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Graduate Student Spotlights

Maria Gibbs

Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences
Graduate Student

With little more than a smartphone app and a rope, Maria Gibbs, S.M.ASCE, a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame, was able to do something that normally requires a team of structural engineers and a truckload of fancy, expensive equipment. Through her research work as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, she was able to create a simple dynamic testing procedure that she terms a Citizens Sensing Project, which would capture the dynamic characteristics of suspension footbridges.

“We know from experience that suspension bridges, particularly slender bridges with low structural stiffness and mass, suffer from a unique vulnerability to wind,” explained Gibbs, whose research on bridge aeroelasticity was so closely tied to her volunteer work with Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) that she spent a year working for them as operations and research coordinator.

“So my job,” she noted, “was to erase that uncertainty and develop a tool that is going to predict how these structures will respond to the wind so that we can design and build these bridges safely, and to last a long time.

“The first step is capturing the dynamics of the structures using a portable, low-cost testing procedure which is easily deployable to rural footbridges all over the world – i.e. a smart phone app and a rope – then using this data, along with information about wind-induced buffeting and flutter, to develop a tool which predicts the behavior of suspension footbridges under wind loads.”
In partnership with a team of researchers from Bauhaus University, Weimar, who developed the smartphone app, they tested this citizen sensing procedure on a series of 14 footbridges in rural communities in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Rwanda, validating measurements from four footbridges against industry standard testing equipment.

“This is important because B2P is pushing the span limit of these bridges for communities that are coping with extreme isolation,” states Gibbs, who also serves on the B2P Board of Directors. “Bridges with longer spans are even more susceptible to this [wind-induced] phenomenon. So [B2P has] encountered situations where we just can’t build a bridge because the span would be too long, or we are uncertain as to how it is going to react in the wind.

“There is still a ton of work to be done [in developing this tool], but what we have done so far is step one: figuring out how to test the dynamics of these bridges using a cool innovative approach. Because what B2P is essentially trying to do is answer the question: how we can support communities on a scale commensurate with the need. To do that, we need robust bridge designs that are built to last in some of the most challenging environments in the world.”

Gibbs’ desire to become a civil engineer began back in the summer of 2005, when Gibbs traveled to El Salvador and became friends with Gloria Sandoval and her sister Reina, who were living at Natalia de Siman, an orphanage for girls. Since then, Gibbs has returned there every summer where she has volunteered to do everything from create a library to teach math at the orphanage.

“My natural reaction,” says Gibbs, who decided to enroll in the civil and environmental engineering program at Duke University, “was to try and do something to help. So I started Cards for Las Niñas, an organization that sold greeting cards to raise money for the orphanage to buy clothes, medicine, and school supplies. I couldn’t help but feel discouraged by the transience of the benefit the money provided and I realized that by studying engineering, I could have a more profound and sustainable impact.”

During a conversation with her friend Gloria Sandoval, who graduated from the orphanage and became a school teacher in a remote Salvadoran village, she came across another stark realization; that students living in the area had to wade or swim across a dangerous river to get to school because there was no bridge.

“That was infuriating to me,” she recalled, “Kids in El Salvador risked their lives getting to school when there seemed to be a really simple solution: build a footbridge. So, I went back to Duke and started this organization, Duke Engineers for International Development. By pure chance, while doing an assessment trip for a footbridge in El Salvador, I ran into the country’s B2P director, and so started my collaboration and involvement with them.”

Although she does not yet know what her future holds when she graduates in 2017, Gibbs believes that people deserve the opportunity to be healthy, be educated and support themselves and their families. “That is what drives my work and will continue my work,” she says.

Gibbs concludes, “It was not until I was hauling rocks next to a farmer in El Salvador, who told me that the footbridge that we were working on was going to allow him to get his crops to market or when I was bending rebar with a couple of kids in Nicaragua and they were so excited because that footbridge [we were building] would mean they no longer risked swimming a river to get to school, that I realized  as civil engineers, we have the good fortune to work on projects that touch people’s lives every day.”

STORY BY Doug Scott, ASCE News

Gibbs was recently named one of the 2015 New Faces of Civil Engineering Professional by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Watch her video profile.

Ryan RossRyan Ross

Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
Graduate Student

Stress fractures are common in people undergoing intense physical activity such as military recruits, manual laborers, and athletes. Graduate student Ryan Ross is working with Associate Professor Ryan K. Roeder as part of a team developing an X-ray contrast agent to more easily identify the microdamage in bone, which causes these fractures.

Ross has been designing methods to track nanoparticles in bone, selectively attaching those particles to damaged sites within bone, and then following the effects of the contrast agents (nanoparticles) in medical images. Funded by the U.S. Army, the development of such a non-destructive technique for detecting microdamage could translate into more accurate tests for assessing bone quality and fracture risk.

For more information about this and other projects in biomechanics and biomaterials, click here.

Kyle Butler

Kyle Butler

Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences
Graduate Student

Every year thunderstorms sweeping across the United States account for approximately $6 billion in property damage; they also cause an average of 80 deaths and 1,500 injuries. Graduate student Kyle Butler has been studying thunderstorm winds, which flow around structures in a much different way than other types of winds, creating severe pressures on the walls and roofs of buildings.

Working in laboratory facilities and wind tunnels on campus (and in collaboration with researchers in Japan), Butler and his adviser, Ahsan Kareem, the Robert M. Moran Professor of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, have developed simulation techniques and computational models of thunderstorm and hurricane wind flows around buildings, in particular the impact of winds from Hurricane Ike that hit the downtown Houston area in 2008. These models will help Butler, Kareem, and other researchers better understand the fundamental
aerodynamics of thunderstorms and severe frontal weather systems as they work to develop improvements for the structural performance of buildings subject to these types of natural hazards, protecting lives and property.

Butler Research Buildings

Research: Butler

Dunn & Dickens
Brian Dunn & Michael Dickens

Department of Electrical Engineering
Graduate Students

A highly reconfigurable wireless system that can communicate using almost any protocol, RFware was designed by Notre Dame faculty and graduate students to help first responders in emergency situations communicate more effectively via reliable wireless interfaces.

A team led by J. Nicholas Laneman, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and graduate students Brian Dunn and Michael Dickens uses software radio technology for experimental research and for developing solutions to national problems.

One such challenge involves police officers and other first responders whose ability to communicate could mean the difference between life and death. Because of the nature and scope of different situations, emergency personnel rarely have the opportunity to plan and setup their radios to address specific needs prior to an event. Even radios that conform to national standards for interoperability don’t always communicate with each other consistently. Software-defined radio technology could immediately benefit police, fire, and other emergency management departments that have struggled for decades with incompatible communication devices.

RFware has received contracts from the U.S. Navy and Indiana’s 21st Century Fund in order to continue developing this technology for commercialization.

Zachary R. Gagnon

Zachary R. Gagnon

Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
2010 Ph.D. Recipient

Zachary R. Gagnon was one of the four top graduating doctoral students honored with the Eli J. and Helen Shaheen Graduate School Award. Named for a Notre Dame alumnus and his wife, the award recognizes graduate students for their superior ability as exhibited by grades, research, publication records, and fellowships and other awards received during the course of study at Notre Dame, as well as their teaching ability.

Gagnon is a chemical engineer who, during his time in Notre Dame’s Center for Microfluidics and Medical Diagnostics, has invented multiple technologies involving pathogen detection for use in the biotech industry. Specifically, his research has focused on engineering microfluidic technologies for portable diagnostics, including genetic and protein identification.

His immediate plans involve a postdoctoral position in cell biology at The Johns Hopkins University where he will assume a position as assistant professor in 2011.

Will McLeod

Will McLeod

Graduate Student

When Will McLeod graduated from Notre Dame in 2009 with dual degrees in mechanical engineering and industrial design, he enrolled in the new Engineering, Science, and Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Master’s (ESTEEM) program. “I chose to pursue an advanced degree, but I wanted more than a traditional master’s,” he says. “The ESTEEM program was a good fit because it lets me build on my engineering expertise while also focusing on business development skills.”

By the time McLeod received his bachelor’s degrees, he had already won the Mendoza College of Business’ McCloskey Business Plan Competition, the Four Horseman Idea Plan Competition, and the TechPoint Indiana Venture Idol Statewide Competition for a “smart” window technology he and a team of undergraduates developed. The team also formed a company to continue developing their product.

Comparable to a technically oriented M.B.A., the 12-month long ESTEEM program pairs graduate students with faculty mentors from throughout the University to develop the cross-disciplinary skills needed to take technological innovations and translate them into commercial ventures.

A patent is currently pending for the McLeod and team’s original idea, SmarterShade, and several sister technologies. They are also completing an application for a Small Business Innovation Research grant to be able to develop each of their concepts into a market-ready device. When McLeod graduates from the ESTEEM program later this year, he (along with the other ESTEEM graduates) will be able to run his own start-up or create new opportunities in a larger corporation.

Karsten Steinhaeuser

Karsten Steinhaeuser

Department of Computer Science and Engineering
Graduate Student

Karsten Steinhaeuser, whose research interests include high-performance data mining, learning from datasets, and parallel and distributed learning algorithms, is scheduled to complete his third degree, a doctorate, from Notre Dame this fall.

Steinhaeuser already holds a bachelor’s (2005) and a master’s degree (2007) in computer science and engineering from the University. Since July 2008, he has worked as an intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is developing computational analysis methods for climate data to gain a better understanding of climate change and how it could impact the environment, population, and human health.

His most recent research centers on data mining, and more specifically on the analysis of complex networks and on studying the relationships within groups such as social networks, disease interactions, and the global climate system.