As many as one in four of the nation’s bridges is structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, the American Society of Civil Engineers said in a report last year. That means tens of thousands of bridges across the nation require repairs or should be replaced.
That’s where Rice’s Jamie Padgett comes in.
The assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering believes that a new approach is required to enhance bridge safety, while achieving heightened performance goals based on defined metrics.
Officials at the National Science Foundation agree. They are backing Padgett’s idea to the tune of $420,000 over the next five years through one of the foundation’s most competitive grant programs, the Faculty Early Career Development CAREER Award. The honor is presented to only 400 or so young researchers annually across all scientific disciplines.
“The infrastructure problem isn’t easily solved. Most of the bridges are more than 40 years old and are exposed to a number of threats ranging from natural hazards to increased traffic loads,” Padgett said. “Our approach will involve risk-assessment and life-cycle modeling that takes into account factors such as energy usage, life-cycle costs and potential downtime of structures. The method will provide a new approach for decision makers to use in selecting upgrades for deficient bridges so that safety and sustainability are improved.”
Padgett’s research team will conduct analytical modeling of data collected in field visits and perform bridge case studies. They will use vulnerability modeling to uncover the complex and intertwined effects of events that can occur throughout a typical bridge’s life, like storm surge, earthquakes, aging or deterioration and increased service load demands.
The professor will involve her Rice students in hands-on use of principles in sustainable engineering and natural hazard risk mitigation during the research. She plans to foster international exchanges with researchers in other countries, as well, and will recruit and retain underrepresented students to be part of her team.
“Addressing our national infrastructure problems is going to take a pipeline of students,” she said. “We need future civil engineers who will be prepared to integrate risk assessment principles with sustainable engineering concepts and have multi-disciplinary knowledge to perform this kind of work.”
Padgett joined the Rice faculty in 2007 and has quickly become a mainstay. She was selected as one of the 14 “Best and Brightest New Faces” in engineering under the age of 30 by the National Engineers Week Foundation. She represented the U.S. at the National Academy of Engineering China-America Frontiers of Engineering Symposium in China and has spoken on bridge safety issues in Japan. She was on the American Society of Civil Engineers Reconnaissance team that assessed damage to bridges after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The professor is a native of Melbourne, Florida and holds a doctorate in civil engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Florida.
—Dwight Daniels, Engineering Communications