Infrastructure Technology Institute
Tell us a little about your college career. Where did you go to school? Did you like it?
I got my undergraduate education at Notre Dame, and received a BS from the Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences. I subsequently went to the University of California at Berkeley for graduate school. In a lot of ways, Notre Dame is similar in size and atmosphere to Northwestern. It draws students from around the world and is excellent in research — yet a great place to be an undergraduate without feeling like “just a number.” I think that my recent experiences at Notre Dame helped to prepare me for a career in education and to connect with the students at Northwestern. Berkeley was a great place to be a graduate student in structural engineering, as the opportunities were endless in terms of courses and research.
What is the most interesting thing that happened to you at Berkeley?
Well, the obvious answer is meeting my future wife [Karen Smilowitz, now a professor in Northwestern’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Science], but there were also tons of exciting professional things I did at Berkeley. One of my favorite experiences was taking a course in microscale heat transfer from Berkeley’s former Chancellor, Chang-Lin Tien. His course incorporated a broad perspective that was very unique among engineering courses, and he really made us think beyond the specifics of the material to get at what was really important about the topics we studied.
But my favorite moment came shortly after the course ended, I was on the elevator with my thesis advisor and Chancellor Tien got on with us and said, “Hello David, how are you?” My advisor was quite impressed!
Before You came to Northwestern (and ITI), you worked at Exponent, a forensic engineering company. What drew you to forensic engineering?
Forensic engineering is very exciting because your activities lie at the intersection of several fundamental components of society : engineering, the law, and economics. You have to learn to think like an engineer while operating and communicating in the legal and economic worlds. And from a practical standpoint, consulting as a forensic engineer exposes
you to many different topics, so you are always working on something new and it never gets boring. It was a fantastic way to broaden my perspectives
as an engineer.
What is the most interesting project you worked on while there?
The most technically interesting projects I worked on were the Marcy Bridge Collapse (a pedestrian bridge that collapsed during construction) near Utica, NY and the Quad Graphics Collapse (an automated industrial facility that collapsed and burned for several days) in Lomira, WI. What made both of these cases great was that they were perfect examples of applying the scientific method: collect data, hypothesize, perform analysis, and evaluate your hypotheses to reach a conclusion or form an opinion. In both cases, our investigative teams were unclear about the answers we would find upon performing our investigation. The results were enlightening and sometimes surprising, and the uncertainty in the result made all of the hard work worth it.
What was the most valuable experience you had at Exponent that you now bring to ITI and Northwestern?
From a technical standpoint, my skills as a structural analyst were finely tuned at Exponent. I had been trained in graduate school in theoretical structural and finite element analyses, but at Exponent I learned to identify specific questions beforehand and then analyze and construct models to answer these specifics. The ITI Research Engineering Group (REG) performs instrumentation studies in the same focused way, so I look forward to melding my skills with their existing expertise.
What are you working on right now for ITI? What is your vision for the future of your work at ITI?
Right now, we are preparing for a new field deployment on a highway bridge in Wisconsin. This exciting project will give us the opportunity to measure inputs (truck loads, speeds, ambient temperature) and observe the responses (strains, displacements, accelerations). In addition, we are constructing finite element models which allow us to predict the responses. Comparing the theoretical and measured responses of the bridge will be interesting, and I look forward to the results – I expect to be surprised!
My vision for future work at ITI is to use the information that the REG is currently able to collect, and take it to the next step which is logically to use it to aid in infrastructure decision-making. At first I intend this to answer specific questions about a structure, for example our Wisconsin bridge: if we observe certain displacements, accelerations, or strains, should we be concerned? And then later, I hope we will be able to advise infrastructure management professionals based on the information we collect and analyze. In my short experience in the world of infrastructure management and preservation, there appears to be a lot of inefficiency in the system. If we can help the management professionals to make more scientifically-based decisions that maximize the impact of their available resources, I will be very proud of the work we do.
What are the potential implications for the work the REG is doing right now in this field?
Obviously, the collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis highlights the fragility of our infrastructure. An ambitious goal of the REG would be to develop monitoring systems where such a catastrophe could be detected in time to issue a warning before collapse. Unfortunately, an intractable amount of information would be needed to achieve this goal, unless a focused instrumentation and modeling plan can be developed. The REG is an innovative leader in developing these types of focused, long-term infrastructure monitoring systems, and I’m excited to bring my experience in analyzing and evaluating structures to the group.