Vincent Adams: Engineering Giant

Date Published: 
Stabroek News
Orin Davidson

A motor accident several years ago may have cut short a promising cricketing career. Life, however, is full of ironies, and when one door was closed to Vincent Adams another threw itself open for him to step in.

Even as the Guyana twenty/20 cricket team reflects on its failures at the just concluded Champions League tournament in South Africa, a former Guyanese cricketer continues to climb the ladder of success in an entirely different field. In a different life Dr. Vincent Adams was once just another cricket-crazy Linden boy. Times have changed and today he is one of the most respected engineers employed by the United States Government.

For the past three years Dr Adams held down one of the top engineering posts in the Department of Energy, overseeing the operations of the world’s biggest nuclear energy enrichment plant, located in Ohio. He administers the facility on a budget of US$12 billion and a staff of 3000 persons.

When you engage Vincent Adams you are unlikely to think of him as a key player in the most vital sub-sector of the United States energy sector. Vince, as he is known to his friends, is an enduringly humble man whose retention of both the mannerisms and accent of a Guyanese appears deliberate. Perhaps less surprisingly, he is a passionate follower of Caribbean cricket.

If at first you are unable to figure out Dr Adams, perusal of his accomplishments provides an unmistakable measure of the man. He has served, variously, as Site Manager, Portsmouth Uranium Enrichment Plant; Chief Engineer, Savannah River Site Nuclear site; Office Director, US Department of Energy Engineering and Technology; Consultant, International Atomic Energy Agency; Chairman, International Conference On Remediation Of Environment; Chairman, Air and Waste Management Association; Engineer, Amoco Oil Company.

There is also the small matter, of his Bachelor’s, Masters and an exemplary career of academic excellence and service to the United States energy sector.

At the Portsmouth Uranium Enrichment Plant, Dr Adams is responsible for developing new technology for the enrichment of uranium fuels for nuclear energy reactors and nuclear weapons. “There are a number of such nuclear energy operations around the world, but here at Portsmouth it is the biggest and most sophisticated,” he says.  “You can imagine the high levels of security it entails.” The site, he says, is twice the island of Barbados and some of the buildings measure a mile in length.

In acquiring his first appointment with the Department of Energy as Office Director, he was selected from a field of several thousand applicants, eventually reduced to twenty who were assessed for two years on special projects. Having been judged the top performer in the group Dr Adams became Senior Executive Service, a position which made him the highest serving Guyanese employee ever in the United States government.

There he was charged with protecting the United States water resources from contamination from its nuclear and other energy activities and ensuring the safety of the environment.

At Amoco, he helped improve the technology associated with the extraction of oil from rock. His contribution helped doubled oil extraction from 20%, an accomplishment from which the global oil industry now benefits.

As consultant to the Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), comprising representatives of more than 55 countries, his contribution led to his selection as Chairman of the Remediation Conference held earlier this year.

A typical month in Dr Adams schedule includes travels around the world from Europe to South America and around the United States. Remarkably he still finds the time to visit Guyana, every year, in his capacity as Chairman of Linden Fund, a US-based charity organization which donates medical and education supplies and equipment to needy residents from the mining town.

Adams concedes that his enduringly Guyanese accent baffles those influential US and international executives with whom he interfaces in the course of his work. “But they all respect authority. Once you are capable enough to attain top positions, they view you for what you are and where you are from,” he explains.

Many years ago Jamaican reggae star Jimmy Cliff made a hit tune titled “Hard Road To Travel.” He may well have been reflecting on Adams’ rags to riches story, his progress from poor Linden boy to top technocrat in the United States government. Apart from not being born with a “silver spoon in mouth”

Adams had no role models in academia where he lived in Christianburg ward, best known for its huge cemetery. His mother had never had the opportunity to master the basic skills of reading and writing and it was left to his teachers and other well-meaning individuals to help him appreciate the importance of education. He recalls that once he was soundly whipped by a teacher for not managing to place better than third in his class.

Cricket, even more than education, was once a major part in Vince’s life. "I got out of bed every day at 5 in the morning, trained, did my chores, schoolwork and practiced afterwards."

He became good enough to become the first Lindener to represent Guyana at both junior and senior levels. For three consecutive years (1966-69), he represented Guyana in the Benson & Hedges schoolboys competition. Subsequently, he played three matches for the Guyana senior squad in the 1969 Shell Shield, rubbing shoulders with the likes of West Indian stalwarts Alvin Kallicharran and Lawrence Rowe. Shortly thereafter, an automobile accident changed his life.

Sidelined from the sport for a full year as a result of a head injury, he was encouraged to apply to the University of Guyana by former West Indies player Basil Butcher. Once he began his Engineering degree the course of his life was set. “I became so in love with engineering, even cricket had to take a back seat,” Adams says.

Discipline has been a watchword in his distinguished career. He jogged every day, rain or shine. It was that discipline that enabled him to strike a balance between his social and his professional lives.

At the University of Guyana Dr Adams obtained his BS degree in Civil and Public Health Engineering, following which he won scholarships for post-graduate studies at Ohio University and the University of Missouri. He attained Masters’ Degrees in Groundwater Hydrology and Geological Petroleum Engineering respectively after which he completed a PhD in Environmental Engineering at the University of Tennessee.

He maintains an abiding interest in Guyana. “Guyana has the potential to become the richest country on the planet,” Dr Adams says. “There are resources and talent and a small population to maintain”. He is highly enthused about plans to develop hydro-electric power in Guyana, an undertaking he feels is long overdue.“The advantage hydro-power has is a lesser cost factor compared to oil drilling. You don’t have to conduct expensive feasibility studies, which most times lead to nothing. With hydro-power knowledge already established, the cost information is known”.

Dr. Adams is also a firm believer in renewable energy and cites Brazil as a country which remains largely unaffected by energy crises because they were wise enough to invest in ethanol production. The road to Brazil, he says, holds much promise for his own hometown, Linden as it does for Guyana as a whole.

Like all red-blooded fans of West Indies cricket, the former opening batsman, is distraught over the decline of the Caribbean as a force in international cricket. He attributes the lack of success on the field to poor administration of the sport. “There is total lack of leadership and when you have that there is a breakdown in discipline on the field”. He says that the current administrators has been left behind as the sport has become more of a business activity and the current officials seem to lack an understanding of their role in developing it.

You need a balance between an official who knows business and has played the game. You can’t have only a business-oriented person that does not understand the psyche of the player, and at the same time have someone who knows nothing about business.

The former Mackenzie Sports Club and Demerara Cricket Club player points out that every organization, every country, has to develop a competitive edge to be successful. Free lunches, he says, are a thing of the past. Dr Adams is blunt about the problems confronting the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB). "They have", he says, "been too laid back. Many of them have never worked overseas (in North America, Europe) to understand what it takes to be successful in a competitive environment.

Given his experience on both sides of the boundary – so to speak – and having been a player and now someone who negotiates billion-dollar contacts for the United States Government, Dr Adams’ advice is well worth heeding. Based on the WICB’s track record, however, that may well be wishful thinking.