A big future for structural engineering

Posted on 23. Jan, 2014 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Features, Gift Report, Issues, People, Research

Artist's rendering

Artist's rendering of the new structures lab

For Jun Lee, structural engineering is more than a professional field. It’s a multigenerational force.

It runs in the family for Lee, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison. His mother, Florence Lee, who graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, ran her own building-design consulting firm, and was the first woman in the Far East to be licensed as a chartered structural engineer. His daughter, Rebecca, also is a registered structural engineer who runs her own firm in Seattle.

Lee now is a partner and engineer at SRI Design Inc. in Madison. He and his wife Sandra are making a lead gift to ensure that future structural engineers receive the most well-rounded training possible at UW-Madison. His contribution of $500,000 will enable the college to expand and modernize its structures lab, where researchers will carry out the physical experimentation that’s so crucial to advancing the discipline. “The value of experimentation is in relating to what’s going on from day to day, in the actuality of how a structure behaves,” Lee says. “Without observing how a structure behaves, you’re building structures in the air, so to speak.”

When it’s completed in 2016, the new lab—complete with 2,000 square feet of additional space and such features as a reaction wall—will embody a new push to make structural engineering a stronger part of civil and environmental engineering, including expanding structural engineering faculty and course offerings. One important step was the 2012 hiring of C.K. Wang Professor Gustavo Parra-Montesinos.

Lee shares a common vision with Parra-Montesinos and several of his civil and environmental engineering colleagues, including Professor Michael Oliva, Associate Professor José Pincheira, and Professor and college Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Steven Cramer. As experimentalists, they all see a well-equipped and well-configured structures lab as an important element in making UW-Madison a leader in structural engineering.In his current research and in his previous 12 years with the University of Michigan faculty, Parra-Montesinos has defined himself as an experimentalist. Physical testing has helped him make such advances as developing new ways of building earthquake-resistant skyscrapers. And he contends that it’s not going away, even as structural engineers learn more and more from computer simulations. “If you’re going to develop anything new, there is no way you can just go with simulation,” he says.

Physical testing also proved an essential part of Lee’s career, even in his undergraduate days in the late 1960s, when he took part in National Science Foundation-funded testing of hybrid steel beams.

As a graduate student, he explored reinforced plastics. Those materials were very new to the field at the time, so Lee relied on experimentation to build an understanding of their behavior, as well as their basic bi-directional physical properties. This meant harnessing the very real force of such UW-Madison resources as the million-pound test machine for full-scale testing of the specimens.

Beyond the enormous research implications for the new structures lab, it also will enable civil and environmental engineering undergrads to gain a more practical understanding of building projects. “We want to make sure that students can actively participate, and that we can show students in our classes how structures actually behave,” Parra-Montesinos says.

In day-to-day engineering practice, it’s hard to substitute for physical, large-scale testing of structures and their components. “The one component I’ve always felt you can’t get just from going to class is how to troubleshoot,” Lee says.

For instance, structural engineers in the field need to know whether or not a small anomaly in a given aspect is a threat to a project as a whole. “Some anomalies are rather small, like chips or cracks in concrete, but to determine their severities and their implications, you have to know what the structure is doing—and what it is going progress to—by looking at those anomalies, then come up with a solution,” he says.

The UW-Madison structural engineers of the future also will have a strong tradition to build on. Former professor C.K. Wang, who established the professorship that Parra-Montesinos now holds, was regarded as a leading authority in structural engineering when he passed away in 2013. Professor Emeritus John E. Johnson, who was one of Lee’s professors, is another in a long line of distinguished UW-Madison structural engineers. The college’s structural engineering history boasts many more pioneers, including Frederick Turneaure, Edward Maurer, Owen Withey, Kurt Wendt, George Washa, Bill Saul, Charles Salmon and Alain Peyrot.

By helping the department break free of the limitations of its current structures lab, Lee hopes to make its structural engineering program strong on all fronts. “The department is traditionally very strong in analysis and design,”  he says. “The component I want to help build up is in relating to the actual day-to-day occurrences in the field, as well as advancing the science of structural engineering through experimentation.”

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