The vision that I have for the profession of earthquake engineering expands upon the great work that has already been done — particularly in disaster mitigation. This vision has been deepened by both my experiences in disenfranchised communities and my professional expertise in technology’s role in the built environment.
I hail the projects of Saint Louis, Missouri, where a myriad of suffocating systemic inequities have claimed the lives and bright futures of far too many friends and family members. For me, growing up in extreme poverty has had its disadvantages; it often seemed that I was wearing mud-caked clothes. The longer I walked in search of opportunities, the more the weight burdened me. But if my determination failed me just for a short while, these mud-caked garments would harden in the heat of everyday adversity and encage my will to overcome. Much time has passed since I was one of the young kids who played basketball on netless hoops or turned a fraying telephone cord that was used for a game of double-dutch. Countless individuals, educational opportunities (including six years at a group home for academically-gifted children from poor backgrounds), and life experiences have helped propel me to the heights where I stand today. What remains is a passion for autodidactism, an unassailable work ethic, and a commitment to becoming an engineer who consistently advocates for and designs with communities.
Working alongside the faculty and using the many research facilities available at Berkeley and UC San Diego, I will build a far-reaching and multidisciplinary engineering education in order to reimagine global disaster mitigation and reconnaissance. I am well-positioned for this multidisciplinary approach because I can move between attention to extreme details, as I did while computationally modeling individual stones at Boston Valley Terra Cotta, to the more long-reaching implications, which I deeply investigated during my Master’s thesis research on post-disaster transitional environments. This ability, alongside my professional background in architecture, computational design, and emerging technology, places me in a unique position to have a measurable impact on how structural engineering truly uplifts the populations it serves. I plan to draw primarily upon structural health monitoring and computational mechanics to extend disaster mitigation in three important ways.
First, it is my belief that this field could benefit enormously from advancing the interconnectedness of sensing technologies, above and beyond what is currently available. Right now, there is not a global network of cities that have a significant portion of their building stock outfitted with and connected to structural health monitoring and data validation systems. Such a network exists for seismology and early warning systems. If all buildings in known hazard zones could be outfitted with reliable and inexpensive sensors, many more lives and resources could be saved. The wealthiest nations can easily afford to do this, and the current issue lies with policy. However, those regions experiencing the greatest needs have the twin hurdles of cost and implementation to mount.
Secondly, not only do collapsed buildings pose dangers to life, limb, and property during and after a disaster event, the cleanup process is not often discussed. I submit that the waste of natural and manufactured materials in a post-disaster context is a travesty that needs to be explicitly addressed during the design and construction phases and, importantly, when long-term mitigation plans are formed. One look at the destruction wrought by massive earthquakes and tsunamis in regions like Haiti, Chile, California, and Indonesia shows graves of twisted steel and concrete that swallow human victims alongside economic and environmental progress. An understanding of and allowance for the true impact of these materials - both in their manufacture and in how they are disposed of at the end of their service life - would do justice to all aspects of post-disaster reconnaissance efforts.
Lastly, I maintain that an interdisciplinary approach is the way forward in helping communities to build back with true resilience and give affected persons even more dignity than before the event. Engineering is exported, like all of our economic systems and manufacturing supply chains, and while this has some positive effects, the hidden results have been deleterious for the state of disaster mitigation. As engineering professionals operating within the current exploitative capitalist and colonialist systems, we do not learn enough about or give enough credit to the ability of these communities to empower themselves, contribute technological solutions, and self-actualize. Each major natural disaster that I have closely followed, from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (2004) to Hurricane Katrina (2005) to Haiti (2010) and most recently to the California wildfires (2020), further exposes the yawning disconnect between the architectural and engineering professions and the self-actualization of the affected communities.
I vividly remember the day I decided to pursue earthquake engineering. It was a clear day in January, and I’d recently completed a grueling semester packed with difficult exams, financial insecurity, and some of the longest allnighters I had ever pulled. Not only had I just been selected for a prestigious scholarship to study at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University, but I had also just frantically submitted graduate applications for architecture school. Even though I was tired, I felt fortunate and excited about what my future held.
Suddenly, a massive 7.0 Mw earthquake struck Haiti. I am not sure what, at the time, made this disaster stand out in stark contrast to ones I had followed before. Perhaps it was the onslaught of images showing bent steel and heaved concrete. Perhaps it was the focus on the poverty of the region and the extent of humanitarian aid required. Perhaps it was because those people looked like me. Whatever it was, I remember this day clearly, for as I watched this event unfold, so did the direction of my life. This meant that I entered architecture school later that year with a very different frame of mind. When I started, I had high hopes for the field’s ability to respond to crises in a meaningful way. However, I was disappointed to find an education focused on the critique of architectural theory and on more elitist use cases than on designing with communities and in resource-scarce environments. An overemphasis on developing theoretical concepts in the architectural studio left little incentive to suggest and test real-world structural and manufacturing solutions.
Based on my intimate familiarity with the ingenuity required to thrive and adapt in resource-scarce environments, I relish at the prospect of using modern materials, systems, and knowledge to unlock innovative solutions. I consistently extended architectural designs to include structural engineering and parametric design. For one of my last studio projects, I successfully designed a children’s museum for Buffalo’s waterfront that incorporated strong universal design principles (e.g. using wind tunnel experiment data for pedestrian comfort and a series of ramps) and featured a parametrically-designed brick façade. In previous studios, I designed a structurally-innovative marketplace for a dense urban center and an installation that, by connecting novel SDOF linkage systems, fabric, and earthquake data, rendered even the smallest tremors visible to onlookers. The relentless pursuit of combining these fields is significant because it required time and resources that I scarcely had, and yet it was so important that I prioritized it. Having no financial safety net has meant that, since early high school, I have concurrently freelanced, worked part-time, and worked full-time. I have maintained this grueling schedule throughout a rigorous undergraduate program, semesters abroad in Austria and Germany, and an immensely challenging graduate program. Despite almost insurmountable financial challenges, I have continued to excel in my design career at some of the world’s most well-known companies while simultaneously working to enter my chosen profession of structural engineering. I submit that the fellowship and selection committees at Berkeley and UC San Diego will not find a more passionate PhD candidate who is fervently excited about using earthquake engineering and disaster mitigation to meaningfully shape the futures of underserved communities.