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ASCE awards Ph.D. candidate

| Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Notre Dame Ph.D. candidate Maria Gibbs was recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as one of the 2015 New Faces in Civil Engineering on Dec. 2.

According to an ASCE press release, the award “promotes the bold and humanitarian future of civil engineering by highlighting the achievements of young civil engineers, their contributions to and impact on society.”

One-of-10 recipients of the award, Gibbs said she researches the effects of wind on suspension footbridges, specifically those built in developing countries by the nonprofit organization Bridges to Prosperity.

The press release said ASCE will officially recognize Gibbs for her work with Bridges to Prosperity at the Outstanding Projects and Leaders (OPAL) Gala in March.

Gibbs said she is honored by the award and by the opportunity to “spread the work of the team of Bridges to Prosperity.”

“The civil engineering profession is recognizing that this is really important work and hopefully spreading the word that you don’t have to choose between a career in international development and a career in civil engineering,” she said. “There are ways to figure out how to mold your passion into a more traditional, conventional civil engineering career path.”

Gibbs said she first became involved with Bridges to Prosperity, an organization that builds footbridges to provide safe transportation to people living in isolated regions, during her undergraduate studies at Duke University.

Now a board member of Bridges to Prosperity, Gibbs said the “main focus” of her doctoral studies is determining the structural soundness of the footbridges built by the organization.

“Before I leave here, I will have an answer about if Bridges to Prosperity’s bridges are susceptible to wind, and if they are, a solution to making them safer,” she said.

Gibbs’ doctoral advisor, Notre Dame’s Robert M. Moran Professor of Engineering Ahsan Kareem, said Gibbs’ newfound way to utilize smartphones, a relatively cheap technology, in bridge-testing distinguishes her research.

“I think her real recognition by ASCE … is primarily for this innovation which she has implemented in looking at the performance of these bridges,” he said.

Smartphones have the two-fold benefit of providing a cost-effective way to test bridges and of allowing testing by non-experts, Gibbs said.

“What I’ve been doing with smartphone apps and these little miniature computers called Raspberry Pis is just figuring out a portable, low cost way to go test these bridges, because the way we do it here in the U.S. is you send a team of engineers and it’s very expensive,” she said. “It requires a lot of expertise.”

Gibbs said she came to the University to work alongside Dr. Kareem, who researches the susceptibility of tall buildings and long-span bridges to wind and earthquakes.

Kareem said he enjoys working with Gibbs inside the laboratory and in the field. Kareem accompanied Gibbs on a trip to Nicaragua with Bridges to Prosperity last summer where he witnessed firsthand the impact of her research, he said.

“After going to Nicaragua I could see the difference,” Kareem said. “I couldn’t tell that from here—how important those bridges are for those people. It’s not typical engineering. I think it’s more like Notre Dame engineering, where you have a service-oriented contribution to science and technology.”

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