|Ever since I was a young boy, my wish was to be a civil engineer, just like my maternal grandfather. My grandpa was an unusual person. After I finished high school, I enrolled at Virginia Tech, and my grandfather enrolled there at the same time! While I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering, he earned two more degrees, completing them at the age of 72.
After completing my Bachelor of Science degree, I attended the University of Colorado, where I earned a Master’s degree. I worked as a consultant for four years and traveled all over the world. Nevertheless, I felt that something was missing in my life, so I went back to the University of Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering in 1989. The work I did for my doctoral dissertation resulted in experiments that eventually flew on two Space Shuttle missions. The experiment was called the Mechanics of Granular Materials (MGM).
As a civil engineer, I am interested in designing and building structures that are meant to be used by the general public. Some examples of civil engineering feats over the years are the pyramids and the “Camino de los Muertos” of the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán, the Incan ruins of Macchu Picchu in Peru, and the vast expanse of the Hohokam irrigation system in Arizona. One thing that interests me greatly is the surface of the ground where structures are to be built. That’s where my research for the experiments comes in. It deals with granular materials, which are like jellybeans in your pocket or the sand between your toes.
If you think about it, sand is fascinating. On the one hand, it acts like a solid (you’ve heard of sand sculptures). On the other hand, sand can flow like water, such as sand in an hourglass timer. What I am interested in is how sand, or similar granular materials like soil, will react when there is something on top of it, like a house or a public building. However, scientists don’t fully understand how granular materials like sand and soil behave under different stresses. The experiments flown on the Space Shuttle were designed to help us understand the mechanics of granular materials, which is basically how these substances react under differing situations. By taking sand and soil into the low-gravity environment of orbit, scientists were able to study how these materials behave under certain low-stress situations, as well as under low pressures. This study aided in understanding how some granular materials might act in a situation like the big Mexico City earthquake in 1985, and the great 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. We can more intelligently select building sites for structures, dig more stable mines, and create better pharmaceuticals and cosmetics as a result of knowing the mechanics of granular materials.
Through my profession as a civil engineer, I continue to honor the memory of my grandpa. My work has also helped us understand a vital part of our world so that we may build safer structures for people to use. As a teacher I pass on this information to students, helping them become competent civil engineers. I am lucky to be able to work in and train others for the profession I longed to enter since I was young. Having a Ph.D. in civil engineering has made it possible for me to actively pursue my dreams.