Research Profile: Erin Bell, Bridge Doctor

Research Profile: Erin Bell, Bridge Doctor

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In her office in Kingsbury Hall, Erin Bell is explaining her research. “When you go to a doctor, they don’t just look at you. They do blood work; they run tests. Bridge instrumentation and testing is almost like an EKG of a bridge. You gather data, and looking at that data you can tell if something needs to be done prior to a collapse.” 

Bell delivers this explanation with infectious enthusiasm. An associate professor in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (CEPS), Bell was chosen in 2007 as only the second-ever UNH civil engineering faculty member to receive a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award. Since then, she’s been hard at work on her project, “Integrating Structural Health Monitoring, Intelligent Transportation Systems and Model Updating Into a Bridge Condition Assessment Framework.”  

The project will result in a framework for assessing the condition of bridges in a way that integrates information collected through structural health monitoring and intelligent transportation systems into a model updating program for highway bridge decision-making and management. 

To put it simply: Bell is a bridge doctor. Or rather, she works to develop the tools needed to monitor the “health” of bridges. These tools include bridge sensors that use a variety of factors to detect problems, where pure visual assessment has been used in the past. 

Bell’s engineering roots go deep. She remarks, “I grew up in this field. My dad was a steel fabricator. It’s just sort of par for the course.” Still, when she graduated from the civil and environmental engineering program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Bell had no plans to pursue engineering further. “When I was an undergrad I never thought I’d be doing this,” she says. “I expected to get my bachelor’s degree and run.”

But then one day Bell visited Tufts University to check the job listings on their community bulletin board. In the hallway, she ran into Masoud Sanayei, the head of Tufts’ Structures Program. The two got to talking about Bell’s background at Georgia Tech. He asked her if she was interested in doing some research, and the rest was history. She heard his explanation of his work in the field and knew immediately that it was for her. “I went into his office and I was hooked,” she says. “I just feel that it contributes to society, and I think that’s what makes it fun for me. It’s a puzzle where I can see the effects.” Bell went on to earn an M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering and, subsequently, a Ph.D. in Structural Engineering, both from Tufts.

It is an exciting time to be working in Bell’s field. She explains that intelligent transportation structures are more within reach than ever before. “I definitely think that with the advances in communications and renewable energy, we  will be looking at a network of intelligent infrastructure elements in the near future.” In fact, most landmark bridges already employ the kind of sensors with which Bell works. “The Golden Gate Bridge,” she notes, “is full of sensors.”

Another aspect of Bell’s work is to convince the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) of the advantages of intelligent transportation research and implementation. This can be a tall order, as the DOT is appropriately wary of any device installation that interferes with one of its largest maintenance costs — bridge paint jobs. “Part of what I do is convincing the DOT that they can implement these structures with little steps. The DOT shares their skepticism with me, which helps me as a researcher.” 

Bell’s passion for her research is obvious, but she comes alive the most when she’s talking about reactive versus proactive engineering. “If you look at the leaning tower of Pisa, that’s reactive architecture. It was built over a period of 300 years. Look up: that lean developed as they were building and encountered a structural problem. Now compare it to the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. They knew beforehand that they were going to have this problem and someone planned for it. That relates to reactive and proactive bridge building.”

Where her graduate students are concerned, Bell is always on the lookout for individuals who can bring a unique perspective to the table. “I have a graduate student who is an avid hunter and fisher. We were thinking of how to get a quick wire splice that would be easy to do. We were looking for things in my arena we could use, and he suggested a trailer hitch used on boats to get lights and electricity. So we tried it and that’s what we use now. I never would have thought of that. That’s the kind of students I want and that’s the kind research environment I like to have: where they can feel free to make suggestions. That invigorates me.” 

Bell is also passionate about her outreach and community involvement. On a recent Saturday, she did an event for children with WGBH and the Museum of Science. “I brought a sensor and they could bend it and put weights on it. It shows them how the bridge is talking to you, just like a doctor putting a stethoscope on your chest.”  

Another activity that was designed to appeal to young children was one she did when her daughter’s class visited UNH. “I gave them the structural drawings of this building (Kingsbury Hall), the elevation. They each got a hardhat and they had to pick which building was the one in the drawing. Most of them got it.”  

Bell encourages her graduate students to participate in these outreach events in order to get them thinking about engineering on its simplest level. “If you want a next generation to care about bridges, you start at age five. They have to have the desire to learn about bridges, because we really do advance society.” 

By Erin Somers

This story first appeared on the UNH Research website.