Jo Sias Daniel
Outstanding Faculty Award—Assistant Professor
Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering
College of Engineering and Physical Sciences
Recipe for success
Usually, keeping your eyes on the road is a good idea, but asphalt researcher Jo Daniel has found that paying too much attention to the road can be hazardous.
"Looking at asphalt while you're driving is not always the safest thing," admits Daniel, for whom every crack, pothole, and bump tells a story. "But sometimes I have to say ’Wow! Look at what’s here.'"
Asphalt is a relatively new field of research, and scientists still don't fully understand it. "It's more complicated than a lot of people think," she says. "The more you understand about why the material behaves the way it does, the more you can start changing the constituents to get the properties you want."
For a researcher, working with asphalt is like buying bonds instead of stocks. Huge sums of money will never be available, but as long as roads are made of asphalt, a steady stream of smaller grants will always be obtainable. For example, Daniel has received funding to examine the effects of incorporating recycled pavement into asphalt mixes, an increasingly attractive option as the rising cost of oil pushes up the price of asphalt.
The National Science Foundation paved the way for Daniel's career. While a junior at UNH, she participated in the NSF's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which placed her one summer in Professor Y. Richard Kim's asphalt lab at North Carolina State University.
"I thought, 'Hey, this is kind of neat,'" says Daniel. "If I had been assigned to someone else, I probably wouldn't be doing what I am doing today." After graduating from UNH in 1994, Daniel returned to NC State to earn her Ph.D.
Not only did Daniel find a career that serendipitous summer, she also met her future husband Bob, who was a fellow participant. While Daniel's list of achievements is impressive for a young faculty member—including an NSF CAREER grant, appointments to several Transportation Research Board committees, and consistently high student evaluations—the one she is obviously most proud of is their daughter Elina, born last year.
Juggling family and career has forced her to work more efficiently, says Daniel, and empowered her to sometimes say "no" to taking on additional duties. "Throwing Elina into the mix definitely makes things more interesting," says Daniel.
For a woman in engineering, one of the few remaining male-dominated fields, it is ironic that mixing asphalt samples is so much like cooking. "I could do it at home," says Daniel. "We have a 'cookbook.' We mix it in bowls and put it in pans. We use spatulas and bake it in an oven. And you've got to do the dishes when you're done."
Daniel even has a special asphalt-stained "cooking mitt" tacked to the wall in her office. Her fellow graduate students at NC State wrapped it up for her as a memento when she got her Ph.D. and headed back to UNH to join the faculty in 2001.
And like cooking, says Daniel, the fun starts when the baked goods finally cool. That's when she gets to subject her concoctions to all manner of crushing machines to see how they hold up. "Maybe you answer the question you originally asked," she says, "but you also generate 10 more questions in the process and that's the fun part of it, trying to figure it out."
Being an expert on asphalt, however, there is something Daniel is sure of when it comes to her own driveway. "I'll definitely be there when they put it down," she says.