chemical, nuclear engineering, and consulting. Since 1979, Joe has been a licensed professional engineer. Three generations of Dragos have attended the U of I. Joe’s father, Philip Drago, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French. And one of Joe’s two sons, Michael Drago, received a BS in Mathematics and Computer Science in 2004. Drago, now of Naperville, often returns to campus. We caught up with him on a recent visit.

Tell us about your career.
I’ve had a varied career. After leaving Illinois in ’74, I was a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory working on nuclear fuel reprocessing at the pilot plant scale. After that, I was a reactor engineer at a nuclear power plant in Connecticut. I’ve also worked as a safety compliance officer at Argonne National Laboratory and I finished my career as a nuclear engineer at the Department of Energy, conducting nuclear safety assessments and accident investigations. I retired in 2013 and am now consulting in both the nuclear energy field and social service sector, helping nonprofits improve their organizational effectiveness.

What brought you to Illinois? What was your time like here as a student?
I really enjoyed chemistry, physics, and mathematics in high school. The U of I accepted my application through the early admissions program, and I had decided to study chemistry. When I arrived on campus, I was told that I would not receive credit for French, but that I would have to learn either Russian or German. When I asked where I can receive credit for French and apply my love for chemistry, my advisor told me about chemical engineering. So, I changed my major from chemistry to chemical engineering. If I had known more about what chemical engineers did, I would have applied there first.

How did your ChemE degree and your Illinois education have an impact on your career?
It was essential in learning how to solve problems. It was both the knowledge of chemical engineering as a profession and the ability to learn to solve problems because engineers are problem solvers. We’re always looking for improvement opportunities. One of the things I’ve done in my consulting work is to teach root cause analysis. I’ve co-taught some courses with my colleague in Connecticut to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to people who need to review root cause analysis reports of the licensees of nuclear power plants. So problem-solving was a key benefit from my education here. I’m most appreciative of the faculty and the opportunities the chemical engineering department has afforded me. I had Dr. Richard Alkire and still keep in touch with him when I come down for the Roger Ebert Film Festival. I had Professor Chuck Eckert for thermodynamics and Jack Hudson was my stoichiometry professor. I was a photographer with the Daily Illini while I was a student here. I still keep in touch with some guys from there and from my graduating class. We had 32 ChemE graduates. We started with a class of 160!

You made a generous gift to the department to support CHBE 121, “The CHBE Profession” and specifically the safety poster sessions. What prompted you to give back to the department and that program?
I read in Mass Transfer about Dr. Troy Vogel’s chemical safety board poster session. Back when I was a student, the emphasis on accident prevention and safety wasn’t as high as it is in our industry now. There’s a specific niche where my career path had progressed and I wanted to support that with the current students.

If you could give one piece of advice to ChBE students, what would it be?
The university provided a great foundation for me to become a successful engineer and consultant in both the tech and social sectors. I have always looked for opportunities to learn, collaborate with people, and make an impact. There were challenging situations in my career when it would have been easier to either lower my standards or allow someone else to standup. Staying technically competent, being committed to excellence and willing to deliver the tough news are traits that were nurtured by family, friends, and the university.