Student Spotlight: Elizabeth (Lizzie) Engel Assesses Resilience of Multimodal Transportation Infrastructure Systems

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Engel knew for a long time that her aptitude for math and science, along with her fascination for bridges and other big structures, would lead her to become an engineer. Now completing her Master of Science degree in civil engineering at the University of Virginia (UVA), she is turning the vision into reality.

Working with advisor, Lindsay Ivey Burden, PhD, a research assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at UVA, Engel has devoted much of her academic career to studying ‘resiliency’, an approach used in engineering to monitor and revise risk assessments related to system-wide disruptions, failures or malfunctions. For transportation engineering, it refers to the ability of transportation infrastructure, such as highways, bridges, tunnels, rail and seawalls, to withstand and recover from external shock from such events as earthquakes, design failures, terrorism or weather.

Together with collaborator, Nii Attoh-Okine, PhD, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Delaware, the team is developing a multimodal transportation facility resilience index as a tool to calculate risk assessments. The index will help planning agencies, DOTs and public policy makers prioritize maintenance work and identify systems in need of retrofitting.

Although the resilience index is still under development, the research project is already yielding results. Engel is in the final stages of preparing her master’s thesis, Resilience of Multimodal Transportation Infrastructure Systems, in which she studied the interconnectedness of roads and bridges in Albemarle County. Using graph theory and network science, Engel has modeled the system of major highways in Albemarle County, accounted for traffic volume by weighting the model’s elements according to AADT (annual average daily traffic), and simulated bridge outages using different loss strategies.  Random removal models disruptions that are equally likely to occur at any point in the network, such as weather events, while targeted removal simulates deliberate attacks.  Resilience is tabulated by observing the network’s response to node removal.  This approach can be applied to any transportation infrastructure system, not just highway networks.

Engel presented a poster on the same subject at the TRB International Conference for Sustainability in Transportation in May 2015. It was the only MATS UTC project selected for the conference. “We were very proud that Lizzie’s work was selected to be highlighted at the TRB sustainability conference,” stated Ivey Burden. “It goes to show how applicable her work is to many different transportation systems, and underscores the transportation community’s desire to make sure that the systems we have are as resilient and sustainable as possible.”

Up next, Engel hopes to secure an industry position working on structural design and rehabilitation. “My time at UVA has been extremely productive and inspiring. Now it’s time to take what I’ve learned and experience it as applied knowledge. I’m excited to take the information we’ve compiled and use it to assess system vulnerabilities in an industry setting.”

Engel will receive an MS in Civil Engineering from the University of Virginia in August 2016. She expects to receive Engineer in Training certification in the summer as well.

She earned a BS in Physics-Engineering, double major in Spanish, Magna Cum Laude, from Washington and Lee University where she was a Johnson Scholar. As president of the Washington and Lee Engineers Without Borders, she travelled to San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala to assess water quality and access needs. The paper she co-authored, Microbiological and Economic Assessment of Ceramic Pot Filters Used Long-Term in Households in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, was selected for presentation at the World Environmental and Water Resources Congress in 2014.

Engel may be contacted at ere8ec@virginia.edu. ‎