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The Future Starts Now, Part 2

Tomorrow’s civil and environmental engineers will serve society in ways unimaginable a generation ago. To prepare the CEE leaders of the future, CEE at Illinois is modernizing its curriculum and its facilities, and executing an ambitious hiring plan. Last year, we featured seven new outstanding teachers and researchers (here). In the latest round of hiring, we added eight more, featured below. They join our world-class faculty in preparing students to take on the greatest challenges society has to offer, now and into the future. 

 


 

Ramez Hajj

Ramez Hajj

Transportation Engineering

Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin
M.S. University of Texas at Austin
B.S. Virginia Tech

What will you be teaching?

CEE 405 Asphalt Materials

CEE 310 Intro to Transportation Engineering

What are your research interests?

My research occurs at the intersection of materials, mechanics and transportation engineering. My goals are to understand the fundamental properties at microscopic scales which lead to the failure of asphalt and other infrastructure materials. I also hope to develop more sustainable, smart and durable materials for pavement applications.

What drew you to Illinois?

The reputation of the University and CEE department speak for themselves.  But coming to campus was what really helped me see the potential that I'd have here. This campus is full of people doing amazing work – from undergraduates to grad students to staff to faculty. Coming here gave me the opportunity to work with people who are passionate and dedicated to the next frontiers of science and engineering, and to leverage the fantastic facilities and resources here.

What attracted you to the CEE field?

A lot of civil engineers tell a story about feeling inspired when they were young by playing with LEGOs. But for me, it was another toy that inspired me – Silly Putty.  I was so fascinated by this material which you could ball up and bounce off the ground, but could also flow like a fluid. I knew that my dream job involved playing around with cool materials like it, and even better was being involved in a field where I got to use them to build the infrastructure that we use every day.

Predict the future in your area of work: what exciting innovations or developments will happen in the next 10-20 years?

I think in the world of asphalt materials, we will develop sustainable binders which include 100 percent recycled materials and waste materials from other applications. I also think we'll see pavements which don't fail prematurely and have a longer life than ever.  Can you imagine driving on roads with no potholes?  I think we'll see it at some point.

Why should today’s high school students consider CEE?

Civil and environmental engineers have such a unique impact on the world. We get to build and improve the infrastructure that keeps our daily lives going. I think we are probably the only branch of engineering whose work touches every person on the planet every day. It's truly a rewarding service to the public and humanity to be a civil engineer.

What do you hope to accomplish in the world through your work?

I hope that in the next couple of decades, my research will lead to a brand new generation of pavement materials.  I think this is absolutely necessary to help us reach our goals of net zero emissions, and to modernize our infrastructure. I want to be at the forefront of using new, sustainable, recyclable materials. I also hope to lead the charge in developing smart pavements, self healing materials and other interesting pavement technologies.  Finally, I also hope that I'll discover the mechanisms at very small scales which lead to premature pavement failures.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on your work in any way?

I’m very interested in the effect of COVID-19 on the asphalt industry.  Due to such a sharp decrease in demand, the price of oil has gone negative, and some asphalt sources have already done the same. If this goes on much longer, the entire landscape of asphalt construction and production will look completely different, and this will no doubt have an impact on my research area.

Anything else to add?

Go Illini!


 

Ramez Hajj

Jacob D. Henschen

Teaching Faculty
Construction Materials Engineering
Structural Engineering

Ph.D. CEE, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
M.S. CEE, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
B.S. CEE, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

What will you be teaching?

Courses in materials and structural engineering. My primary focus at Illinois will be the modernization of the curriculum, where we will be implementing new strategies and an alternative course structure to enhance the graduate and undergraduate educational experience. The goal is to prepare our graduates to be more effective and innovative in their work – teaching ability or research. In addition, I plan to continue technical research on the rheological behavior of cementitious materials for 3D printing applications. I will also continue to develop uses of waste and recycled materials as additives in concrete.

What drew you to Illinois?

I came to Illinois as a student because of the reputation, world-class faculty and state-of-the-art facilities. While these remain reasons for my return, I am excited at the prospect of shaping the new curriculum and working with faculty who have had positive impacts on my career.

What attracted you to the CEE field?

Before my undergraduate studies, I loved building things and learning how different materials work together to make structures stand. As a student, I was fascinated by the wide variety of properties and applications of seemingly simple materials like concrete. Now as a professor, I am excited for the future with the use of sustainable materials and new technology like 3D printing.

Predict the future in your area of work: what exciting innovations or developments do you see happening in the next 10-20 years?

In the classroom, we are going to see a significant change to how instruction is delivered. Students will take a more active role in their education and have more opportunities to learn through projects, team activities and hands-on experiences. In addition, we are going to see more cross-disciplinary education where students may take courses across the college to be ready for new career paths (like 3D printing with concrete).

Why should today’s high school students consider civil and environmental engineering?

Civil engineering is a massively varied field of study that opens a huge range of career paths. You can design the tallest building in the world or a new road in your city. You can work at a computer modeling systems, or you can travel around the country inspecting built structures. In any of these careers, your projects improve life for the public and the environment.

What do you hope to accomplish in the world through your work?

The challenges facing society continue to change and become more complex. My hope is to create a curriculum that adapts to new problems and embraces new technology so that students are empowered and excited to face these new challenges. Through continued advances and innovation in engineering education, the University of Illinois will remain as the model civil and environmental engineering program in the world.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on your work?

The move to distance learning has been difficult for both faculty and the student population. While the spring semester was a challenge for everyone with the rapid transition to distance learning, the fall semester could be equally challenging with changes to class sizes or hybrid learning. As educators, we will use the summer to improve strategies to increase online class engagement and move hands-on activities online. Since students are also facing a new set of challenges with distance learning, I want to make sure that our methods are sensitive to their needs and continue to provide an effective education.

Anything else to add?

I am really excited to return to Illinois and work with a program that has been so instrumental in my career!


 

Ramez Hajj

Hannah M. Horowitz

Environmental Engineering and Science
Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability

Ph.D. Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University
M.S. Environmental Science and Engineering, Harvard University
B.A. Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard College

What are your research interests?

I focus on how human activity, climate change, chemistry and pollution interact. How do we get from human activity all the way to environmental and health impacts? How can we improve predictions of impacts to serve society? I develop computer models of the air and environment to answer these questions.

What drew you to Illinois?

Excellent faculty and students, great resources and support for research, students and computation. I feel well-supported here, and that the University of Illinois will help me reach even higher than I previously imagined.

What attracted you to the field of civil and environmental engineering?

I have a strong desire to do research with real applications, and that’s something I found in CEE. My interests overlap and integrate several fields. I feel at home in environmental engineering; it is by nature interdisciplinary.

Predict the future in your area of work: what exciting innovations or developments do you predict will happen in the next 10-20 years?

I think the major innovations will be in integrating often disparate scientific communities to lead to a fully connected understanding of our earth system. Capturing the full extent of the two-way interactions between climate change and our environment, which we are not able to do right now, could impact what we predict the future will look like. I aim to help drive this integration by applying my varied expertise at the interfaces of atmospheric chemistry, climate science and environmental pollution.

Why should today’s high school students consider CEE?

To me, civil and environmental engineering is about serving fundamental human needs and rights – shelter, water to drink, clean air to breathe, health. I also think that interdisciplinary and holistic approaches are more and more critical to solving society’s greatest challenges, and CEE is already well-poised to tackle that type of work. As population and standards of living increase, so will environmental challenges and the need for civil and environmental engineers.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on your work?

I don’t have any children that are at home without childcare or school. I don’t do lab or field work; my research can be done on the computer. I’m not teaching yet. And yet, it is still hard, not only because of the uncertainty and anxiety. I’m missing interacting with people, which is one of the most meaningful things about science and engineering for me, and that I think is critical to what we do. I am reminded to focus on what really matters, besides work, and I hope I can carry that perspective with me throughout my time as an assistant professor. I think the pandemic has shown that science research and education matters.

What do you hope to accomplish in the world through your work?

I hope that through my work, we will be better able to predict both our impacts on the environment and how climate change will impact us, so that we can make informed actions to protect human and ecosystem health. I aim to help shape pollution and climate change policy from a local to international scale. Along the way, I hope to contribute to making academia more inclusive, diverse and sustainable and to mentor the next generation of scientists and engineers to achieve success.


 

Ramez Hajj

Ann Sychterz

Structural Engineering

Ph.D., School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne
M.A.Sc. CEE, University of Waterloo
B.A.Sc. CEE, University of Waterloo

What are your research interests?

My research interest is to investigate deployable and adaptive structures for large civil engineering scale applications that use machine learning to control their shape due to environmental factors. Current infrastructure is designed and built such that it must simultaneously comply with all possible traffic, wind, seismic and impact loads. This leads to over-designed structures that are inefficient in terms energy and cost. A structure that can self-identify damage, adapt and learn for our ever-changing environment addresses the emerging field of intelligent infrastructure. These structures are of particular interest for remote and challenging climates such as deep sea, arctic regions and off-world terrestrial applications.

What drew you to Illinois?

I was drawn to the University of Illinois because of the possibility of collaboration with a plethora of talented and diverse researchers especially within civil engineering, mechanical engineering and architecture. Additionally, I saw great potential for my research work here at Illinois because of the generous laboratory facilities in the Newmark Structural Engineering Lab for testing of my large-scale deployable structure.

What attracted you to the CEE field?

I’ve been interested in civil engineering and its related studies since I was a kid playing with LEGO (the original bucket not the fancy sets). I learned through creativity; you could achieve the same goal in various ways. Later on, I was fascinated by the combination of civil and mechanical fields in aerospace, and the combination of civil and architectural fields in building design. I’ve never turned down an opportunity to visit a construction site, a famous bridge or dam.

Predict the future in your area of work: what exciting innovations or developments do you see happening in the next 10-20 years?

Civil infrastructure is going to have to change to meet environmental and societal demands. Within 10 years, the building industry should address methods to conserve material and reduce the energy required to produce these materials. This can be achieved in this time frame through automation and intelligent control of lightweight components applied to real civil infrastructure at a small to medium scale. Within 20 years, this intelligent control will be able to manage individual and networks of lightweight structures to change their properties to increase resilience to an imposed environmental factor. These lightweight structures can be modular for ease of construction or unique in shape for aesthetic centerpieces of a city. Using machine learning, previous environmental events will serve as teaching tools for improved performance of the structural network in the future.

Why should today’s high school students consider CEE?

Civil engineering is the go-to engineering field for any type of large-scale construction, be it on the ground (Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai), underground (Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland), or in space (Mars 2020 Perseverance rover by JPL). This field can provide rich advancements within civil engineering and in partnering fields such as architecture, mechanical engineering, material science, computer science and robotics. There’s a sense of wonder and awe in the ability to tangibly experience a project you have contributed to as a civil engineer, and even more so as it weaves into the fabric of the community.

What do you hope to accomplish in the world through your work?

Through my work, I want to demonstrate to the public and practicing engineers that lightweight, deployable and adaptive structures are a feasible solution to the next generation of infrastructure. I hope to see the students in my lab be successful in pushing the frontiers of what structural engineering can offer society and the environment by its collaboration with architecture, mechanical engineering, computer science and robotics.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on your work?

I see parallels in my work with regards to system network failure detection. A structural model is more well-developed than that of the spread of a new virus, however research into frameworks that can detect the spread of a virus or a damaged element in a structure could have similar attributes. This relationship is in the process of being investigated for future research.


 

Ramez Hajj

Alireza Talebpour

Transportation Engineering

Ph.D. CEE, Northwestern University
M.Sc. CEE, Sharif University of Technology
B.Sc. CEE, Sharif University of Technology

What are your research interests?

My group's research focuses on human-automated vehicle interactions. We particularly investigate if the widespread introduction of automated vehicles will change our driving behavior, walking behavior and biking behavior. We utilize a combination of field testing and simulation to model the future of mobility in both urban and rural environments.

What drew you to Illinois?

The quality of the school and the opportunities that I could have here were motivation for me to move. I am particularly excited about the new initiatives in the areas of connected and automated vehicles, the I-ACT (the Illinois Autonomous and Connected Track) and the new Center for Autonomy.

What attracted you to the field of civil and environmental engineering?

As a child, I always dreamed of living in the “City of the Future.” Being a civil engineer gave me the opportunity to play a part in developing the notion of smart cities.

Predict the future in your area of work: what exciting innovations or developments do you predict will happen in the next 10-20 years?

I believe we will see significant changes in the way people and goods will travel around our cities. Automated vehicles will be deployed in more and more cities across the country to move people and goods. We will see some implementations of flying cars for passenger travel and possibly a widespread use of unmanned aerial systems for package delivery.

Why should today’s high school students consider CEE?

Civil engineering is going through its biggest change since the start of this field with the introduction of smart cities, smart manufacturing, augmented reality technology, etc. This is possibly the most exciting time to be a civil engineer.

What do you hope to accomplish in the world through your work?

I am hoping that our research can contribute to increasing the safety and efficiency of mobility systems in the near future.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on your work in any way?

The challenges that people faced during COVID-19 to visit doctors, buy groceries, etc. showed me the benefits of an automated transportation system and how automated vehicles can improve health and safety by reducing contact. This has motivated me and my research group to further study how automated vehicles can help in pandemics.


 

Ramez Hajj

Alexandre M. Tartakovsky

Water Resources Engineering and Science

Ph.D. Hydrology, University of Arizona
Postgraduate, Sociology, Kazan Institute of Finance and Economy
M.Sc. Hydromechanics and Applied Mathematics, Kazan State University

What will you be teaching?

Hydrogeology, stochastic hydrology and scientific machine learning

What are your research interests?

Flow and transport of contaminants, groundwater-surface water interactions, scientific machine learning

What drew you to Illinois?

Excellent faculty and students, the department’s reputation

What attracted you to the field of civil and environmental engineering?

Fresh water is a critical resource for human well-being.

Predict the future in your area of work: what exciting innovations or developments do you predict will happen in the next 10-20 years?

I predict that the role of data science in civil and environmental engineering will dramatically increase. Advances in the way we collect, analyze and model data will significantly change how we use and protect water resources.

Why should today’s high school students consider civil and environmental engineering?

Our society and nature are undergoing rapid transformations, including how society and nature interact with each other.  If you want to actively participate in these interactions, you should consider a career in civil and environmental engineering.

What do you hope to accomplish in the world through your work?

I hope that my work will improve our understanding of complex systems such as the water, energy and food security nexus.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on your work in any way? For example, has it inspired new research interests?

I realized that most epidemiology models do not consider spatial variability that we have to deal with all the time in modeling subsurface transport of contaminants. Currently, I am developing epidemiology models that account for variability in the infection and transmission rates.


 

Ramez Hajj

Christopher Tessum

Environmental Engineering and Science
Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability

Ph.D. Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering, University of Minnesota
M.S. Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering, University of Minnesota
B.M.E. Mechanical Engineering, University of Minnesota

What are your research interests?

Ambient air pollution causes approximately 4 percent of total deaths in the United States, more than three times the number caused by motor vehicle crashes. I study the relationships between air pollution emissions, human activities that cause them and the resulting health impacts, and I develop modeling capabilities to enable these types of analyses.

What drew you to the University of Illinois?

I was impressed by the combination of cutting edge research and passionate teaching that occurs here, as well as the supportive and collegial faculty members.

What attracted you to the field of civil and environmental engineering?

I felt that it was a good way to apply myself toward making a positive difference in society.

Predict the future in your area of work: what exciting innovations or developments do you predict will happen in the next 10-20 years?

In the United States, we've made great progress in reducing air pollution over the last several decades, but it still kills nearly 100,000 people per year. In the next several decades I hope that we are able to continue this progress in the U.S .and other high-income countries, and to extend it to low- and middle-income countries.

Why should today’s high school students consider civil and environmental engineering as opposed to another engineering field?

Civil and environmental engineers are working directly to improve people's quality of life, be it through cleaning the water and air or designing safe and functional buildings and transportation infrastructure. It's a great way to have a positive impact.

What do you hope to accomplish in the world through your work?

I would like to contribute to making our environment a better place to live in.


 

Ramez Hajj

Joe G. Tom Jr.

Geotechnical Engineering
Societal Risk and Hazard Mitigation

Ph.D. Civil/Offshore Engineering, The University of Western Australia
M.S. CEE, University of California, Davis
B.S. CEE, Mississippi State University

What are your research interests?

I am interested in problems where water interacts with soil – for example, managing the impact of sediment movement around coastal and offshore infrastructure. I am also interested in developing new types of foundations optimized for applications to support energy production infrastructure.

What drew you to Illinois?

The strong history and international reputation of the Civil and Environmental Engineering department and the geotechnical e ngineering group in particular.

What attracted you to the field of civil and environmental engineering?

My father is a civil engineer and so I grew up around civil engineering. My decision to choose civil engineering was also influenced by the occurrence of Hurricane Katrina and associated rebuilding efforts, which occurred right as I was beginning my undergraduate engineering studies.

Predict the future in your area of work: what exciting innovations or developments do you predict will happen in the next 10-20 years?

Geotechnical engineers working in the offshore areas are already beginning to build more infrastructure focusing on renewable energy systems in the ocean rather than oil and gas. This will only grow in time and geotechnical engineers will become increasingly important for this development, as the supporting foundations make up much more of the total project costs for renewable energy. We will also be working more to support other ocean and coastal space utilization concepts, such as floating cities and infrastructure.

Why should today’s high school students consider civil and environmental engineering as opposed to another engineering field?

Civil engineering is a field that impacts everyone, everywhere. Work opportunities as a civil engineer can take you anywhere. Civil engineers can find jobs close to home, or find jobs where they travel the world and work in different places, environments and with people from many places.

What do you hope to accomplish in the world through your work?

I hope to reduce the cost and improve the reliability of renewable energy production, to help it become utilized more cost-efficiently in locations across the globe. Additionally, I hope to contribute to improving the safety of geotechnical systems subject to natural disasters (e.g. floods, tsunami, storms).


Read The Future Starts Now, Part 1 here.

 

 

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