Change Leader: Extensive Planning Leads to More Grants, Better Research
This particular webcam interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can view a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/3NqR5Dj.
Dr. Sarah Orton is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Missouri College of Engineering.
Dr. Sarah Orton has been conducting important academic engineering research for more than 20 years. Her specialty is reinforced concrete building materials: steel rods surrounded by concrete as well as carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) embedded within concrete.
She notes that concrete has an amazing ability to redistribute loads when it has been properly reinforced. When plain concrete is placed under a sustained load—greater than 80 percent of the concrete compressive strength—it will eventually fail within a finite time. Reinforced concrete displays very different characteristics and can withstand much more loading.
“In some of the tests I’ve done, [reinforced concrete withstood] almost 98 percent of the capacity without failing within a test window of 30 days,” she says.
She wants to use her knowledge of reinforced concrete to make buildings safer and less likely to fail and collapse. To start this process, her team looked at previous cases of collapse, with several due to earthquakes and abnormal loading and other observable problems. But there were also many collapses with no observed natural cause or clear indication of what caused the collapse.
“The building’s there; it’s fine one day, and then the next day a part of it has collapsed,” she explains. Finding out why would require more research.
But to conduct this important research, she needed funding and a collaborative research team. Her key to success is creating a comprehensive plan that considers what she and her lab are capable of yet is also flexible enough to change as circumstances and data dictate.
Researching Structural Collapse
For her latest research project, “the time-dependent response of reinforced concrete structures near collapse,” she and her collaborator, Dr. Ying Tian at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, received more than $400,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation. Orton will be focusing on flat-plate connections, while Dr. Tian is looking into columns and beams, to determine the effect of high levels of sustained load on the strength of buildings and their connections.
“Instead of being dynamic, we’re looking at the other end of the scale,” she says. “If the load’s very static, and it’s there for a long time, is the strength as high as you would calculate with your normal calculation procedures?”
Building an effective team is another key to productive research. “I’m not doing this work on my own,” she notes. “If I didn’t have my great collaborator, Dr. Tian, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Orton also credits her graduate students and colleagues at the University of Missouri. “You need that good team to be able to work on that idea together to bring in other thoughts and analysis and get the best product,” adds Orton.
The project, which is estimated to be completed in summer 2022, will include the ability to develop computer modeling to help show how different types of large-scale building collapses can happen.
Orton explains that it takes a lot of hard work to obtain a grant. The first step is coming up with a good idea that can have a transformative effect. It’s best if the topic is interesting and new and addresses a need. And then you must research it very well.
“You have to figure out what everybody’s done before you and come up with a good plan of how you’re going to answer your main research question,” explains Orton. “And then you have to write a really clear proposal that people can understand: you’re doing this, and this is how you’re doing it.”
However, every plan needs to be flexible as it meets the realities of what your lab can actually do or other constraints that may not allow for the original or “perfect plan.” For example, her original hypothesis was that structures put under a high level of sustained load would fail in a few days. But in her initial testing, they did not, so she revised her research plan with a longer testing period that eventually led to structural failure.
“You’ll make some alterations to the research, because it’s a continually evolving process,” she notes.