Dordt College News

Saving lives during earthquakes

January 19, 2011

Iowa might seem like an unusual place to do earthquake research, but for Dordt College Engineering Professor Justin Vander Werff, it’s not about place but about finding ways to save lives in earthquakes.

He is part of a team of researchers at Iowa State University that is designing structures that withstand earthquakes in such a way that preserving human lives is the primary concern.

Engineering Professor Justin Vander Werff spends his summers in Ames and San Diego trying to help make stuctures safer for people during earthquakes.Iowa State University, where Vander Werff earned his master’s degree and is now working on his Ph.D., has one of the top-ranked civil and structural engineering programs in the country. Its faculty includes earthquake design experts with whom Vander Werff works.

“Actually, engineers in all states are now required to account for earthquake potential in their designs,” Vander Werff says, but he admits with a smile that the likelihood of a significant quake in Iowa is unlikely. That doesn’t stop Iowa State researchers from making a significant contribution to structural designs for earthquake-prone areas like California.

Vander Werff’s involvement began during his senior year at Dordt when faculty members from ISU paid a recruiting visit to the Dordt College engineering department. The chair of the civil and structural engineering department at the time was involved in seismic research and offered Vander Werff an assistantship. During the three years of his master’s program, Vander Werff worked on seismic research, first with the retiring chair and then with his new advisor, Sri Sritharan. Sritharan brought even more research grants and projects to Iowa State.

“Seismic behavior of structures is one area of creation where we have a lot of work to do,” Vander Werff says. He cites the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile as examples of the reason why. Chile’s more powerful earthquake killed a fraction of the number of people killed in Haiti. In Chile structures were built to withstand earthquakes and preserve life; in Haiti they were not. He hopes to help develop construction methods that can be implemented efficiently and economically so that poorer areas and countries can also benefit.

“I came into Dordt’s engineering program liking math and science, but as I studied here I came to appreciate more and more the real place of engineering—to use the gifts of creation to glorify God and serve our neighbors,” Vander Werff says. He credits his professors, especially former professor Dr. Charles Adams, with inspiring and instilling in him that understanding and commitment.

Following the completion of his master’s degree, Vander Werff went to work in industry but was recruited to teach at Dordt College following Adams’ serious accident in 2008. After he accepted a regular faculty appointment, he resumed more regular contact with Dr. Sritharan and is now working as his Ph.D. student. The Iowa State researchers work collaboratively with the University of California at San Diego and the California Department of Transportation.

Vander Werff spends his summers in Ames, Iowa, with occasional time at the University of California at San Diego to do testing. This summer they tested a partial bridge in the lab at UCSD. Thanks to a reduced teaching load this year to do Ph.D. work, Vander Werff continues to analyze test data he and his team collected during the summer.

The data Vander Werff is analyzing came from testing how new and retrofit connections behave under stress from earthquake loads. Today many bridges are constructed with precast, prestressed concrete rather than steel girders. As a result, the connections between the precast concrete members are vitally important to the overall behavior of the structure.

“We can’t design and construct bridges that will withstand any earthquake,” says Vander Werff.  “Cost would be prohibitive.” So researchers focus on designing bridges that will withstand smaller quakes without damage and allow for controlled damage during large earthquakes. This means that the bridges might need replacing but they won’t collapse, taking people with them.

“The difference is in how much energy the design allows to be dissipated,” says Vander Werff. The more energy that can be dissipated throughout the structure in a controlled fashion, the less likelihood there is that it will break at one point and collapse.

As part of his Ph.D. requirements, Vander Werff will spend the next two summers and next academic year developing and testing new and retrofit connections that are simple and inexpensive that they hope will hold up well in earthquakes.

“I’m not just in it for the degree,” he says. “These things need to be better understood.”

Whether he will be able to continue his research after he receives his degree will depend on how the Lord leads and time permits, he says. He notes that the NSF encourages large universities to collaborate with smaller institutions and Dordt’s relationship with ISU continues to grow, so opportunities may be there, although teaching remains the central focus of faculty in the Dordt engineering department.

“Whenever I tell any of my peers from other institutions that I teach three or four courses at once, they laugh,” he says. Meantime, he’ll work as hard as he can to find design solutions that show love and respect for his neighbor’s wellbeing.


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