Meet Our Faculty: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage and Engineering Excellence at the U

National Hispanic Heritage Month, recognized from September 15 through October 15, celebrates the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CvEEN) is proud of its diverse and inclusive environment, fostered in part by our Hispanic community. Have you had the privilege of crossing paths or learning from our remarkable Hispanic faculty?

Let us introduce you to some of the brilliant minds shaping the future of engineering education and research in our department:

Professors, Ibarra, Medina, and Romero-Zambrana

Dr. Luis Ibarra joined us from the Southwest Research Institute, where he used computer simulations and experiments to study how engineered barriers for radioactive waste react under pressure. Beyond the lab, Dr. Ibarra’s teaching passions encompass steel design, advanced topics, and the fascinating—and extremely important—world of structural loads and analysis.

Dr. Juan Medina is a dynamic research associate professor at CvEEN. Dr. Medina’s realm revolves around nurturing our graduate students in the bustling hub of our transportation lab. Additionally, his leadership on the Crash Data Initiative team is helping make Utah roads safer. He’s not just an educator, but a mentor who urges CvEEN students to carve their unique paths, emphasizing the importance of consistency and the development of essential computer programming skills to fuel their dreams.

Dr. Pedro Romero-Zambrana has an impressive 23-year tenure at the U. Dr. Romero’s teaching canvas spans construction materials, pavement design, pavement maintenance, sustainability, geotechnical studies, and transportation. Dr. Romero’s wisdom extends beyond the classroom, as he is constantly advocating for the delicate balance between academia and life itself.

As National Hispanic Heritage Month unfolds, we take a moment to honor and appreciate the diverse qualities, knowledge, and experiences that our Hispanic faculty bring to us. Their stories, experiences, and expertise remind us of the importance of embracing diversity and the unique perspectives it brings to the academic landscape.


Guiding Success: Outstanding Advisor Courtney Phillips

(Pictured above: Dean Brown presents Courtney’s Outstanding Staff Award.)

Graduate advisor Courtney Phillips was honored with the PCE Outstanding Staff Award at the college-wide Fall Faculty and Staff Meeting just before the start of classes.

As the Graduate Academic Advisor for all Civil, Environmental, and Nuclear Engineering students at the University, she plays the pivotal role of managing ~130 students while maintaining a deeply personalized approach to each advisee.

Courtney is the go-to source for faculty and students seeking accurate guidance, all the while prioritizing the well-being of those who depend on her.

Her dedication to her graduate students extends beyond academics, encompassing their overall growth and development. Whether advising on course selections, navigating department policies, or offering a compassionate ear during challenging moments, Courtney consistently goes above and beyond to ensure the success of her students. Her impact is unmistakable, as her advisees attest:


“Her personalized advising has significantly shaped my growth as a researcher and scholar.”

“Beyond her official responsibilities, Courtney has consistently supported me, offering guidance on financial matters, personal crises, and personal development.”

“Her guidance not only influences my academic pursuits but also shapes my approach to challenges and professionalism.”

Courtney’s contributions aren’t limited to student support; she played a crucial role in tailoring the new graduate admission system, Slate, to our department’s unique needs. She conducted numerous training sessions for the Graduate Admission Committee and faculty, ensuring a seamless implementation. Her collaboration with the Office of Admissions to pilot Slate has led to improved standardization in the admissions process, fostering positive partnerships between PCE and the Office of Admissions.

Furthermore, Courtney’s impact extends to promoting unity and cooperation among office staff, contributing significantly to the department’s overall success. Though she has many positive characteristics that make her great to work with, perhaps the most apparent would be “selfless.” Courtney’s unwavering commitment to student success, advocacy, and her collaborative spirit make her an invaluable asset to the department.


World Trade Center Collapse

Dr. Schmucker details collapse sequence of the WTC’s twin towers on the 22nd anniversary of 9/11

Today, September 11th, 2023 marks the 22-year anniversary of the tragic collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Dr. Douglas Schmucker, both an esteemed professor and professional in the field of structural engineering, presented a review of the critical collapse sequence in the second-year course CvEEN 2140: Strength of Materials.

Drawing upon the principles of structural mechanics and utilizing the FEMA’s Building Performance Summary, Dr. Schmucker combined his more than 30 years of investigative engineering and teaching to aid students in understanding the “domino” effects that led to the collapses.

“In investigative engineering, we don’t usually have smoking guns,” noted Dr. Schmucker, acknowledging the scarcity of definitive data left in the aftermath of the catastrophic attacks. He emphasized that investigative engineering relies on informed speculation, where a synthesis of available information and sound engineering principles is crucial.

Employing this method, Dr. Schmucker, with the aid of the official Building Performance Summary, depicted the collapse sequence as most plausibly resulting from a combination of:

  • impact and debris damage to both structural members and fire retardant on those members,
  • partial collapse of floors due to either heat from the building content fires or impact damage,
  • and then with failure of the floors buckling of the columns.

Buckling of exterior columns, which can be seen directly in video and photographs, rapidly progressed to “pancaking” of floor after floor as the energy of elevated floors moving downwards could not be absorbed.

The populist view suggests that the steel melted. He explained, based on the available evidence, that the fireballs from the jet fuel while dramatic were not explosive (which would have taken microseconds instead of the 2 seconds observed on tape) and did not cause significant structural damage, that the jet fuel had mostly been consumed within 5 minutes of the initial ignition of the vaporized fuel. Instead, the primary heat-related effects were from simultaneous fires on multiple floors, floors that had experienced a total loss of or compromised fire retardant and suppression systems.

“The effect on the floor system was to cause it to drape much like a hot spaghetti noodle will lose its stiffness,” said Dr. Schmucker.

At some point, either the floor system collapsed or its connection to the exterior columns ruptured.  Either situation meant the loss of a critical role for the floor system: to provide lateral support for the columns.  Without that “sideways” support, the columns were unbraced over two to three stories and immediately experienced a significant decrease in their buckling strength.

As someone who has dedicated numerous years to researching this topic as a structural engineer, Dr. Schmucker admitted the challenge of disentangling the intellectual fascination of the engineering intricacies from the overwhelming tragedy that claimed over 3,000 lives on that fateful day. Nonetheless, he carries the poignant responsibility of annually presenting his analysis of the towers’ collapse as a tribute to the memory of not only those fatalities but also the nearly 58,000 people estimated to be in the World Trade Center Complex that day and the more than 38,000 involved in response to the event either in the immediate or near-term of recovery. In doing so, he aims to underscore the vital role that future engineers will inevitably play in shaping a safer and more resilient future.



Welcome to the U, Kaylee!

MS Environmental Engineering candidate begins graduate studies

Growing up, Kaylee Molan often found herself immersed in discussions about climate change through the constant buzz of news reports.

Kaylee’s innate passion for effecting positive environmental change is complemented by an ardent fascination for science, mathematics, and design, which ultimately led her to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of New Hampshire last May.

Now, as Kaylee Molan embarks on the next chapter of her academic journey, we extend a warm welcome to the University of Utah. Here, as a Global Change & Sustainability Center graduate fellow, Kaylee is poised to pursue a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering.

The GCSC First Year Fellowship that Kaylee holds is instrumental in attracting top students who share research interests around the broad themes of the environment and sustainability. These students, like Kaylee, seek graduate training that extends beyond the scope of a single discipline. While students like Kaylee will receive their degrees from different departments across campus, the GCSC provides invaluable interdisciplinary training experiences. These experiences will undoubtedly help prepare students like Kaylee for broad engagement and collaboration in the professional realm.

Collaborating with Dr. Emily Marron, Kaylee’s research endeavors will predominantly encompass wastewater reuse—a topic of immense significance in today’s world and especially in the state of Utah.

The anticipation of her research here at the U fills Kaylee with an undeniable sense of excitement and purpose:

“I am excited to work on a project that will help protect the environment and public health, as well as contribute to better management of our water resources!”

Kaylee’s mission promises to be a beacon of hope for a sustainable future. Welcome to the University of Utah, Kaylee, where your journey towards creating a better world is just beginning!